John McCarty: A Cultivator of The Unexpected
JOHN MCCARTY seems to hobble as he appears through the trees coming up the path from his studio to greet us. Actually, it could be more of a jaunt, but who can tell? His gentle smile and quiet eyes betray the tiniest glint of something else, something knowing. He might not say so, but it is everything about him. John McCarty cultivates the unexpected.I've stopped to see him and his sculpture on our way back north to Boston after spending two magical months on my family's farm nearby. This is a fitting conclusion, a final adventure to end the summer. It is one of those blinding August days that is so hot your head hurts. McCarty's home, Greenwood, stretches out atop the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in northern Virginia, 15 minutes from the Skyline Drive, and 55 minutes from the nation's capital. It is country. If you shouted, no one would hear you. Finished for the day, a tractor rests in the half-cut field through the trees in front of the house. Despite a dry summer there is still more green than you know what to do with. Sculptures are posted here and there about the grounds like sentries. Some are almost camouflaged in the landscape, and they are startling to come upon. Their rusting steel reminds me of abandoned farm machinery, something that you would expect to find in this part of America; but they have a figurative air that makes them majestic despite a certain austerity, like ancient ruins in the jungle, or the giant carcasses of dinosaurs. John McCarty has just returned from a trip to Berlin, and he's not thinking any more about what he's been doing the last few years. That is now old work. Instead he's preoccupied with what he is doing now, the new work that he hasn't even begun, that is still inside him, percolating. He keeps talking about green light, as though it was something another artist might understand. It is like the light that shines from the edge of glass. At this point it is just barely an idea, but he can taste it. His eyes sparkle; he'll find a way. In the meantime, there is that old work, oddly enough inspired by an earlier trip to Berlin. It combines steel and stone. Both are found, which means that they are materials discarded from a former life. They are being recycled, a tradition in American sculpture well ahead of its time. The reality is that junkyard steel and stone are affordable. In addition, found materials introduce the element of chance, of the unknown, since each object already has a shape and history of its own. McCarty usually uses the steel or stone as he finds it, [Bchoosing them to suit his purposes. They become transformed as they are welded or fitted together, integrated into a new life, changed, but resurrected. This aspect to the work, the "foundness" of the materials, suits John McCarty down to his shoes. It offers him a personally satisfying treasure hunt, a built-in discovery that is part of the process of his work, and part of his final product. Sometimes it is the pleasure of finding just the right thing he needs, as though it was just waiting for him; but other times it is the amazing find, that piece which inspires him, challenges him, and takes him somewhere he never imagined. Using materials with this combination of elements, of serendipity, selection, and past experience, brings to the work an untold dimension. John McCarty likes buildings, although he admits no particular interest in architecture per se. They seem to occupy his imagination, make him look, and find their way into his work. It could be the line of a roof, or the way steel brackets are used to hold an old structure together. It is something about the way things are made, and how that reflects who we are. How a roof is a hat, a facade is a mask, a window is an eye that looks out but takes you in. How a building is a body. There is a mythology to a ll of this that we know and accept. It changes from culture to culture. Is it any wonder that fairy tales are also one of McCarty's primary source of inspiration? The thing is, before I paid any attention to any of this stuff, to how it looked or what it conjured, I had to reach out and touch it. The folds and rounded edges of the metal invite this; they fit the hand. They curl up to the stone like a black snake on a beam. The warmth of the metal is embraceable, in places seeming as soft as cloth or as smooth as old leather. It complements the hooded, fortress-like appearance of what might look like dark, forbidding work. It also further reinforces the sense that things are not always what they seem, with either the artist or his work. John McCarty received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in philosophy in 1961. Later he did his graduate work in sculpture at the Pratt Institute in New York. This sequence of events might explain the artist's need for other connections in his work beyond pure abstract form. It might also explain the need for an expression and meaning beyond words. This artist has a particular bent, a sensibility, an attitude. It grows out of an appreciation for surprise. Not the jack-in-the-box kind, but something quieter and more satisfying, say, like Cracker Jacks. It is the digging for mysteries that never cease to unfold. His art is the realization of an experience that is never fixed, like fairy tales that can be read over and over again, and still be just beyond our grasp. It is a fragile and previous find, a realm of whispers, with perhaps a sudden rush of revelation. Beneath the casual, almost awkward, sturdiness of John McCarty and his work shines enchantment. It is a glow. Especially the most recent work with metal and stone. McCarty may look and act like the sorcerer's apprentice, but he is a wizard in disguise. Appearances and assumptions only make for better sport. Some of his sculptures can change so radically from one side to another you might think that they were two different pieces, while others suggest an interior altogether other world. Somewhere you know he is smiling, just ever so slightly. John McCarty is this contradiction, someone making exteriors, shells, appearances, when what he really cares about is what's inside. My most memorable and telling surprise that day was the trip to his studio. I followed him down the path through the trees into what seemed like a little hutch, but instead opened up into a still, light, airy space like a cathedral that was piled high with sculptures and books. Everywhere there were bits and pieces of his world. As marvelous as everything else at Greenwood was, there was something about this studio that captured the wonder of this artist, and the whole idea of buried treasure. It reminde d me of what wonderful secrets life holds, so often in the most unlikely places.