The history of art is filled with echoes.
The Pre-Raphaelites imagined that they embodied a purity of painting lost during the Renaissance, while the spatial flatness of Post-Impressionism would have been impossible without the influence of Japanese woodblock prints. In the late 20th century, appropriation artists such as Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince rephotographed works by well-known artists from books and presented the products as their own.
Colin McLain, former Memphian now long a New Yorker, goes beyond echo and turns appropriation into homage in his exhibition "A.D. (for Dürer)," showing through Sept. 29 at David Lusk Gallery.
As a painter, printmaker, watercolorist, traveler, keen observer of nature and technical innovator, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), born in Nuremburg, was the most important artist of the Northern Renaissance. Many of his images, especially in the woodcut and engraving mediums, have achieved iconic status, a fact that McLain accepts with aplomb in his 12 oil-on-canvas (and one oil-on-linen) versions of some of Dürer's works.
Painting in oil, of course, is a far cry from the meticulous and intricate practice required for making prints or using watercolor, and that difference in technique, with the resulting divergence in texture, hue and sheer presence, contributes part of this show's interest and charm.
McLain does not shy from process in these pieces — several of which are virtuoso performances — and allows brushstrokes their own habitation and character on the surface. The artist also expands the scope of Dürer's original works, most of which are minute exercises in comparison to the size of McLain's paintings, which range from 11-by-14 inches to an appropriately grandiose 48-by-72-inches for "Elephant."
Part of our fascination with Dürer derives from his own fascination with nature, as revealed in his many detailed renditions of animals or parts of them, such as his series of bird wings. McLain concentrates on this kind of work, offering three paintings of wings, including the radiant and vivacious "Large Wing," two images of nests, and then seven images of different animals, among which are three of Dürer's most enduring figures, "A Young Hare" (called simply "Hare), the elephant and a stag beetle.
Dürer's "A Young Hare" is a small watercolor and gouache on paper; McLain's "Hare," to use this example, is a 36-by-36-inch oil on canvas. Durer depicts the hare's fur with marvelous detail and intimacy and somehow capture's the animal's sense of eternal wariness. McLain's hare, on the other hand, while rendered in broader strokes (and in a square rather than vertical format) is not a cartoon version of Dürer's but a legitimate and beautifully painted expression of the animal in a contemporary context, not as elegant as Dürer's but with essential solidity and purposefulness.
In another example, for the delicacy and otherworldliness of Dürer's stag beetle, McLain substitutes a feeling of dark and animated foreboding. The human relationship to nature and to art, this exhibition seems to imply, is not what it was five centuries ago.
Colin McLain, ‘A.D. (for Dürer)’
At David Lusk Gallery, 4540 Poplar in Laurelwood, through Sept. 29. Call 901-767-3800.