Marlee McMahon brings a distinctly contemporary way of seeing to her abstract paintings. Rather than engaging directly with formal concerns or art historical references, McMahon’s works present a highly stylised visual language that is related to but separate from both graphic design and formal abstraction. A useful concept in understanding how McMahon’s works operate might be Ina Blom’s concept of the “style site,” namely “an artistic production that presents conspicuous stylistic phenomena … as an object of articulation in its own right.” In this kind of art object, the way something is presented and interacted with becomes its meaning—a visual style becomes a nexus for the “issue of unforeseen appearances, social phenomena that have yet to be identified.”
Over the past decade since Blom coined the term, the constant engagement with visual language that social media enables has to some extent collapsed the barrier between social interactions and visual or aesthetic exchanges, increasingly giving rise to “unforeseen appearances” of the type Blom describes: images such as memes that become both embodiments of certain types of social interaction and carriers for a meaning that is primarily one of style rather than referential content.
In this context, McMahon’s painting, and her decision to adopt a consciously retro-inflected visual language influenced by 1980s and 90s graphic design, seems motivated by a desire to explore the way old trends and ideas are reconfigured as new visual and stylistic languages via the internet. Place one image of a shag-carpeted 1980s living room interior on a page, and you have a historical document that speaks to the politics of domesticity, technology and economics; place a thousand such images on a social media feed and you suddenly have something completely different, a taxonomy of style that can be infinitely cross-referenced to detect trends and patterns, but whose potential as a referential object is effectively drowned in an informational tsunami.
This is perhaps the origin of the voids that McMahon paints in many of her works; unknowable presences, zones of outside-ness that refuse to be contained or explored. Her work appears nostalgic, but perhaps for a time or a place that never existed or has yet to come into being. These paintings comment on the visual style of nostalgia, its tendency to focus on the most extreme and pleasing examples of a given trend, and the way it beguiles the viewer by contrasting a brightly-lit past with a darkened present.
McMahon’s work interrogates this impulse, presenting visually lush, complex abstracts that work to subtly undermine the easy confidence of their nostalgic style cues. Rather than bright, reflective surfaces, these are deeply considered, thoughtful meditations. Works such as Cavity evoke the idea of an empty void underlying a colourful exterior. The black and yellow hazard striping that surrounds the darkness in the centre of this image is both playful and threatening, multitasking as a simple symbol for the idea of “danger” and as part of a self-referential style site. Elsewhere, in works such as Clearasil and Sun Bleached Sodastream, McMahon deftly employs pattern to create fractal rabbit-holes of stylistic concordance where, as Blom puts it, “design appears as a quasi-autonomous object of reflection that runs in tight loops around itself.”