Melville McLean at Alexandre Gallery

Melville McLean, Beehives in Blueberry Field (1997), Fuji crystal archive C-print; courtesy Alexandre Gallery

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Last summer, I attended the exhibition of Andreas Gursky’s big—and I mean big—photographs at Matthew Marks Gallery. Intending to review the work of this phenom (Mr. Gursky is one of our current crop of art stars), I found myself dumbfounded: His panoramic photos of international locales, pictures that convert human and architectural abundance into sleek and severe abstraction, left me speechless or, rather, wordless.

Proffering formalist art for a global age, Mr. Gursky renders the photographs steely and aloof, impermeable to the eye. An adversarial approach to aesthetic experience divulges distaste on the part of the artist for the person who looks at the work. Why would anyone want to acknowledge. let alone write about, art whose defining characteristic is cold condescension?

I was reminded of the Marks exhibition while looking at Melville McLean’s color photographs, on view at the Alexandre Gallery. Like Mr. Gursky, Mr. McLean is a meticulous technician, paying diligent, almost compulsive attention to detail. He also works big: The photos are scaled to a size intended to compete with, or at least evoke, painting.  Each print measures 40 by 50 inches.

Predicated on broad fields of shape, the compositions have a strong sense of abstraction. The differences between Mr. Gursky and Mr. McLean emerge in terms of subject: Mr. McLean is drawn to the landscape of Maine and, as such, is local in focus. More important, there’s a divergence in artistic mission. Mr. Gursky coerces awe from the viewer; Mr. McLean entrances the viewer by inviting his skepticism.

The pronounced clarity Mr. McLean brings to the landscape can’t help but prompt the eye to question what it sees. Everything, whether placed near or far, is crystalline and clean: a criss-crossing of dead weeds, a puddle of gray water resting in the hollow of a stone, a field of snow under a sweeping purplish-blue sky—everything. You begin to wonder, in fact, if there’s any way you can take it all in; the photographs seem beyond the purview of sight.

At the same time, you’re likely to wonder if you’re seeing too much. Mr. McLean’s all-over concentration of incident would induce migraines (or hallucinations) if it weren’t offset by an encompassing fullness of space and a fetching sense of isolation. His photographs depict a Maine more beautiful than the real thing. That’s an illusion, of course, and Mr. McLean—clear-eyed, driven and stopping shy of the surreal—is just the man to pull it off.

(c) 2002 Mario Naves

A version of this article was originally published in the October 13, 2002 edition of The New York Observer.

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