Essay by Kenta Murakami
Despite the cold wonder found in Tom McGrath’s painting of a nondescript roadway, the viewer can’t help but feel a sense of deja vu. The darkened roads illuminated by headlights, the tired-eyed awe of purple-tinged mountains and rows of trees colored by autumn leaves: these are sights and feelings familiar to anyone who’s been on a road trip in the United States. But decontextualized and devoid of cultural landmarks, these random glimpses of unknown cities and towns conjure a liminal non-space in which McGrath captures an uncanny view of the modern landscape.
McGrath’s work blends a photorealistic sense of naturalism with a collage-like sensibility for distortion. Using the windshield as a screen, the artist pours water across the glass, allowing the liquid to blur and refract the landscapes behind it. Then, working from photographic sketches, McGrath paints large-scale images that, while appearing to be realistic, actually depict a distortion, and as such, are more accurate in their evocation of memory than in their photographic verity. Taken as a whole, the series Rain on Windshield is as much a representation of the landscape as it is a rumination on the way our experience of the landscape is mediated.
Instead of the Hudson River School’s sweeping pastorals of agrarian coexistence, McGrath’s paintings place the viewer along the inexhaustible grid of freeways and rural roads. Limited to the domesticated space of the car and its immediate peripheries, these landscapes have lost the romanticism evoked by the notion of wilderness, and in their place the viewer finds landscapes that are startling in their banal familiarity. McGrath is aware of his genre’s baggage; the painter-explorer has been replaced with a settler that has settled, and his touristic wanderings have left an array of rest stops and fast food in his wake. Instead of a unique or regional experience, the viewer takes away the quotidian occurrence of being in a car and being on the road. Regarding this series McGrath has said,
“The trope of the road trip provides the notion of driving as a transformative experience, the patronizing conflict with local cultures, the oppositional construction of regional identities and the excitement of not having to commit to local cultures… [Road trips allow the] possibility to play different roles, be different people, shift identities between towns” .
Yet instead of distinct pluralities, both McGrath’s viewer-subject and landscapes appear homogenized.
Unlike his series The High View, in which the viewer sees the perfectly ordered urban grid from a lookout, in these images the viewer is in the midst of the landscape itself. The perspectival grid is compromised by the rain that pools and streaks across the surface of the painting, emphasizing the way the car window acts as a screen for its occupants. The work is as much about the architecture of our road system as it is about paint, phenomenology, or the weather, but the relationship of the image to the viewer remains fixed and the windshield itself becomes a stand-in for both the viewer and the images viewed through it. Although physically located at the site (the roadside house, the parking lot, the freeway, etc.), McGrath’s implied subjects are removed from their location due to the enclosure of the car, the separation supplied by the windshield, and the suggested movement of being situated within an automobile. The glass of the windshield acts as a rigid skin around the viewer and the exterior of the car clings to it, amorphous and indistinct.
Although McGrath’s conflation of the human subject and automobile takes a decisively cooler tone than say that of Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909, his images do possess a futuristic undertone that is perhaps closer to J.G. Ballard’s infamous novel Crash. Although the fetishistic elements are lacking, the distortion rendered on the surface of the paintings creates a similar semiotic slippage between man and machine, the viewer unaware of the cold air just beyond the glass of the car windshield. The painting thus engages the viewer in an unfamiliar way, and despite the sense of immersion found in McGrath’s large canvases, the passing landscapes remain purely optical.
 Tom McGrath as quoted in RobertHobbs, “Tom McGrath: Landscape Redux,” in Tom McGrath: Paintings 2002-2007 (New York: Zach Feuer Gallery, 2007), 4.
Tom McGrath (American, born 1978) is a New York artist who paints a transient image. He has exhibited in New York and internationally since 2002. Recent one-person exhibitions have been organized by Sue Scott Gallery, New York; and Maruani-Noirhomme, Knokke, Belgium; and Lia Rumma, Naples, Italy. His work is in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, and The Wadsworth Atheneum, among others. McGrath holds degrees from Cooper Union and Columbia University School of the Arts.
oil on canvas over panel, 56 x 96 inches
Image courtesy of the artist and Sue Scott and Mike Stanley