Jerry McLaughlin: Meditation, Materiality and Balance
by John Seed
A painting is not a picture of an experience, but is the experience.
– Mark Rothko
In his career as a Pediatric Critical Care Physician, Dr. Jerry McLaughlin regularly deals with pain, trauma, and loss. To do his job well means being decisive and focused, leaving little or no space for emotion or reflection. When McLaughlin leaves the hospital, enters his studio, and switches over to his second career—as a visual artist—he does so knowing that there is another kind of hard work awaiting him: the transmutation of his underlying emotions and anxieties into art.
Painting is hard in a different way than practicing medicine is. It is a private pursuit in which McLaughlin attempts to re-balance his psyche. He thinks of painting as a kind of meditation in which he can focus on a “singular thing” while letting everything else fall away. McLaughlin’s painting practice is—in its own way—as disciplined as his medical practice. Yes, there certainly is an awareness on McLaughlin’s part that the paintings will eventually be made public, but the motives that guide their creation are rooted in solitary emotions and impulses.
Because of the profound sense of seriousness that permeates his life and psyche, McLaughlin’s paintings are consistently austere. Although they fit best into the tradition of Minimalism, McLaughlin’s works should not be understood as simply being reductive. McLaughlin’s use of cold wax medium, which allows subtle layers and traces to interact, generates a kind of inherent detail and sense of character that sets each work apart and gives it a distinct resonance. So does the artist’s willingness to incorporate unconventional ingredients including ash, cement, and grit. To put it another way, each McLaughlin painting exhibits a tension between formal solemnity and material richness.
Working in series is another way that McLaughlin is able to maintain formal rigor while still allowing variety. Seen over time, McLaughlin’s oeuvre has a remarkably subtle and poetic emotional range. McLaughlin’s Savage Beauty series—including works titled “dirge,” “ashes of life,” and “the blight”—underscore the artist’s engagement with themes of mortality. Their sensitive surfaces resonate with metaphorical traces of life, flux and the passage of time. In their rugged, scarred textures, they also evoke the materials of modern cities: asphalt, concrete, steel, and stone. McLaughlin’s Oakland series, is even more direct in its evocation of the city and its grit, with some works overlaid by traces of stenciled numbers or road stripes. McLaughlin’s Sleepless paintings are his most resolutely abstract and personal, with heavily worked strata that sublimate and memorialize the artist’s insomniac energies.
In their sober reflections on solemn material, there is a thematic connection between McLaughlin’s work and the late paintings of Mark Rothko. On another level, McLaughlin’s formal concerns and interest in stratigraphy aligns him with artists who have explored the possibilities of encrustation including the late Spanish master Antoni Tápies and the Abstract Expressionist Milton Resnick. It is also worth mentioning that there is an underlying sculptural impulse in McLaughlin’s surfaces, so that comparing his paintings to Richard Serra’s vast black oilstick drawings isn’t out of the question: McLaughlin and Serra share a commitment to materiality as a metaphor.
“I have a noisy brain,” McLaughlin philosophizes, “and in my work as an artist I try to quiet it.” Through his sensitivity to his materials—and through his mental discipline—McLaughlin is able to bring forward images that give substance to emotions and energies that come from a very deep place. By doing so he achieves balance for himself and also offers something valuable to his viewers: a chance to stare at the vestiges of an artist’s personal meditations and feel connected to them on their own terms. McLaughlin’s commitment to emotional candor—within the physical limits posed by his materials—has a genuine dignity that is ultimately quite welcoming.