Rory Monaghan’s diverse works begin with the ancient impulse towards play: to knead, pinch, crumple, connect, collect, swirl, stipple, to spin out a line or sop on color. They seduce the viewer through the exercise of radical freedom. We delight in seeing someone asking themselves “what would you do if you could do anything?” and then answering with a plethora of exuberant choices arrived at through play. But its next breath, play calls for structures upon which that freedom can be supported in order to thrive. Improvisation requires framing in order to become legible. Beneath the buoyant pretext of raucous play, Monaghan’s work is premised on sincerely rigorous formalist construction.
In the “River” series, the artist builds latticed painting grounds out of a motley variety of materials joined through a Rube Goldberg-like nexus of improbable and comedic joints. Monaghan screws, glues, smashes and garrots depending on what the circumstances call for and what he can dream up in the moment. Once the structure finds its form he paints it with devil-may-care blobs and sinews which sometimes do and sometimes don’t respect the contours of the underlying structure - freedoms overwritten with new and diverging freedoms. The overall effect is the gestalt tension between the support and the depictions it uneasily contains, a conversation between distinct conceptions of space. In each of these works, the atomic impulse of play is evolved - through decision-making - into a dimensional art object that mediates questions of chance, choice and finiteness.
I don’t mean to give the impression that playfulness is functioning as some Trojan horse designed to sneak in the “serious” surface and support conversations of Greenbergian Modernism. If the artist is a kind of ideal human being (a case worth making), it is because of their ability to resist the false choice between play and meaning. What makes Rory Monaghan’s work so absorbing is its conviction that for an artist play is a form of work and vice versa. His works are ecstatic emblems of this synthesis.
James English Leary is a New York-based artist and writer. He received his B.F.A. from Cooper Union in 2004. He is a Tiffany Foundation Award recipient and a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation resident. Leary’s works have been exhibited nationally and internationally, including the Whitney Biennial, the Liverpool Biennial, Greater New York, MoMA PS1 and the Sundance Film Festival. He is a founding member of The Bruce High Quality Foundation. Leary teaches at The Cooper Union School of Art.
Rory Monaghan’s paintings are animated: not in the sense of being cartoonish (though there is at times a goofy whiff of humor or fantasy), but in that they often seem to be alive, and are merely still for a moment in their present state. Multiple elements connected by bridges of cardboard, metal or wood evoke bodies or body parts in congress or conversation, connected to each other by reaching arms or legs.
Sometimes, complex layers suggest one kind of language superimposed over another. bye bye mr. butthead (2019) looks like the multiple panels on a graphic novel’s page, pulled apart and dressed up with joyous strokes of paint that make up a whole new story. lincoln lad (phrah-kahct-tah) (2019) reminds me of a Polynesian stick chart overlying some strange dystopic signal code, its cryptic message conveyed by several tiny figures that cling to a brightly-painted scaffolding of scraps of wood. Still, any narrative structure being evoked here is unconventional, to say the least.
In many works, a cluster of more or less rectilinear shapes serves as host to a number of irregular ovoid areas of generously-applied paint. These blobs, for lack of a better word, are often rendered in brilliant color and exuberant texture, and-- disregarding the gaps that lie between their supports—continue from one scrappy bit of the composition to another. For Monaghan, those holes between become a metalanguage of their own. We can either see the overlaid painted shapes as continuing invisibly across them, he suggests, or experience such openings as breaths between sounds or musical notes. As for the blobs, like the camouflage shapes they sometimes resemble, they can be a hiding place for all kinds of stuff.
You need to look closely to see what’s really going on here. Scrutiny reveals that an astonishing variety of things—natural or cultural; twigs or toys, tin cans or tubing, dinosaurs or dreck—have been incorporated into these works. Some of this stuff, unpainted, retains its identity, sitting there all au naturel. Other items serve as a kind of texture, becoming part of the pigment-covered landscape—like, for instance, the flotsam subsumed into the bright shapes spread across zero gravity tea ceremony (2019): plastic fish, dinosaurs, smashed cans, tiny horses, strips of cloth, action figures, plumbing hardware, and… a lone flipflop. Among other things.
Artists’ use of ‘found’ materials begins with Pablo Picasso’s Cubist constructions, but it was in the 1950s and ‘60s that assemblage really came into its own-- in the hands of artists like Robert Rauschenberg, who used everything from taxidermied animals to car tires, ladders and the quilt from his bed, often in conjunction with large quantities of expressively-applied paint. As an artmaking gambit, assemblage has never really gone away in the seventy-some years since then: popping up in every new generation, reinvented to suit a maker’s temperament and the times. For some, the material becomes a matrix, as in Mark Bradford’s multilayered sanded works composed of remnants of posters, billboards and hairdresser's endpapers—or Howardena Pindell’s cut and resewn canvas and accumulations of confetti- like paper discs. For El Anatsui, discarded materials (liquor bottlecaps), modified only by manipulation, become dazzlingly beautiful, like the straw spun into gold in fairytales.
For Monaghan, the role real objects play can be all of the above. Though spontaneity and intuition are major drivers of his process, he works at times from sketches, which help him figure out the kind of substructure he needs to realize a piece. (A surprising amount of engineering is involved.) In addition, over the last fifteen years, David Foster Wallace’s highly unconventional novel Infinite Jest has served as a kind of inspiration and lodestar in Monaghan’s practice, both for its unusual narrative structures and its multiple intertwined themes of addiction recovery, reality as corporate dystopia, and the breakdown of institutional control. He credits the book with having lit a fire under his ideas about what his paintings could be and do. Some of his poetic titles even come from the fictional filmography of one of the novel’s characters, though just as many are from his own fertile imagination.
Assessing his relationship with art history in terms of influences, education and just plain admiration, Monaghan accurately describes himself as ‘a follower but not a copier.’ He notes that the work of many of the artists he looks at moved painting past its squared-off structural restraints long ago. He cites Elizabeth Murray, Frank Stella, Richard Tuttle, Steve Parrino, and the Supports/ Structures movement, a group of French painters who were active during the brief revolutionary era sparked by the events of 1968. They espoused a politically-aware formalism, applying it to works in which support (conventionally, stretchers) and surface (again, conventionally, canvas) more or less became one.
Monaghan’s own process draws from all of these and much more, including—naturally-- his own life experience. Like a substantial number of artists, writers and musicians, for much of his life, he had a day job. He painted at night in small studios in his house, expressing freely that which his career in advertising did not permit. Eventually, he was able to leave it behind, to focus on his painting practice in a new studio some three miles from home. His walk there frequently yields interesting junk that becomes part of a work in progress.
Willing to try anything, Monaghan will eventually use it all. He is at a point in his life when he has nothing to prove, yet still everything, as all artists do: you step through the door, you assess where you are and what you might be able to do that day. Arriving, as he reminds us, never gets you anywhere but a new point of departure.
Maria Porges’s critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Ar in America, Sculpture, American Ceramics, Glass, the New York Times Book Review,
and a host of other now-defunct art magazines. She has also authored essays for over
100 exhibition catalogues. Porges is a Professor at California College of the Arts.
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