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Siobhan McBride’s canny intimacy

Siobhan McBride, Spotted Lantern Fly Graveyard, 2022, acrylic paint (gouache and high flow), colored pencils on paper on panel, 18 x 24 inches

Contributed by Peter Malone / “Long story short” could describe many an art review, but here it is also the name of one of a growing number of pocket galleries along the section of Henry Street beneath the Manhattan Bridge. Long Story Short NYC recently hosted an exhibition of a dozen of Siobhan McBride’s small but compelling paintings, titled “Always Means Never Not” and curated by Stavroula Coulianidis. Well-crafted, understated, and intriguingly disruptive, the small panels are worlds unto themselves, each offering just enough visual information to yield a distinctive sense of time and place. A key element in some is the jarring surprise that can arise in a cramped apartment when one turns a corner or gazes through oddly placed windowpanes, experienced as involuntary but perhaps not unwelcome voyeurism. 

Siobhan McBride, Five Doors, 2022, acrylic on gouache, paint marker and colored pencil on paper on panel, 18 x 24 inches

McBride adjusts each perspective with color and spatial construction in a way that gently messes with the viewer’s expectations, creating apprehension. This is not the reaction one usually expects from banal domestic scenes, but therein lies the magic of McBride’s approach. The panels are small, the distortions restrained. Line will suddenly tilt a bit wrong. A shadow’s flat color will rely on a conventional tone and value, while its hue has been weirdly tweaked. These anomalies are subtle but effective, due substantially to McBride’s gift for rendering light convincingly and her sensitivity to color modulation, which enriches even the most ordinary details. Five Doors centers on a passageway from what could be a laundry room or a bathroom to a space of indeterminate use, lit by a lamp obviously different than the one illuminating the foreground. The empty hall separating the two is painted with such care and finesse that it transcends its function as a mere compositional hub and becomes a colorist tour-de-force. 

Siobhan McBride, Pocket Universe, 2019, matte acrylics on paper on panel, 18 x 24 inches

Testifying to the pragmatism and resilience of emerging artists, McBride’s wood panels rarely exceed 18×24 inches, lending a jeweler’s delicacy to her high-keyed color and sharp edges. Their small size draws the viewer into the imagery and reveals the artist’s hand, tightening the matrix between viewer and painting, and between painting and artist. A genuine sense of intimacy takes over. Small details challenge initial interpretations. Kitchen, for instance presents spotlighted countertops that read like a midnight visit to the refrigerator until a patch of sunlit green topping a tree outside the window resets the clock, situating the now incongruously dark room in the distorted space-time of the Covid lockdown. Also Covid-related is Deluge, which depicts a large apartment block through rain on the glass of a car window with a blue surgical mask on the dashboard in the foreground. If Deluge is directly illustrative, Kitchen is more expansively evocative. Juxtaposed, they showcase the painter’s impressive flexibility.  

Siobhan McBride, Lil C and the Living Room, 2019, matte acrylics on paper on panel, 18 x 24 inches

Painted in gouache with soft brushes, McBride’s peripheries can be quite intricate. The illuminated tree foliage in Lantern Fly Graveyard is as complex as what might be found in a 15th-century Flemish canvas. At the same time, her work relies a great deal on masking, most of it applied to geometric shapes with clean edges. This gives many of the panels the feeling of collage. While collage itself is not a widely embraced technique these days, the simulated look has become popular in painting, due perhaps to the ubiquity of digital prep and its irresistible layering tools. Significantly, though, McBride’s paintings avoid the cold, arbitrary formalism of too many digital collages. Her every picture is accessible in a strange yet familiar way. 

Long Story Short NYC: Siobhan McBride, Always Means Never Not, 2022, Installation View

“Siobhan McBride: Always Means Never Not,” Long Story Short NYC, 52 Henry Street, Brooklyn, NY. December 16, 2022–January 8, 2023.

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