Art Review: Robert McCauley’s Retrospective fascinates

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11321723989953.jpg’, ‘Photo by Susan Webb Tregay’, ‘Rockford artist Robert McCauley (left) speaks with guests at the Oct. 28 opening reception of his Retrospective show at Rockford Art Museum.’);

Robert McCauley’s expansive and fascinating retrospective exhibition at the Rockford Art Museum is really a mid-career show. Studying the beautiful, chronological catalog, one comes to see how McCauley grew with the artistic times, yet retained his focus, palette and imagery through the past 30 years.

The exciting part about studying art is to sit back and watch the directions that art moves over the years. More exciting will be watching to see how artists like McCauley will fit themselves into the art scenes of the future.

Drawings from the late 1970s and 1980s show a shallow depth of field and a bit of imagery. While these have a fine abstract balance, McCauley didn’t allow himself to be sucked into the Abstract Expressionistic movement that was 30 years old at the time and dying a long, slow and painful death. Instead, he plucked the finest elements of these works and developed their realism and limited color range into a lifelong body of work.

One artistic aspect that defined the art scene of the 1990s was the use of found objects. McCauley embraced this movement, combining artifacts from his native Northwest—globes, box cameras, and more—with landscape paintings. This combination is rare—and possibly unique. Conceptually, he is dedicated to exploring nature and man’s relationship with it.

“When Worlds Collide” is a painting from the Northwest showing mountains and a Native American construction. A shelf attached to the frame holds four old globes, and one of these globes will forever hold my interest. Its paint—and, thus, its land masses—has been stripped down to the metal, and there is one dent in it.

“Predators (Niagara)” is another piece from this period with an interesting tale. It is a dark painting from the brink of the American Falls. In the distance are the Canadian Falls. These (and the power stations) combine to funnel the Niagara River through the Great Lakes. Integrated into the corner of the frame and painting are two box cameras mounted onto an industrial, aluminum square. This view of Niagara Falls is one that could have been painted by someone from the Hudson River School of the 1800s. There is no modern sign of the Space Needle restaurant, the Maid of the Mist tour boat, the Coney Island atmosphere in Canada or the dead city of Niagara Falls, N.Y. Pastoral as this particular scene is, the cameras are metaphors for us humans and our tourism that opened (and contributed to despoiling) this natural wonder.

Deer show up in his sculptures and an earlier painting, but in “Flag (Niagara),” 2001, McCauley uses them to experiment with an artistic look of the new millennium—pictorially floating imagery. Here, six heads of bucks with their antlers are painted in red and arranged in a grid over a traditional painting of the falls. This combination of disparate “looks” has crept into our fashion and interior design industries. It will be interesting to follow its future progress—or lack thereof.

McCauley then moved on to realism with humor and an old favorite from post-modernism, irony. In his 2004 painting “Vegetarian II (After Harrington),” a chef carries a platter with a pet rabbit, and large tortoise and a snail all alive and well, thank you. Majestic skies, dark, limited palette and stylized realism carry from McCauley’s earlier work. The ironic humor is new.

While animals show up in many of his earlier paintings, these new ones continue in his paintings up to the present. Now, a hare is riding a tortoise while another stack of turtles is “discovering slowness.”

Is McCauley slowing down? I doubt it. He is a prolific, serious painter who, through the years, has methodically moved to create his own world and his own genre of painting. We will be patiently waiting to see how his work evolves in future years and wish him well.

The exhibition continues at the Rockford Art Museum, 711 N. Main St., through Jan. 22, 2006. Museum hours are Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Admission is $3, children are free, and Tuesdays are free for everyone.

Susan Webb Tregay will be leading a painting workshop to the French countryside next summer. Want to come? Contact her through her Web site of

From the Nov. 16-22, 2005, issue

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