Here’s what you need to know going into the latest solo show by Patrick McDonough: Singer and songwriter Mark Linkous made five albums under the name Sparklehorse before he shot himself in the heart at age 47 in Knoxville, Tenn. He drew a cult following and recorded with a number of well-respected collaborators, including Christian Fennesz, PJ Harvey, Vic Chesnutt, and Nina Persson. And he has inspired McDonough, who’s named this exhibit at G Fine Art after a Linkous lyric: “all i want is to be a happy man.”
The show that opened on what would have been Linkous’s 50th birthday honors Sparklehorse by focusing on an event that took place on March 6, 2010, the date that Linkous killed himself. The day that Sparklehorse died, another horse was born: Royal Cannon Chex. McDonough pays homage to both their lives—that’s right, homage to a songwriter he may have admired and a horse he had no other reason to know—using tools so restricted and so arbitrary that they cast doubt on art’s ability to face up to life and death.
In this show, as in a previous show at Civilian Art Projects, McDonough makes use of a modern-day numerology by converting six-digit numbers into their hexadecimal color values in HTML. In this case, it’s the birth and death dates of Linkous and Royal Cannon Chex—dates that he translates into colors. A painting on linen titled “122007-linen painting,” features a purple square (signifying Linkous’ birth), two sky-blue squares (signifying the synchronous death of Linkous and birth of Chex), and an empty area (Chex is still with us, fortunately). There you have it.
It’s apparent throughout that McDonough likes his concepts nested and bracketed. Take the work “123108—me as royal cannon chex designing mark as royal cannon chex”: In a lightbox-mounted photo, McDonough appears wearing a cheap horse-head mask, doodling in Photoshop over an image of Linkous in order to transform the musician into the horse. A primitive note of despair registers in that secondary image, which appears elsewhere in the show as a blanket made from a custom-printed sweatshirt (“120208-blanket”)—it looks like the sort of cartoonishly amateur homage that a horse would cook up. But the blanket serves as documentation of a performance—McDonough as horse illustrating Linkous as horse—which is itself presented not as performance but as dazzling backlit photo.
There’s more than one misdirection at work here. For one, the chintziest elements of McDonough’s practice, the horse-head gags and cosplay, get a fine-art, Jeff Wall-esque, lightbox-illuminated treatment. The objects he’s actually producing get short shrift: a tacky custom-printed blanket, a linen painting dictated by HTML.
The only real clue that this isn’t just a total sendup is the extraordinary lengths to which McDonough goes for such diminishing returns. He documented by stop-animation VHS tape the drive between the alleged sites of Chex’s birth and Linkous’ death. McDonough also built an urn for Chex and created a legally binding contract for the horse’s disposal after its death.
If the show hints at other themes and symbols that McDonough doesn’t fully develop—resurrection, control, helplessness, the minotaur—it’s because he can’t. He allows himself Photoshop, number games, and the law, but not a lot more. McDonough’s strength comes in making do with the decisions he’s made about palette and performance. Show by show, he is outlining his tools, revealing himself through things he takes seriously but nevertheless keeps at arm’s distance. Some viewers won’t have the patience for it. But patience is one of the only tools that McDonough lets himself use.