I want death. These are the words I uttered aloud to artist Joel McDonald during the opening of his first solo exhibition Obby Obby at Zephyr Gallery in Louisville, KY. The death I was addressing was not of the physical, but the material piece titled Die: Tunnel, which consists of a make shift bed atop with a brown and pink color schemed quilt sewn in a modernized Rambler block pattern. White threaded circles create a tunnel vision illusion to a centered white diamond block, which could be the “light” that we are instructed to follow into death. There are other very subtle threaded patterns in the dark spaces; a curly triangular strip, an oblong womb hinting to the passage  whence we’ve come. The bed is crowned with a human skull upon a triangular shelf. McDonald confronts mortality in paradoxically the most comforting way via a place of rest and a comfy quilt.

McDonald is most known for his exceptionally detailed drawings that encapsulate the inner workings of a creative mind. His method of using square paper sheets then piecing them together to create one oversized panel seems like a natural progression to his new medium of quilting. The pen has been replaced by thread, the paper with fabric. With that in mind, take care to notice the nuances of these fabric pieces.

The aforementioned Die: Tunnel is one of three quilts with the (pardon the pun) blanket title This We Do In Bed: Sex, Dream, Die. The first quilt, Sex: Young Man’s Fancy is bright white with a Christmas colored Young Man’s Fancy block pattern, and, yes, the patterns are intentional. The idea that sex for a man is like celebrating Christmas is a happy thought and the repeated threaded outline of a penis is a brilliant way for McDonald to make it obvious.

The second quilt, Dream: Wild Goose Chase is a vividly colored piece accentuated with a stitch of an hourglass at different levels of time. The accompanying painted panel backdrop, reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover, features a stark triangle amongst a black void completes the trippy vibe. The triangle is comprised of tiny hand-drawn hash marks, a nod to the draughtsman and archivist intrinsic to McDonald.

The second floor features another of McDonald’s current hobby turned statement pieces. Open the door of a wooden shed like structure and find an oasis of exotic plants. McDonald has delved into the world of horticulture with a penchant for beauty in growing orchids and the beastly in growing pitcher plants. Bunker #2: Death Contemplation Chamber is a dire title for a space, which appears to be about life. The plants are green; the micro room is warm and muggy. It makes me wonder, do we contemplate our death or are these plants doomed to die? The interior of this “chamber” does have a reflective Mylar covering so it is inevitable that at some point we look at ourselves. Interestingly enough, the display is crudely made with exposed wire fencing and grow light, unfolded pond liner and two blue plastic tubs filled with murky water. Some plants still have tags attached to them from their distributor in Florida. These details give the installation a roadside attraction feel, the type that beckons tourists to stop and take home a little piece of the tropics.

A ‘White Angel’ (Vanda Thanantess) orchid hangs from the ceiling and appears animated due to the installed oscillating fan carrying it from side to side. It acts as a beacon watching over the assorted exotic foliage. It is peaceful in this makeshift tropical getaway, this Garden of Eden.

As always, Joel McDonald gives the viewer much to contemplate. His personal dilemmas over the conundrums of life are universal and this exhibition reveals his maturity, his nearly holistic approach to life and culture, nature and nurture. Although there are still hints of the adolescence, the sewing of quilts and the growing of plants reveal a true domestification of an artist coming into his own.

Obby Obby is on view through December 28, 2015 at Zephyr Gallery, Louisville, Kentucky.

–Julie Gross

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