By Tanner Kent
---- — WASECA -- Those familiar with Bruce McClain's paintings may find it hard to imagine the highly regarded artist idly meandering his studio.
But even the man whose artwork can be found in such impressive collections as the Milwaukee Art Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum admits to moments of creative malaise.
"If I've not been working in a while, I really question that I can still do it," said the retired Gustavus Adolphus College art instructor who's exhibiting his most recent works at the Waseca Arts Center through July 27.
"Sometimes I go into the studio and end up sweeping the floor or moving stuff around, just circling around the art. Art isn't easy."
More often, however, McClain emerges from his labor with work befitting the superlatives widely applied to his painting.
"He has a marvelous sense of color," said Pat Beckmann, director of the Waseca Arts Center, which relocated into a larger, more stately facility earlier this year. "Such a beautiful blend of abstract and realistic subject matter."
Featuring more than a dozen oil and acrylic paintings created between 2005 and present, McClain's exhibit represents both a culmination and divergence from earlier work.
In the early 1960s, McClain's paintings were largely abstract. His direfully suggestive "Totems" is owned by the Milwaukee Art Center. And "Landscape Entombed," an early example of the artist's ability to evoke physical and emotional sensation through color and composition, is held among the Whitney's 19,000-item permanent collection.
In the following years, McClain often worked in a more realistic style, painting interior landscapes and artist studios. His precise renderings of airplane cockpits earned him inclusion in the National Air and Space Museum. In April, he was further recognized as the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame Artist of the Year.
Having long been interested in airplanes -- he remembers well his first glimpses into the cockpit during the airshows his father would take him to as a child -- McClain has continued to be inspired by aerial imagery.
After a visit to Normandy, and subsequently sifting through grainy images of the French landscape taken from gun cameras during WWII, McClain began painting aerial landscapes. Captivated by the intersection of the "pastoral and the tragic," McClain recreated the landscapes outside of the context of war.
The result is a stunning combination of abstract and figural forms that are strange and peripheral, yet visually soluble.
"Kind of like camoflouge," McClain said. "I like the idea of ambiguity because that's the way people interpret their experiences in life. Life is not always succinct and clear, and there things that leave you wondering."
Many of the works are composed on a skewed, diagonal plane -- just as the landscape might be seen from the cockpit of an airplane. Such a composition has the effect of immediately placing viewers in an unfamiliar perspective, forcing them to re-orient themselves by familiar landmarks.
In "Gliders," a pair of aircraft and the hangar below appear, then disappear into the artist's bold, motley use of color. In "Three Trails," the delicate, white exhaust from a trio of airplanes is dominated by the hard, aggressive slant of the landscape, the scale of the mountainous backdrop rendering the airplanes themselves nearly imperceivable.
Taken cumulatively, the works exhibit a stylistic tension that is at once disorienting and soothing.
"Maybe you could call it 'schizophrenic,'" McClain said, kidding about his propensity to move between various styles of painting. "But there are just too many enjoyable ways to look at the world."
McClain last exhibited his work locally at Bethany Lutheran College in early 2012. Later this year, a more extensive exhibit of McClain's work will be on display at Gustavus' Hillstrom Museum of Art.
If You Go What Opening reception for Bruce McClain exhibit When 7-9 p.m. on Friday Where Waseca Arts Center, 200 State St. Admission Free and open to the public