Raised eyebrows, eyes narrowed in concentration and slow smiles of understanding make up the reactions that Waco artist Jay McMillen likes to see in the audiences that view his work.
And while “Iconography,” the title of his first solo show in six years, suggests art with an immediately recognizable meaning, at least initially, McMillen admitted he likes to tease viewers over their first impressions. “I like to play with these preconceived notions of what they believe,” he said.
Many of the 17 works in the show opening Friday have titles drawn from Christian and Biblical references. They’re starting points for deeper musing and sometimes chuckles, said the 73-year-old artist. “I’m not religious, but I’m questioning. I’m a seeker,” he said.
And a somewhat impish one. “I like curious questions, like what would have happened if it rained during the Sermon on the Mount? Or what if four of the five fishes (in the story of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the multitude) were catfish?” he said.
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That sense of play surfaces in pieces like his “Perfection in Art, Truth in Religion,” which consists of an empty frame. Or “42,” a painting with geometric rays overlaying an abstract background, whose title refers to the answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Other works call for a more contemplative response. His “Melodies Unheard; Things Unseen” has an exterior painted canvas with two smaller, unseen paintings inside. “A day in the life of (your) mother” is a triptych hanging from a metal frame built to allow the viewer to stand inside. The exteriors of the suspended panels represent a mother’s responsibilities and duties; inside, the view is more chaotic and emotional.
The show’s dominant work, however, is a 30-by-8-foot canvas stretching the length of a gallery room. Titled “Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani (Restated),” the Aramaic words Jesus said while on the cross, the oversized work was inspired by the Stations of the Cross found in many Catholic churches, said McMillen.
A wide black streak winds its way through the canvas, which required McMillen to construct a metal frame, complete with weighted, welded, free-standing ends and using some 50 bungee cords to suspend the painting.
Like the stations McMillen had in mind, the intent is to make viewers stop and contemplate as they proceed along it. “The image doesn’t matter,” he said.
McMillen worked for more than 20 years as a research administrator for Texas Tech University before leaving that post and spending more of his retirement making art. He prefers working in abstract, but finds the Waco market more interested in other styles.
Most of the exhibit is paintings, many crafted with a palette knife or squeegee and paint, sometimes with powdered mica mixed in for sparkle, applied to flat canvas. McMillen created much of the work on display over the last year or two, a period marked not only by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the community, but the death of his wife Candace Ayres, who died from cancer in August 2021.
The opening reception for “Iconology” will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday at the gallery.