May 18 – June 18, 2022
There’s an atmosphere of unease that hangs over Sam McKinniss’s show Mischief at JTT. It’s a subtle, dreadful feeling that takes time to build. Subjects run the gamut: a little boy with a devil hood and a mischievous look drawn on his face, an erect penis, a waterfall, Nancy Reagan.
The paint is carefully handled. There’s no discovery through material. McKinniss seems to know exactly what he wants and how to execute it.
Ameriquest Field in Arlington, TX, Sept. 3, 2006 (all works 2022) is an early favorite, mostly because of the way it rewards your attention. The picture is hot. Nobody’s skin seems to have any cool tones. There’s only reds, oranges, and yellows. Even the green of the chairs vibrates with a sticky energy. It makes what we already assume to be a warm scene feel closer to an inferno. The action spreads outward from the epicenter of a face bruised by a loose baseball bat. What we lose in specificity of people, we gain in objects. It’s a fantastic bit of push and pull. I found myself wondering why McKinniss chose to depict a branded cup with more care and detail than anybody’s face.
The figures on the outer edges of the painting resemble members of a CGI crowd. Totally nonspecific and generally human, but uncanny in a gut-wrenching way. Closed eyes look closer to slits than creases, tattoos sit solid on top of the body instead of inked into skin. The photographic source material asserts itself in a palette that’s distorted and squashed. By the time McKinniss got the picture, he was already several steps removed. He takes it exactly as he found it, further degrading the image through a painterly summarization. The result is that instead of feeling like we’re part of the crowd, we can maintain a distance and laugh at their predicament.
Andre Boleyn is situated across the room from Nancy Reagan. This pairing is clever. Boleyn lays on a couch, erect penis and hairless balls exposed to us. We get the suggestion of his asshole but nothing more. The look on his face is stupid, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. He’s ready for us, if we’re ready for him. Nancy, on the other hand, looks like a modestly dressed satan. The painting has an upward lift. It’s as if the gravity of her hair drags everything towards it. She ignores us, her gaze up and away. McKinniss doesn’t bring anything that wasn’t already present in the source. This portrait continues the trend of flesh full of oxygen rich blood and nothing else. The only cool tones in the painting are in the architecture behind the subject, heightening her devilishness.
Boleyn, the complexity of his humanity already stripped from him as a porn star, is further reduced when his opponent is Reagan. Ignoring the baggage of her husband, Nancy is known for encouraging the youth to abstain, to say no. A symbol of purity. To position Boleyn, a symbol of excess and indulgence, across the room from her creates a tension. It’s not hard to imagine the disdain and rage that Reagan must feel for him. She can’t even match his eye contact. McKinniss makes no more attempt to humanize Reagan than the photographer did. Despite an obvious preoccupation with the figure, the nuance of anyone’s personality is clearly not the artist’s concern.
The most compelling aspect of Mischief is the paradigm shift it exemplifies. Specifically, that the main concern of figurative painting appears to no longer be about anyone’s individuality, or the specificities of the way they inhabit the world. What drove Lucian Freud or Nicole Eisenman to paint figures is no longer the reason why people paint figures. Instead, portraiture is by a person’s potential to be a type or icon. McKinniss manages to tell a ghost story without ever showing a ghost. Figurative painting is far from dead. It's just that it’s now reflecting a more uncomfortable truth. We’re unable to conceptualize anyone’s interior world. We’re at the end point of a disintegration of meaning that began in early postmodernism, and has only accelerated with the arrival of the internet and its flood of images. Instead of being people to each other, we’re flattened symbols within a larger ecology of symbols. McKinniss’s work is an opportunity to be more honest about the ways in which the digital has impacted our lives. Maybe once we can acknowledge that, we can grapple more effectively with the ways it’s changed art.