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Chance Encounters, Edition 17
Danielle Mckinney's Intimate Spaces
They are solitary, often ensconced in cozy, personalized spaces. As they sit, many smoke, and they all contemplate, what?
In the paintings of Danielle Mckinney (American, b. 1981), Black women occupy darkened spaces, drawing viewers in as we try to comprehend the lives, thoughts, and feelings of these figures. In Talk of the Town (2021), the woman seems quite near us, as if seated across a table, and though she faces us, her gaze is distant and disengaged. The smoke is like a screen that shields her from our questioning observation. The bright pink fingernails that echo the vivid upholstery behind the figure are practically a trademark in Mckinney’s paintings. She has said that painting her characters’ fingernails is her favorite thing to do because those spots of vivid color give the painting a charge of electricity and lighten the overall mood of the work.
Mckinney started out to be a photographer, completing a BFA (Atlanta College of Art, 2005) and an MFA (Parsons School of Design, 2013) in that discipline. After school, she embarked on a career focused on photographing and filming people on the street. She painted, but more as a personal release, a way of working out her emotions or recording her feelings in a diary. Then in 2018, she included a few paintings in an exhibition and started an Instagram account to share the paintings. The outbreak of the Covid pandemic restricted her ability to photograph people on the streets and she began to paint full time. As she focused on the medium, she realized that her photography had been more about watching and trying to understand the other from a distance; her paintings are about inhabiting the subject.
I wanted to paint this feeling of: When I get home and no one’s around, who am I? Who am I without this façade? And the interior space was perfect for that …
Many of Mckinney’s works explore this idea of how we behave when we aren’t presenting our public face. Face Mask With Prayer, 2020, expresses this idea by providing the figure with a literal facial mask. The artist sources many of the figures from her own old photographs and online, choosing poses and expressions that draw her. These are not portraits or self-portraits, though they may seem to be. The women in Mckinney’s works are born from her imagination blended with images she’s seen. Likewise, the interior settings are drawn from Pinterest boards and especially from design books and catalogs of the 1960s and 70s which the artist purchases on Ebay. The settings are added after the figure is complete, as she seeks a setting appropriate to the character she has painted. Some works have multiple settings painted atop one another as the artist seeks the perfect one for the figure.
Sometimes, no setting is necessary and the artist leaves a blank, often dark background to keep the focus on the woman. Mckinney begins each painting with a completely black ground (or base layer) which allows her to begin with a warm, dark setting for the figures. This unusual choice also allows her to build her dark-skinned figures from the lowest color values to the highest. In Let’s Be Real (2021), you can see how the artist constructed the hands from layers of increasingly lighter tones in visible brushstrokes. The background is created with a brushy texture in orange brown which helps to make the vivid orange garment and bright pink fingernails jump toward us with the electric charge that Mckinney often strives for.
Inside Out (2022) is another painting featuring a character who uses cigarette smoke as a shield between her face and the viewer. Mckinney also uses the lit end of the cigarette as one of those bright sparks that enliven the composition. The artist is a long-time smoker who has quit fairly recently, so she smokes vicariously through these figures. Smoking was a kind of rebellion for her, and thus for her painted characters, and she thought of the cigarettes as adding an elegant quality to her figures. Now, though, she thinks of them “as representing this ultimate human sensation of taking a deep exhale.” That exhale, letting go of the weight of the day, dominates the themes Mckinney has focused on in her paintings.
Mckinney has cited several earlier artists as influential in her painting. She encountered the work of African American portraitist Barkley L. Hendricks (American, 1945 – 2017) during an internship at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York. The 60s and 70s vibe of many of her works can also be found in Hendricks’ paintings, many of which were created in those decades. Other artists who have inspired her are Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917 – 2000), who also focused on Black lives, Francisco de Zurbarán (Spanish, 1598-1644), known for figures emerging out of darkness, and Henri Matisse (French, 1869 – 1954). Mckinney’s interest in Matisse is obvious in After the Dance (2022) where we see one of the French artist’s most important works, Dance, 1910, on the wall behind the resting figure. Other works by Matisse appear in Mckinney’s paintings, but her interest in patterns and bright colors can also be traced to the earlier artist.
Another work of art appears on the wall above the woman in Dream Catcher (2021). In this case, a standing Classical Greek or Roman goddess painted in white and gray contrasts with the warm, reddish brown figure seated on the couch. The orange tones in the background of the poster reoccur in the lamp and on the table, all of which frame the seated figure. The couch, patterned with orange’s complementary colors of turquoise and blue, cradles the woman who looks as if she hasn’t quite reached that deep exhale of which Mckinney has spoken. Though there’s no obvious narrative in the artist’s works, they beg the viewer to enter in, to seek a point of commonality, to understand these women. The artist has been pleased by the reception of the works beyond viewers who look like the artist.
God forgive me, but I don’t think of them as Black women. I mean, obviously, they’re Black women. But what I love so much is that people from all races, men, women, have told me they see themselves.
Morning Glory (2023) is a work with which many viewers will find commonality: a woman surrounded by fluffy pillows and bedding, head wrapped in a towel, enjoying her morning cup of tea or coffee. The color palette here is very similar to Dream Catcher, but the mood is calmer, more in keeping with the start of the day. Even here though, the woman’s fingers are tipped in the electric red so common in Mckinney’s works. The artist has expressed her desire to present Black women in artistic and human contexts where they have not traditionally been seen. She remembers leafing through home magazines as a child and wondering where were the people who looked like her.
In 2023, Mckinney traded in her quick-drying acrylic paint for versatile but challenging oil paint. The shift required a change in her attitude toward her work, as the slow-drying paint asks the artist for much greater patience. Shut Eye demonstrates that she quickly acquired the necessary patience and skill with her new medium.
Being a mother has taught me that there is patience and grace in allowing things to happen.
Face Forward has affinities with the elegant women that inhabit some of Barkley L. Hendricks’ portraits and the color palette is brighter than most of Mckinney’s earlier works. However, there’s no mistaking the pensive expression and red lips and nails that are the artist’s trademarks. An additional spark of red is the ace of hearts in the woman’s hand. Here again are hints of an untold story and we are invited to imagine the circumstances behind this painting.
Danielle Mckinney’s shift to painting has paid dividends to both the artist and art lovers. In the past five years, her paintings have won her gallery representation and multiple exhibitions. Though rapid, the seeds of her rise were planted in earlier years when she struggled to get her career off the ground. In 2021, Beyoncé and Jay-Z purchased one of her paintings. Most recently, in October 2023 her solo exhibition in Marianne Boesky Gallery’s booth at Frieze London was named one of the top 10 at that fair by Art News magazine. I’m sure, like me, many of you are looking forward to seeing where Mckinney goes from here.