Critics’ Picks

Jacob Mason-Macklin, Watchdog 2, 2019, oil and charcoal on canvas, 21 x 17".

Jacob Mason-Macklin, Watchdog 2, 2019, oil and charcoal on canvas, 21 x 17".


Jacob Mason-Macklin

No Place Gallery
1164 S. Front st
January 10–February 29, 2020

A trio of black faces confronts visitors at the entrance to Jacob Mason-Macklin’s solo exhibition “Pure Hell.” Depicted from the shoulders up, each painted figure wears a white cowboy hat and exudes the tough-guy vibe of a roughneck roused from a bender. Mason-Macklin titled this ongoing suite Watchdog (all works 2019), evoking the spaghetti western archetype of a peacekeeper turned drifter. In Watchdog 1, the wrangler drags on a fat cigarette butt, his beady eyes barely visible within the pummeled mass of his face. By contrast, Watchdog 3 radiates pent-up sensuality: Constructing the subject’s physiognomy from a composite of photographs, the artist savors the burnished tone of the figure’s face while wreaking havoc on the cowboy hat, rendering it at once labial and pincer-like.

Taking the exhibition’s title from James Brown’s 1974 song Hell, a funked-up anthem of working-class, Watergate-era perdition, Mason-Macklin offers an exploration of black subjectivity in the present tense, simultaneously embracing and unsettling stereotypes of outlaw charisma: See the coin-flipping hustler and his entourage in Four Figures (The Big Payback) and the coterie of drag queens in the ongoing series “Sweet Thang.” Drawing on the legacy of Expressionism, Mason-Macklin submits this cast of characters to jarring distortions, sharpening fingernails into claws and twisting eyes into narrow slits. Although these disfigurations sometimes verge on the macabre, as in the Juggalo-styled subject of Sweet Thang 2, the overall tone of “Pure Hell” remains reverential, with each painting affording a moment of person-to-person communion. Confronting the nightmare of race in America, Mason-Macklin warps the codes of representation just enough to give us pause.