Todd McKie

Barbara Singer Fine Art

In flatly rendered configurations of humanoids, animal creatures, plant life, and pottery positioned atop basically monochromatic grounds, the thirteen small-scale, brightly colored canvases in Todd McKie’s recent show, all but one painted in synthetic vinyl, merge liberal borrowings from the history of art with apparently simple quasi-abstract biomorphic forms. The resulting works, highly self-contained paintings that suggest influences from pre-Columbian vases to Matisse, Dubuffet, and Miró, feature anthropomorphic characters who act out the myriad trials and triumphs of McKie’s life.

A Cambridge-based artist, McKie is also a writer, and his titles are humorous equivalents to the quirky beings that populate his canvases. Works like So Many Colors, So Little Time, 1999 (a play on an ’80s disco song), and Post-Chromatic Stress Syndrome, 1999, chronicle his experience of rushing to complete the works for the exhibition and his subsequent anxiety and sense of loss once the finished paintings were shipped off.

McKie is at his best when he is commenting on his obsessive relationship to the modernist masters. In Rust Never Sleeps, 1999, the largest work in the show, he offers his version of a Calder mobile. The ovoid shapes of the mobile’s six abstract flat designs are repeated in the oversize brown, potato-like head and elongated torso of a central figure. The armless orange hand positioned on the figure’s chest is a stunning cactuslike hybrid of a Matisse cutout. If it is true that all painters make self-portraits, then this figure is surely a stand-in for the artist, who here finds himself literally tangled up in high modernism, with Calder as its ultimate symbol. Calder’s benign three-tiered mobile, its parts linked with a series of black painted chains, becomes an instrument of bondage—even the figure’s mouth is hidden by one of its horizontal bars.

In It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Humidity, 1999, the most hotly-colored canvas in the show, a simple black loop, which begins at the base of the canvas and ends close to the middle of its right edge, is placed on an intense red-orange ground. McKie, who can’t resist giving faces to abstract forms, has painted Dubuffet-like eyes, a nose, and a mouth inside the loop and added fingers to its loose end, turning it into a hand. The figure dips its head beneath a bright yellow sun. The colors, gestures, and solar imagery immediately reference and lampoon Adolph Gottlieb’s bursts and Franz Kline’s calligraphy.

Although some critics have described his work as “whimsical,” McKie’s spirited, purposely distorted childlike images are more complex than they initially appear. As McKie taps into the emotional depths of his life, he imbues simple painterly gestures with psychic resonance. His solid repertoire of puns and parodies of twentieth-century art from Matisse to Color Field is tempered by an equally strong inner voice.

Francine Koslow Miller