San Francisco

Keegan McHargue

Jack Hanley Gallery

In pop-psych color theory, yellow signifies warmth, happiness, intellect, and energy. For his recent exhibition “The Yellow Spectrum,” Keegan McHargue painted the entire gallery floor a sunny shade of that color, bathing the room in a golden glow. It was a visually audacious act that had the effect of turning the space into a charged stage for ten paintings suffused in and related to the same luminous vibes. The retinal impact of the color had an undeniably positive physiological effect on the paintings’ viewers, who seemed to thrive in the setting. One couldn’t help but wonder, however, how these works might look under the unflattering rays of a fluorescent tube, rather than under the incandescent bulbs that illuminated the space on this occasion.

McHargue, who is self-taught, works in acrylic and gouache and combines cartoonlike figuration and geometric patterns with stylistic allusions to Surrealism, outsider art, and the 1970s interior design aesthetic currently also being mined by Jonathan Adler and various designers of hip hotels. His work channels a crisp retro psychedelia, less utopian than Quaalude-inflected (since the artist is in his midtwenties, the “generational” perspective is imagined rather than lived). Sometimes the paintings verge on trippy high-school Magritte emulations, but more often, they are likably bizarre.

Often, McHargue’s symmetrical compositions become arenas for surreal action. The strategy is most explicit in Deflated Situation, 2006, a large painting in which proscenium and stage are assembled from rectangles. Eggs float in the foreground, yolks ooze, a woman’s profile detaches from her head, and beams of light radiate from the top corners to form a V at the center of the canvas. In other works, beelike figures hover above mathematical symbols, while cherry-topped dollops of ice cream become curious Art Deco–esque breasts. Still, the logic of these scenarios remains ambiguous, in spite of the clarity of their depiction.

Two of the works were essentially diptychs, incorporating two-dimensional geometric panels that had seemingly escaped from the paintings into the surrounding space, enhancing the idea of gallery as theater. A flat LP-size disk, for example, hung above and to the left of Yellow Spectrum, 2007, a large panel painting composed primarily of a matrix of small circles—shapes evocative of pills or diagrams of lunar phases—rendered against a khaki background. A meandering line wends through these forms like a snail trail while two mysterious plantlike figures, seemingly sipping on straws, are rendered at the top of the piece. Another yellow disk, this one with a yellow square at its center, accompanies Enhanced Self Image, 2007, a sherbet-hued painting of a woman pondering her detached pink arms from multiple perspectives, while glistening lipstick tubes stand like small structural columns in the foreground. Only one work, Five Minutes Earlier, 2007, has an identifiable reference—Gerhard Richter’s Two Candles, 1982, which McHargue enlarges and doubles into a curious conflation of museum and kid’s birthday party.

The narratives may be inscrutable, but McHargue’s visual instincts and imagination serve him well nonetheless, and this group of works finds him developing both. The paintings’ bold coloration is well handled, and the artist basks in the glow.

Glen Helfand