How many layers of paint have been slapped on the floor at Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco? Last month, that floor was painted bright yellow for San Francisco artist Keegan McHargue’s exhibit of recent work, entitled “The Yellow Spectrum.” The radiance of the floor created an atmospheric soup for the paintings, which were done in a range of colors that suggested ice creams, sherbets, and bleached carnival posters. The effect was exhilarating.
(There is a painting called “La gamme jaune” [The Yellow Spectrum] by the Czech artist Frantisek Kupka, who was having a Fauvist moment when he painted it in 1907, near Paris, one hundred years ago. I wonder if McHargue is a fan of Kupka.)
McHargue continues to create a dreamtime world in which stylized human figures and objects occupy reductive landscapes or architectural structures. Often there is a repetition, or mirroring, of motifs. Often the space has a theatrical setup, giving a ritualistic appearance to the “action.” There is also a certain gravitas and a sense of timelessness, even as the pictorial elements flirt with the absurd. The meaning of the work remains elusive.
The color palette in the recent show was a shift from previous work. It had a frivolous air, but careful observation revealed it to be highly specific and sophisticated.
McHargue developed his style without attending art school, so it’s interesting to consider what his influences might be. Surrealism is an obvious one, although his temperament side-steps the cheesiness—the wow effects—in that tradition. There are reminders of other visual traditions, but none seem to dominate. My own sense is that McHargue has been imprinted not so much by the styles of particular artists, but by the wealth of imagery afloat in our culture. He has a polymorphous-perverse ability to blend visual memes and deploy them in paintings that have strong formal qualities.
Several images from the show are included above and below. They are salvaged from a camera whose color balance was knocked askew by the flood of yellow light.