Disaster and celebrity

On fame, fandom and artifice in Sam McKinniss’s Country Western

I thought I’d hate this show, but as I turn the corner into Almine Rech’s gallery I’m met with a resplendent vision: Elvira, lying on her side like a panther, trademark beehive sweeping up and bulbous breasts cascading generously forth. Paint that’s so smooth, so glossy it’s like a spilt drink on black satin sheets. Elvira’s portrait is bombastic and larger-than-life but also feels weirdly sparse. Detailing is kept minimal, focused on the essentials (jewelled clasps, patent stilettos, long, talon-like nails) while the background is spare and misty, dry ice lit by neon pink lights. A painting like this could be cynical but this feels like it’s been rendered with love, with a celebratory spirit, and when campness is this earnest it’s hard not to smile. I thought I’d hate this, but I think I love it.

Artworld-types will know Sam McKinniss as a regular fixture in Artforum’s Diary section. Non-artworld types will know him as the guy who painted Lorde for the cover of Melodrama (above). Aged 35, this New York-based painter is so hyped at the moment it feels hard to escape him in my lockdown art-perusing, which is admittedly NY-centric. This is his first solo show in London (though a couple of his paintings were included in the goth-tastic group show My Head is a Haunted House at Sadie Coles in 2019). When something so fabled arrives on your doorstep you bring a critical cautiousness, but it’s best to leave yourself open to being bowled over. The Elvira painting hits the spot immediately. Already, I’m on side.

Circle the first room. A tiny Mariah Carey in the snow in her slutty santa outfit, smiling so hard she looks sinister; a majestic white horse (the list says it’s Shania Twain’s); a small black and white painting of Dolly Parton holding a kitten – a press-shot image that’s so contrived it feels like a parody. In McKinniss’s rendering, it looks haunted – glassy black eyes stare out at us, blank caverns offsetting the glimmer of her smile. The painting feels even more frozen in time than the photograph it’s taken from, snatched from a moment in history. Dolly, McKinniss tells us in an unusually forthright press release, captured the artist’s attention and inspired him to make a series on country music stars, of which there are several in this show (which is titled Country Western): a top-hatted Willie Nelson here, a Tammy Wynette caught mid-song there. Country stars like Dolly, Willie and Tammy feel apposite to McKinniss’s work: they make perfect pop songs, but with a darkness that lurks beneath the surface. Gaze again into those black-hole eyes of Dolly. The artist is interested in how her public persona is constructed to shield us from true intimacy. Kitten-holding press shots like this are used to deflect our gaze from her private life which, despite Dolly’s colossal fame, still feels like a mystery to us. McKinniss’s paintings don’t necessarily try to dig deeper, to peel back the layers of artifice and reveal the human underneath, but instead meditate on the public image itself, recreating its constructedness not to criticise it but to celebrate it as a thing in and of itself. 

Like his subjects, McKinniss inspires frenetic adoration in his followers. A recent piece in GQ by Rachel Tashjian (the writer behind the much-vaunted newsletter Opulent Tips) is written in the form of a love letter addressed directly to McKinniss, littered with tongue-in-cheek, blushing asides – “Can you feel us growing closer?” – and signed “With adoration, Rachel”. A Gary Indiana piece from September 2019’s Artforum is straighter but just as gushing (and an invigorating read): “McKinniss is a gleaner of sunspots from the refuse heap of collective memory”; “McKinniss’s paintings express exuberance and dread in equal measure”. What is it, though, about his work that hooks people so instantly? Tashjian’s piece quotes gallerist Alissa Bennett saying people have “intensely personal” reactions to it. I’m sure there will be just as many viewers, though, that have the opposite response: work this femme, this camp can’t help but inspire opposition and perhaps the artist’s fast rise to fame will inspire a backlash.

Next room: a car leaps off a cliff, and I instantly recognise it as the ill-fated journey of Thelma and Louise, that ultimate American road trip gone awry. This celebrated story of two women ripping across the open highway is crystallised here at the moment its underlying tragedy is made permanent, fatal. Aside from the celebrity paintings McKinniss is most famous for, he’s also painted more harrowing subjects in the past. In 2016, John Waters (Bad Taste’s north star) included one of McKinniss’s paintings in a group exhibition in Provincetown called Catastrophe. The subject was Ohio High School shooter TJ Lane, who appears menacing and ominous, bare-chested and staring down at us from above. Like many mass-shooters of the digital era, Lane left diatribes online before he committing his heinous crime. This is the yin to Dolly Parton’s yang: she, a public woman seeking to salvage a scrap of privacy; he a small-town teenager seeking to make his private anguish publicly known in the most violent way.

This heady mix of disaster and celebrity can’t help but bring to mind the master of these topics, Andy Warhol, and as I’m walking around the gallery I tell my companion, Zoë, about a podcast episode I listened to a while ago where Peter Schjeldahl argues that middle-class curators have consistently misinterpreted the Pop artist. Armed with our MFAs, us studious theory types have always asserted that Warhol’s most famous images of celebrities and soup cans were driven by criticality: “it’s a critique of consumerism and mass-production”, we parrot, “it’s actually very satirical”. Schjeldahl argues that Warhol’s reasoning was actually probably a lot more straightforward. A working-class kid who’d grown up under the crushing weight of ascetic poverty and devout catholicism, his attraction to the glamour of celebrity and glossy consumer objects was not driven by a will to ‘critique’, it was purely celebratory. The joy of shopping came as a revelation to this repressed homosexual child of Polish immigrants in Pittsburgh. It offered an alternative vision to his austere and punishing childhood: a vision of Americanness, of abundance, of beauty and of the sexual charge of purchasing. Who wouldn’t want that? This came to mind looking at McKinniss’s paintings because, as with Warhol, we bring our critical goggles to these shows and feel the urge to theorise them, to frame them as ‘criticism’, as undermining the construction of images, or dismantling some kind of hierarchy, when really what’s evident in the brushstrokes is something far simpler – adoration, fandom, celebration, the joy of painting, an instinctual attraction to certain people or images. And is that any less powerful? If that dedication (even if it’s a dedication to something deemed facile by the theorists), if that conviction shines through then surely the painting is a success.

Keep walking through the gallery and in the third room, another surprise: a large portrait of Lis Nas X in pink cowboy garb. Zoë gushes and asks if I’ve seen MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) yet, the vid that broke the internet this week with its gay sci-fi aesthetic and satanic lapdances. This work must have been painted, left to dry, packed up and shipped to London long before that song dropped and became one of the biggest musical talking points of 2021. And so Lil Nas’s presence here in a gallery in Mayfair of all places feels so contemporary, so timely it almost feels like an aberration. Hot pink and radiating, it traces the line of Dolly’s dark country-pop right up to the present (Lil Nas’s banger of yesteryear was an infectious collab with Billy Ray Cyrus). Perhaps it marks McKinniss out as prescient, premonitious, gazing into the crystal ball of pop culture, or perhaps it simply points to his uncanny ability to capture the right feeling at the right time. I give up on any impulse I might have had to resist climbing on this horse and let my imagination gallop away.

~ Rosa xo

Sam McKinniss, Country Western is at Almine Rech London from 15 April – 22 May 2021. No amaro this week because I’m in a rush to get back out to the newly-opened pubs and galleries, ok byeeeeee!