Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Hair-raising portraiture

Charter Oak Cultural Center
21 Charter Oak Ave., Hartford, (860) 249-1207
Sam McKinniss: Portraits
Feb. 1—Apr. 27, 2007

Sam McKinniss' small show in the conference room of the Charter Oak Cultural Center is comprised of a mix of small studies based on works by Jean-Honoré Fragonard and larger portraits of contemporary celebrity icons.

The "After Fragonard" series are akin to gestural portraits—quick paint sketches on empty backgrounds with a flurry of decorative brushwork. This seems to be his signature. Where the features of his subjects are rendered with a classicist's attention to detail, McKinniss lets himself go when it comes to the hair. He teases out the naturalism until it explodes in a dayglo fracas of split ends, Carmen Miranda on acid. (The one exception is "After Fragonard 5," based on Fragonard's "Cephalus and Procris," in which McKinniss paints two complete figures and expends his abstract energies in the background.)

McKinniss has a facility for rendering recognizable facial characteristics. Because his subjects already have media visibility that transcends workaday naturalism, it is somehow not odd to see whirling abstraction overtake their hairdos. In a sense these "electric flourishes of expressionistic brushwork," as he describes them in his artist statement, are symbolic of the starmaking machine: the abstraction created when a real individual is transformed into an image or an icon.

The most effective paintings in this show are the ones that McKinniss clearly spent the most time with. These portraits of Dolly Parton, Beyonce Knowles, Arethra Franklin and Diana Ross have colored backgrounds and more fully realized compositions.

It will be interesting to see where McKinniss goes with all this. Deeper into a classicism or, conversely, more fully with abstraction? I'd like to see him try and merge these approaches into narrative paintings and see what develops. At any rate, he is clearly a young artist with a lot of potential.


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