After the introduction provided by CONNERSMITH Academy 2015 curator Jamie Smith, I have been engaged in conversation with MICA BFA graduate McKinley Wallace III over the course of the past several months. I visited him in his home and studio in Baltimore where we spoke about his work and life. The transcript of this interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Wade Carey: I’d like to start by asking whether you are here in Baltimore because this is the region that you are from originally or whether you came here from another part of the world.
McKinley Wallace: I am originally from West Palm Beach, Florida, and the reason why I came here is because of MICA but I really like Baltimore. I like the community. I’ve got a nice network of friends here that are also artists and they already know my work and I like to talk about it. I recently finished a fun job painting murals in Southern Maryland—in Laurel, Maryland—so that’s a lot of fun, and so I’ve decided to stay.
WC: That’s great. I did have a little time to look around at the things you have been doing and I had the impression that you are committed, that you are connected to work here [in Baltimore] and it’s arts-related, which is really lucky and really fortunate that you have been able to establish yourself with some professional work in the state, working as an artist. Also, if I am not mistaken, you are teaching, is that correct? Or you’ve had work teaching…
McKW: I am still doing it as an adjunct with CCBC, Community College of Baltimore County. Their C.A.S.E program, which stands for continuing alternative supportive education, is for people with developmental, mental and or physical of disabilities. I teach at CCBC’s Owings Mills branch and I also teach at Spring Grove Psychiatric Hospital. So, that is always interesting. I help them paint, draw, anything, whatever comes to mind. What do you want to learn? It is like art therapy, mostly. Since the curriculum is very open-ended, I can tailor my lessons to a patient’s individual needs. Sometimes lessons don’t work, either they don’t understand my questions or I won’t have the same group each time. So, I constantly have to be flexible, which makes the classes entertaining and also challenging. Every session is different. I’ll have to figure out some creative way to engage, a planned strategy that never works the first time.
WC: Do you make your own plan, your own teaching plan? Is it pretty much as you choose to figure it out? You are not really assigned a specific route toward a therapeutic, artistic time you are spending with them? You just figure it out and let it go?
McKW: They gave me a class with basic objectives. The one at Spring Grove is called, “Art Expression,” and that’s it. It’s whatever I want.
WC: They just have to express…
McKW: They just have to express. Sometimes they tell me a lot about their lives and sometimes they don’t talk at all. Sometimes they might snap for a little bit, or if something is distracting them, I haven’t run into anything too big yet. [Smiles.]
WC: That’s good…
McKW: The other one [at Owings Mills] is “Introduction to Drawing.” Teaching that to people with special needs is difficult. I remember spending thirty minutes talking about what a shadow is, explaining shadow. You can see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t touch it, and it is always around you. Very confusing, trying to make myself understand it—to like, how to think of a simple way to explain it. So, I spent a whole class talking about how light creates shadows. Some don’t even know the word, “shadow.” Or, they probably can’t even pronounce, “shadow.” To avoid confusion, I decided to replace the world shadow with “A” and then the light with “B” and say, “Choose A or B… What’s that?” You have to be very slow and patient. When they do learn something, or [snaps his fingers] it clicks, it is so rewarding. One of the students missed a day of class and was like, “Did you miss me??” I then help him and he wants to know, “Are you proud of me??” I don’t exactly know what they do outside of class. Some of them probably work in schools, maybe in the cafeteria, the other ones… I’m not sure. They probably don’t get to exercise their mind often, which is why they love to see me. I want to challenge them.
WC: What kind of age range are you talking about?
McKW: Oh, I’m talking around middle age, maybe late thirties to sixties. Definitely at Spring Grove, people have been there for such a long time. However, I do remember talking to a patient my age. The hospital also has an adolescent wing, but I’ve never been there. Half of the students in my Introduction to Drawing class can’t remember their birthdays. They look at their IDs. A large number of Spring Grove patients have never drawn before, or the last time they picked up a pencil and did something artistic was a long time ago. So, some of them just don’t want to draw. Some of them just want to talk, which is fun sometimes. And I think that is what the program is about. My goal is to promote inclusion.
WC: Did the work come to you through the school [MICA] or did you go out looking for extra work as way to make some money and it was just arts related?
McKW: At MICA’s Career Development Center, I talked to [Assistant Director for Fine Art] Georgia Creson. I went to her saying, “Oh man, I’m about to graduate, what am I going to do?” And she couldn’t give me a solid answer, like, “Take this job! Or this job!” She gave me contacts to people I could speak to. So, I talked to an artist, Bobby English, Jr., he is a performance artist, sculptor and welder. He told me about CCBC’s C.A.S.E program. I told him I was interested in teaching, I wanted to do something artistic. If I’m not painting, I want to talk about painting or help someone learn how therapeutic painting can be! And it just, whoosh! So, I’ve done a lot of teaching before, as an intern, so when I had my interview at the college, my boss, Michael Tan, said, “Oh, we’ll give you a shot,” because I had worked with different age groups. Even though I have never really worked with this kind of demographic, I have worked with different ages for the past three years while going to school. Tan thought, “Why not? You are a fresh-face.” Most of the other adjuncts are twice my age. So, having a youngster could be good.
WC: It seems really good to me.
McKW: To have someone who went to an art school and has a away of introducing art and knowing what is good art, how to make them think about approaching a painting instead of doing crafty stuff.
WC: Right. It is a different analytical and a different cultural bent that I think is a really good thing to have here.
McKW: So, it has been fun. Sometimes I feel like I am under-qualified but I said yes and, so far, I am having a good time.
WC: I wouldn’t count on that. I don’t know much about that. I mean, the way people were de-institutionalized over the past twenty-five years, I don’t know what kind of staffing is available at this point but I think it is great that you are there. And it kind of leads to my next question, which is, as you have mentioned what you are doing to me, it does sound like a calling, and I am prompted to ask, did it always feel that way, and, as you were coming up, were you, in the earlier years of your schooling, in the earlier years of just your coming up in the world, were you thinking about working as an artist and/or working as a teacher? Were there other pathways? What are the choices that went into how you—obviously you ended up in Baltimore, you ended up at MICA—what were the alternatives? Were there different roads not followed? Was it a straightforward thing for you?
McKW: Oh, no.
WC: How did that happen?
McKW: Well, I was raised by my mom in Florida and she was very supportive of me doing art, not as a career at the beginning, but something that I was really into. I went to an art magnet school in middle school and high school. Then got in to an arts college, including pre-college for MICA. Art making, working with my hands, has always been an interest of mine but in high school, senior year, I was having my doubts. So, I thought, “Oh man, what do I want to do?” So, I thought about my mom, being around her, she works at a hospital, Good Samaritan. I did some community service there, constantly being around there affected me. Also, helping people, in some way, psychologically, you have to be creative and nurturing in some career paths in the hospital. So, I considered the idea. I thought about being a dentist. I remember, I was getting some dental work done and the person who was doing that said she was a graphic designer and she said she just didn’t like it. Well, she said she loved it at the beginning but it just wasn’t her calling.
WC: It is really interesting. I was just talking to a guy who it trying to decide. He just finished his chemistry degree and he is trying to decide whether to go back to dental school and because of the time commitment, he’s really worried. He is working for his mom in her restaurant right now and that’s hard work, too. It’s not like he’s afraid of the time commitment but he is thinking, if you go to dental school, there is nothing else.
McKW: There is nothing else. Right.
WC: That is all your life is. And he’s just thinking, is that what I want my life to be?
McKW: I was thinking about that. A lot of the time, I was thinking, “Oh, maybe I can do something in the medical field, be a dentist, or something, and I can balance it with art…” which wasn’t going to happen. And I talked to my friends’ parents who work in the hospital but in a different profession and he asked, “Do you love it?” I mean, it was just that simple. Do you see yourself getting up every day, doing it? It is just great that people who do that kind of stuff get paid well. They’re just lucky that way. They love it and it has a decent outcome for them. But I really didn’t love it. At the time, every single person I asked, they gave me advice, I absorbed it. I didn’t brush anything off. I’ll do that. Nope. I’ll do that. That sounds better. Nope. I’ll do that. And then, MICA gave me great scholarship money and I thought, “I’ll do it for a year. Let me see if I like it.” And here I am. I stayed and graduated.
WC: Because you love it.
McKW: I love it. I love it. And each year, it is so much about yourself and how you’re feeling and how you are being exposed to the world. My work is all about that, how we interact with each other, how we learn and develop attributes to present a specific persona. So, it is all of these things, talking about the individual, talking about where I am in my life, where I’ll be later, other people that I like talking to or hanging out with or don’t like spending time with. And all that can be seen in the art. Making art is a conscious and subconscious act. Clues can be seen even if I’m not aware of it. I am constantly thinking about my next piece or what I’m going to do next to resolve my current projects. It’s great to an accessible outline instead of putting one’s personal thoughts aside and going into the office, and leaving that festering drive in you. “Where am I going to put all this?”
WC: It’s all there…
McKW: It’s all there. And then, yeah, you’ll go into the office daydreaming and those daydreams could have been used in some sort of way towards art. I could have been spending that time in the right place.
WC: Am I following from what you are saying that the major themes in the work that you are doing now as a fine artist are following through from ideas that you have been developing for a long time?
McKW: It’s been a long time.
WC: That’s the impression that I get. That your oeuvre has been growing all along, I mean, that the themes in the work that you do, in the way that you are expressing what you are putting down on the canvas—or whatever surface you are using—are ideas and forms of expression that have been coming up and building all along, it sounds like to me. And that what you’ve been doing over the past few years in the development of the fine arts degree has been a continuation of that. When I talk to some people, when they’ve been going through the process of going to MICA or another school, they’ve spent a lot of time sampling—they’ve been shopping, in a way. They’ve been working on, “how am I going to express myself?” or “What is it that I am really trying to say or trying to do?” I don’t get that impression so much from you—that you are shopping around for a way to express what you’re doing—and in the work that I’m seeing on your Website, and certainly the work that was selected by Jamie [Smith for Academy 2015], which was some of the most specific, sort of, darkest, I would say, the more—I don’t know what the right word is—explicit physiognomies. For better or for worse, they were explicit examples of your work. It just seemed to me that that was coming from a long time.
McKW: I think it is a little bit of both. A lot of people can vouch for me. I’ve also been shopping a lot. A lot. But I guess my ideas have been the same but just the way of approaching them has come and gone in so many ways.
WC: Tell me a little bit about that.
McKW: So, starting from, I guess, two years ago, my artwork’s intent was to show praise to someone or to show a homage to someone I love. Hopefully when someone else sees those paintings, they’ll feel a connection to them as well. They were always very positive and colorful, bright. At the end of the day, they were just basic portraits. Backgrounds were very simple and it was all about the figure. A safe venture. Then, at some point, I realized showing the positive side and all of these people, that’s one thing, but the process started to get kind of boring. I formed a system of approaching each portrait. Every time I painted someone in this manner, I would always know what I should do first, second, third… And I feel like they almost started to look the same, at least in my eyes. They were all having a similar personality.
But none of them showed the gray, other parts of themselves. Hidden, parts that aren’t so clear. Everyone, for the most part, tries to show the best of who they think they are. I feel like that’s what made all those paintings look familiar and similar to me. They look like a friend you might have seen before who was happy. Emphasize on the word “was.” People don’t have one emotion. At some point I thought, what about showing something that people don’t like to show outside of themselves? What they don’t like to make visible, things that are invisible, insecurities, things that make us uncomfortable. Showing those hidden facts, in a deeper sense, can make an individual relate, in a far more intimate way. So, the work that I put in Academy was the beginning of this idea, where I thought, instead of painting someone that I know very well, I’d like to talk about someone I would never see, that I would never know. That’s when I began calling my work “artifacts” instead of paintings. To me, painting throughout history had strong relationship with beauty. Painting, not all of it, was intend to make the world more beautiful, to decorate. I wanted to begin shedding light on the scraps that were obstructed from this ideal reality we all had a hand in framing. I started this journey by focusing on our early ancestors. Before systematic racism and imperialism. I started with human-like apes, early hominins. At their time, to survive, they acted a certain way, but they weren’t as sophisticated as us. Whatever that means. There was something there that didn’t make them human. So, I thought of adjusting their identity in a way that showed that they had a presence similar to our own, which deviates from beauty and falsehood, into fact. They can be someone we know but they are also just there not expecting approval or anything for that matter.
WC: They are very jarring portraits. I mean, there is a “missing link” quality to them.
McKW: See, you feel like either you believe in this idea that they are, in some way, connected to you or you don’t want to believe that.
McKW: And it is about what you are looking at but it is also very reflective. It is saying, do I want to engage with this? Do I want to connect with this? How do I feel about this? Do I just want to leave it because it bothers me? Or I just don’t understand it? Or I want to keep looking at it because there is something there that I just never thought about. So, when I made those artifacts, I was trying to make my own, sort of, timeline. I thought, let me think of someone that’s so far removed from me as a person in the 21st Century, being an African American male, speaking the way I do, acting the way I do, the domestic kind of situation I’m in—everything different, opposite. Them sitting down being painted? That’s just completely weird. Have you ever seen anything like this? The last thing that I would do is sit still for you—but to have enough time to stare at them and look at them…
WC: There’s kind of a DaVinci self-portrait quality to it that’s really amazing…
McKW: That’s what I was doing and then I decided to push forward, closer to now. Possibly, going back and forth. I may eventually want to go back to that series. But right now, I’m starting to talk about people now instead of being so detail oriented like those, showing the wrinkles and the eyes and the lips and everything, I’m talking about people now and I think, people nowadays hide a lot of things. Those apes, or whatever you want to call them, I call them, “Hominins,” they don’t care how you look at them so they show everything. But now, since we are all buying the same clothes or we have similar interests in style or in our social cues and how we are supposed to interact, it makes us all similar. So, what I’ve been doing now is taking away a lot of our visual attributes to the point where there are only little bits that still remain that make us who we are, what we really are. Is there something left? Are we that shallow? The viewer is responsible for that judgment. This one for example [gestures to artwork], it is an image of Marilyn Monroe, the same photograph Andy Warhol used. His method of using it was making multiples of her to the point where she just became like mass production and not really a human being. His method was showing her tons of times to the point that she wasn’t the nervous wreck she probably was. When we saw her in movies and billboards, we thought she was perfect. So, what I did is instead of doing multiples of her, I just showed these little bits that remain, her eyes and her lips. Those are Marilyn Monroe lips and eyes. Those never change. Her hair is gone, makeup, everything else is gone. But those two things will remain constant over the layers and layers of stuff that is there. Covering up her mouth and everything but you still know who it is. That presence is still there. So, focusing on those things. This is easier to read because you know those are eyes and you know someone who has those exact eyes. Sure.
WC: I’ve seen other work from your Website where there are very intense, concentrated, saturated colors where you can’t see what is going on at first until you really look hard and then you begin to see an eye, for example, and then you really have to identify what’s going on. The idea is essentially where all that is revealed is just a very small part of the person.
McKW: Yes. Just those little things. Everything else, I feel, is extra. So, me taking away a lot, I really want to challenge the viewer to try to fill everything else in. Detailed work can also be read as clutter. I would rather be specific and limited to the point where I feel like there is a lot there that people have to fill in. Some still won’t like it. We are visual receivers. Contemporary people want more visual data. I want to fight against that.
WC: I wanted to ask you next about media, about the use of print, charcoal, oil, pen and ink, the different kind of media you use in creating your work. Have you settled on that? Is that something that changes a lot as you are moving along? Have you kind of got into a groove with that or when did you find a groove with that? How are you doing on that?
McKW: I try not to limit myself to one medium. Every form of media has its strengths. I want to exercise those strengths by uniting them. I tend to incorporate photography, wet and dry media into each of my works. Art, for me, is the most rewarding when different media can compliment and alter each other’s visual language. I draw, paint, and sculpt, all in one.
WC: Have you had any sense of change since you had a thesis show? That is sort of like a culmination in one sense of how you have matured. It’s like you’re coming out party, kind of thing; like, “here I am; this is me; here’s my thing.” Obviously, I found out about you because of the Academy 2015 presentation, which is just a snapshot. Are there other shows that you’ve had that you have been particularly proud of or that have been significant in the way you’ve thought about yourself, in the way you’ve shown your work, or that has been a kind of milestone in the way you have thought you showed out in the world as an artist?
McKW: My first show in Baltimore was at Jubilee Arts. It’s on Pennsylvania Avenue. The discussion topic was history, talking about politics in the world, and how we feel it, from an artist’s perspective. This was my first time showing my artwork in the Baltimore community, engaging with the public fully with something that was politically and socially charged. Luckily, the public understood my perspective and they wanted to know more about it. The public responded to something I was interested in! I didn’t have to sell myself short. It was necessary. Basically, the image I presented was of an African American male in a damaged neighborhood. There in front of him stood a huge wall with a wheat paste [poster] of Barack Obama. So, there is this African American male and he has a paint roller in his hand, and you see him making white paint strokes on Obama’s photograph, so, either he is fixing it or he is destroying it. And in that moment of uncertainty, one might think, is he satisfied with this role model? Does he like this role model? Does he want to be Obama or does he want to be better than Obama? I had a mix crowd. The viewer can only see the back of the young black man. What we can see is the president’s face, which is twice the size of the guy who is painting on over him. Yes I’m exaggerating, but I do see recently erupted tension between the titan and the little man. And you don’t know what the young male’s next move is. Is he trying to fix the image or he was trying to destroy the image. I loved that mix.
WC: A fascinating ambiguity.
McKW: It was specific because of the moment in how his arm was placed and where he touched it was right on his mouth and he didn’t cover it yet but you just see a little mark, a little swatch. So we are all clear on how it’s presented but the ambiguity comes out of how strategic I made the action look.
WC: Which makes it electric, also. A nerve moment.
McKW: That was my first show and then I worked in Northern Michigan at Interlochen Arts Academy. That was my first teaching experience with having students I was with look at the paintings. It was a fun experience. It was actually this painting [shows another painting in the studio]. It looks completely different from all my other ones.
WC: Oh, my goodness!
McKW: But, I can show you that I have done all sorts of different things. This is what they saw at the show at Interlochen. Friends who see this painting in relation to my new work [gesturing to more recent work] often say, “How did you go from this to this?”
McKW: But it is still about the individual or grouping of people. You know, who are they as an individual? These awkward moments. But this right here, I thought was funny and clumsy. This one felt like it was in between the work that I talked about before where I was showing someone that I like, putting them in the highest regard, and there is this one, saying that uncertainty and judgment controls us. And then, this one is making fun of it. You look at it and then you think, “Oh, color! This is fun!” But then, you look at it more and it’s like, who wants to be painted this way? Who wants to be shown picking their nose, biting their teeth? Some people thought it had a sexual connotation, with the biting lips, a fetishized idea. I didn’t think they were that way, in the beginning, but those are things you don’t want to make public for the most part.
WC: There is an anxiety in it, definitely.
McKW: An anxiety. And those are things that you don’t want to show. But it’s a different way of showing it. I kept going in different ways, working with paint and color and now I’ve just been trying to limit my color palette to very pale or dark neutral colors. Or, maybe, if I had a very saturated color, it would only be in one spot but everything else is dark, like here [gestures to artwork]. I mean there are some golds and yellows, but it’s subtle. It almost looks like it is burned. And some of these areas have been burned. They were originally black and white but the ink changed its colors. It’s a natural change to what was originally black and white, adding fire to it. You can see that these work are completely different as far as how there are approached but the idea has always been similar.
WC: One of the first things I thought about asking you when I first got into your Website was what I thought about facial recognition software and what you thought about the idea of computers trying to analyze people and trying to get into their heads based on completely abstract things like scanning. Things like the idea of scanning people and taking all the data from peoples’ databases and going through the history of people and trying to capture everything that is known about them based on scanning. I just thought, what kind of information do we have about people based on our abilities as humans to do that kind of facial recognition scanning? Based on our own instincts, based on our own experiences, our own cultural prejudices, our own, I don’t know, epigenetic memory—whatever it is that we have, that gives us our own scanning capabilities—not like a computer but like humans have. I just wondered, what is it that people do? How is it that we scan each other and get something out of it? How is it that painters or portraitists do something different from just taking pictures and painting? What’s the difference? What makes something happen when you draw something different out of a painting, a work of art in comparison to a passport photograph?
McKW: I love that idea of scanning because I feel like it is something that makes people think about their self-image, how people will perceive them. It is a disturbing idea when we all look online and then we’ll see an advertisement for something we might have shopped for and then we’re reminded by on the side of our screen. We are constantly being automatically being compartmentalized.
WC: Little frames walking around.
McKW: Frames. There’s an article I read, by Boris Groys, called, “Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility.” It’s all about that. A long time ago, before photography, before mass media, the artist was responsible for documenting history. Telling stories of something that we never see or stuff that did happen on this earth that we need or want to remember for the good or bad. Those paintings and sculptures can only be commissioned by the wealthy, those who had money. So it was a skewed idea. History is not always factual. But then, later, through photography, mass media has become the forefront of pushing out information. And information is constantly being pushed out, over and over. The artist is trying to keep up or paint an event that happened then but the media is able to capture an infinite amount at the same time, every second, over and over and over again. Broys believes that the best way for the artist to compete or be the same as mass media is to become mass media itself, to become design. Since the Internet is a designed concept, a tool, the artist must become that tool. So, with that, when we are putting ourselves in the computer, or walking around every day, how we dress, the pictures we put online, is a description of ourselves. So, instead of painting that, and that being your design and your idea, you carry the design with you. He wants us to be aware of that. You are your art, so you must always be able to communicate and share your ideas instead of them having to come in separate forms to be photographed for someone to interpret later. I think it’s a fun challenge to see all these prints and for them to be able to recognize you. For people to have an idea of what that person might be like. But it is very shallow, like you said, because it is just that image, like a passport photo. You are not even supposed to smile. It’s just that. Or, if you could do a painting that is about how shallow we are but the artist spent the time trying to show that shallowness, even though they might feel inclined to tell more, to say more than that mass printed image. Trying to make the same image. I feel like the image that is made by the artist will automatically tell more because they thought about it. They thought about what it meant, who is going to see it. But also, to do that, they need to see what has been printed out there all the time. Both must exist. Even though you may think it’s an enemy or your rival or something that shouldn’t be out there, it gives you something to make your work about. Even if you are trying to copy it exactly, there is still going to be something, someone with a brain who can breathe, a nervous system and an idea that goes in there, with a mission to combat that. I like that it’s out. It gives me something to talk about, mass printing, how we see ourselves. What I’m doing now, in using photography, which is, in a way, to produce more paintings at a faster rate. Not like a machine, as far as how some artists use it but as a way to get where I want faster. Like the bare minimums, at the bare bones of getting it figured out on canvas and then I can start there. I can put a lot more attention into my intent, my end result, after this base image has been placed in. I can make the image darker. I can take away things. So, I appreciate that photography is in the world. I use it. I want it. And then I put myself or my thoughts and insecurities into it. My biggest insecurity is when I am not understood. I’ll explain something to death, until someone understands it. So, when I put my work up, I know when I paint them, it’s very easy for me to try to explain everything. I want to break that habit. Yes, I need to make sure my ideas are clear, but I also need to cut away the unnecessary parts of an artwork, through erasing, burning, sanding and layering. I try to make my objects look much older than they actually are, to allow the viewers to place my “found artifacts” into a timeline that doesn’t involve me. I’m interested in the idea of being identified as a nameless archaeologist finding lost objects from our history – who knows who this person is, this guy who brings in “objects” and puts them on a wall and says, “This is an artifact.” Did you make it? Who made it?
WC: It could be the ancestor of that person. It was the guy who had the same ideas.
McKW: Yes. It might or might not be the same person. If I keep mixing materials together with a different idea in mind each time I approach a surface, one or two materials will become dominant, which will create balance. In that sense, machines capturing and filing images in profiles and printing photographs is something I could never do because I have natural flaws. That interests me. A machine is meant to be perfect. I am not. When prints are shown, they are meant to look the same. However when a image is made by man or machine more than once, its initial content changes. Maybe a previous image had intent behind it like the Marilyn Monroe but once it has been printed so many times, its presence in multiples alters our relation with the same image. Andy thrived with re-appropriation and creating multiples. Andy when he made them, wow, I’m calling him Andy—Mr. Warhol—when he did it, I feel like, yeah, he tried. He was an offspring of self-design. I mean, constantly showing his persona. He was the artwork. Even though he thought of himself as some sort of machine, he still showed these human tendencies, mistakes, habits, and he embraced them. That’s what makes them so thrilling, because you can see the struggle. In the end, he doesn’t care. He’s like, that’s what happened. That’s what it is. It’s not perfect. A machine is broken if it’s not working properly. If it slightly messes up, then it’s defective. Outdated. The human is always defective. Andy will always be defective. He had problems like everyone else did. I remember seeing his retrospective at seeing all of these. Each one, I just said, hey! He made another one! And another one! And another one! I went to Barcelona two years ago and I saw the Picasso Museum and a part of it focused on Picasso’s studies of Velázquez’s “Las Meninas.” He did tons of them. Hundreds of that one painting. Approaching them with light and heavy-handed marks and selective speeds. They weren’t even. They weren’t finished. But you looked at them and it was like, why? I know he didn’t have Photoshop, but, I mean, still. Photography existed. He could have made large photographs during that time. I mean, why not just do that? No. I’m a painter. I am, for some reason, interested in what I am seeing and I want to invest my time in this until it makes me bored. He was a painter’s painter. So, to answer your question, I enjoy mass production. It gives me imagery to work off of. Well, maybe not me. Someone finds it worth investigating. [Laughs]
WC: Well, it’s your practice.
McKW: It’s my practice, yes. Something that interests someone who has experienced life one way. I cannot get in your shoes so there is no way that I can completely take myself away from making it. I make it. But at the same time, I still want the viewer to consider someone else could make the possibility of it. Case in point, every person you see walking down the street has some sort of mental baggage. They may be having a good day or a bad day. And there could be someone walks next to me who appears sad, but they are actually having a dandy day! We as humans have be hardwired to project our ideas on everything we interact with. So, yeah, there is no way I can completely remove myself from a work, but I’m trying to take some of myself out of it. The rest of its remains are the pieces that are… not ambiguous… but just not revealed. That is for someone else to complete.
WC: Have you thought about how much of your life is teaching, how much of your life is about painting? I’m sort of like saying, how much is civilian and practice life and professional life. I mean, have you had any concerns or ideas about how much work goes into the work of producing art and how much or your time you can spend going to work, making a living, making enough money to pay your rent, having a social life, having the time to get to work in the morning, get home at night, do the shopping… all of that. I mean, are those issues that you think about? Is it integrating for you now in a way that you are feeling is going in the right direction? Do you think you grappling with it okay? How do you see the future?
McKW: I’m fortunate enough to be talking about art in some way. With me working with Spectrum Design Studio doing murals in Maryland. That’s been a lot of fun. Working with other artists, talking about art, trying to make something look accessible enough for families to understand—because it’s in a school—so it has to be age-appropriate and it has to be stimulating enough for the students to learn something, hopefully. You have a certain time limit so you are constantly trying to figure out quicker ways to do it. But also, you don’t want to cut back on quality. That’s all an artistic practice but that’s not my practice. That’s for a mural in a school. After I’m done, I’ll leave. Who knows when I’ll see it again? That’s that. Take photos? Yeah. So, I am constantly thinking that way and painting for eight hours straight and then I come home and then I’m saying, oh, I’ve painted, I’ve thought artistically, I’ve done my part, I’ve done what I want to do. But now, what about my own work?
McKW: I usually work on my days off or days after teaching because it’s not a full-time thing. I work most of the week doing the mural and then two days out of the week teaching, half the day. Then that’s when I come home because I still have energy. I’ve been talking about work. I haven’t been painting a mural and now I can actually apply it and actually do something. I’m still thinking about art and now I haven’t started working at it until I come to my studio to work. Right now, I haven’t made as much as I did, of course, when that was what I had to do.
WC: Well, your full time job was getting a BFA for a while.
McKW: Yes. It’s a Bachelor of Fine Arts and you have to make art. And you have all these homework assignments. But now, I have to find something that inspires me or inspire myself. I can’t wait for a teacher or someone to give me a prompt that I can be creative with. I can stretch that idea into what I want, yes, that’s where my work comes through. But give me an idea, a very simple one, or a very specific one, and I have to find something out of that that makes it my own. For right now, I’m finding a balance. I know how much I work in a week. I’m starting to understand how I feel each day. Sometimes, when I know, okay, I haven’t worked in the past three days, I’ve got to, even if I’m not working, I’ve always been told, just sit in the studio, just look. Just look at what you made. Look at some of the works that are almost done. Maybe you don’t want to work. You might mess it up. But just look at them and say, oh man, there is something that needs to be there. I don’t know what it is yet. I might not know what it is until the next time I come into the studio eager to paint or to draw or stay in the continuum. I’m lucky that I have that space in my apartment lopped off so I don’t have to see it all the time but I can easily access it. I eat my cereal looking at it if I want to. I don’t have to. I can watch TV and look at it. I can read a book and look at it. It’s in my space. It’s part of my life. I can quickly run in there put on some paint, or mix something and let it sit on a surface and then come out. Instead of making a long commute and then regretting how long you’ve spent in the studio and you have to drive all the way back home.
WC: It’s there if you need it but you don’t have to have it in your face.
McKW: Yes. And socially, if I bring someone over, and we happen to get into a conversation about art, it’s right there. And then I can get their opinion. They might not like it, okay. They might like it, that’s cool. Tell me how you’re feeling about that. The canvas starts as a blank space and alters into a dark fragment of dense baggage. But it’s there. It’s there but it’s not there. It’s present and it’s not present. It gives the viewer room to see but I don’t have to spend that time fully realizing it. That allows me to speed up. Sometimes, I might go in my studio because I know I will make a mistake and I know it is something that I might do instinctively. Most of my new work has been stained with dirt, burned, and or struck by a hammer constantly. Because I feel that it is a way to make me not fully connected. It is not a precious thing anymore. And at the same time, it is a tool that is not traditionally used. This tool outside of art is used for one thing. But when I bring it into art making and I put it on canvas or wood, a distinct mark will appear, is a mark that is not quickly identifiable because it is something that’s not cannon.
WC: Do you have any kind of time horizon, now that you are sort of in this, “I’ve got work do to; I’m sort of working on stuff now that I’m out of school; and I’m working on my work when I can…” Do you have a kind of time horizon when you’d like to assemble enough work that you would try to do another show?
McKW: Well, I mean, I would be eager to do a show at any moment. Any time. So, if something bites, yes, I’m always interested. I’m always producing work. When I show my work, I don’t hang them at the same level. You know, like fifty-eight inches, or whatever is the standard gallery height. I usually try to form a salon style, preferably on a few walls. I’m not trying to take up the whole space. I’d prefer the objects to be closer together, to communicate. I don’t want them to be scattered. Isolated. I want the viewer to automatically see a hierarchy. I think, as far as artifacts are concerned, some things are craft and some are groundbreaking. So, when I look at my work—I almost think of them as a family tree, or telling a story about being human and observed—so when I have artwork up, one, for some reason, makes me feel like it should be higher. It’s more delicate. It has a presence that demands attention. So, of course, it will be higher. Some that are at eye level appear more intimate. They are small, usually. If it is too far down or too high, you can’t really look and them and sit with them long enough. You look at them at a weird angle. Any object placed at the bottom half of the wall is meant to embody a heavier presence, literally. I don’t want anything to appear forgotten or put aside. This [indicates one of the works in apartment] is something that would be eye level. That [another piece] behind you, it would be heavier, and so I would put it closer to the ground. That, the way the mediums are moving around on the canvas, makes the object appear lighter than the rest. The figure is lighter, less dense, and transparent. I think of transparency, lightness, and flight. I try not to question my instincts. I love putting my stuff out there, having conversations about my ideas and a person’s lack of individuality. Searching and modeling a mask for the public is where I think self-design comes from. In fact as we speak, new ideas come to mind. I don’t know what they look like yet. No one should. I often consider someone else’s ideas that aren’t mine. Something I could use with my works to make it slightly removed from me, to put someone else’s ideas in a work and make it an object that could be made by someone else—who knows who that person is? But I know that I am the maker, the one who creates so I have to make my part in its existence solid. One of my teachers, Dave Cloutier, he was my thesis teacher, he told me the word, “ambiguous,” is a very tricky concept. When you say something is ambiguous, sometimes, at least as far as art is concerned, there is a lot of room to not express your ideas clearly. It is just, “Oh, it’s an ambiguous thing.” Um, that’s what it’s all about. You figure it out. To make something worthwhile, an artist cannot make without certain rules to follow. There are no rules in ambiguity. Specificity is key with that, others may access it and look at it and think, oh man, and there is a lot there that I do not understand. Ambiguous is a word used for uncertainty. Sometimes a person can’t help but say it’s unclear. All of my work is meant to be read slow and close. But there is a reason for making it look that way. Every mark. This art. It has a purpose. But with a quick glance, it could lend itself to ambiguity.
WC: It makes me want to know if you have any other individuals, either at MICA or elsewhere that call for a shout-out when we are talking, that were particularly influential or important to you, either in your learning process or just as artists who just are big influences on you as an artist.
McKW: I’ll start with famous artists. I’m a huge fan of Alex Katz. I like R. H. Quaytman, Victor Man, Andy Warhol, Balthus. Those are the big ones that I’ve been thinking about and looking at now. As far as peers, there are so many. I don’t know where to begin. As far as teachers, I’ve already mentioned Dave Cloutier. Bob Salazar, Paul Jeanes, Sangram Majumdar, Warren Lin, and Magnolia Laurie.
For more information on McKinley’s work, go to http://www.mckinleywallaceiii.com