By Leah Ollman
April 22, 2021 6:06pm
Kevin McNamee-Tweed’s proclivity for the fragment and for small to very small formats can make his shows read like trails of clues. “Probable Presence,” an assemblage of nearly seventy works dated between 2019 and 2021, feels like an unspooling of partial disclosures, an aggregation of winks and nods. Throughout his drawings, paintings, and works in clay, McNamee-Tweed borrows words and images from vintage comics, art history, advertising, and other sources, replicating and repurposing each bit of material to archive wonders from the external world, and fashion an ongoing portrait of his domestic, psychic interior. Across media, he quotes and cheekily misquotes. One of his colored pencil drawings, Long Red Haired Woodpecker (2020), transforms a naturalist’s record of a hairy woodpecker into an incongruously sultry pinup by trading the bird’s distinctive red cap for a long, cherry-red tress. Another drawing, Blowing Bibbles of Sibbles (2020), recasts Chardin’s Soap Bubbles (ca. 1733–34) as a cartoonish sketch, falling ambiguously between spoof and homage. In several works on paper, McNamee-Tweed tries out the sort of montage that emerged with the modern city, scattering across the page overlapping glimpses of figures marching in lockstep and echoed words, pumping the composition with energy and speed. It’s not inconsequential that the artist is also a writer; he revels in the visuality of language, assimilates the found poetry of signage, alludes to the idiosyncrasies of hand-lettering, and renders tribute to bygone fonts. He has also worked as a curator, and that role, too, with its functions of selecting, isolating, and constellating, resonates with the gleaning central to his art-making process.
The visual and emotional punch characteristic of McNamee-Tweed’s best work is found most consistently here in what he calls his “ceramic paintings”—irregularly shaped, wall-mounted panels incised with distilled line drawings and glazed in a muted, rustic palette that suggests retrospection. Many measure just a few inches per side. Reminiscent of snapshots in their intimacy and concision, they are also often funny, in a tenderhearted way. In Untitled (Flower Carriers), 2020, for instance, four walking figures carry on their shoulders a single enormous flower stem whose head bends up to present a face staring soberly back at us.
In his paintings on fabric, he tends to work larger (up to 32 by 20 inches) but with concepts that feel slighter. Single words (valentine, eros, stop) are presented with proto-Pop iconicity. A frame is fashioned from a yardstick. His most provocative engagements with painting alter its definition from material object to asserted or shifting condition: he assigns the title Paintings to an accompanying book of photographs depicting signs and windows, and names a blue wall in the gallery—a barely affecting attempt at environmental intervention—Camera painting.
Threading through the show were myriad references to the archetypal artist. In the lower right corner of the marvelous little glazed ceramic panel Painter, Thinker, Creator (The Boats), 2020, an artist stands before his easel, wearing a jaunty hat and simple smile, his brush aloft. His perch above a shoreline affords him a view of cabins, trees, and a curious proliferation of dark brown boats, which defies both spatial and gravitational logic. Whether near or far, the boats range from tiny as a shoe to bulky as a barge, and all of them seem to hover above the lilac-streaked water, in the manner of a vision or visitation. In the painter’s rendition of the scene, two boats, one atop the other, float in indeterminate space—a faithful chronicle of unsettled reality. McNamee-Tweed, like his alter ego here, recognizes no boundary between ordinary and extraordinary. He stages reckonings with the self using several such surrogates, most poignantly in the little clay tablets that analogize mind and memory. Nancy Bedtime (2020), his index-card-size remake of a frame from the classic comic strip “Nancy,” shows the spunky little girl lying in bed, facing her reflection in a propped-up mirror. McNamee-Tweed washes a rusty glaze over the scene, drawn in ballpoint blue. It’s all there, quietly wrenching: time’s patina; precious stillness; Nancy as the artist and, by imaginative extension, as us, at the end of the day, steeped in pensive self-definition.