One of the virtues of Sam McKinniss’s portraits is that their subjects are exempt from death. They each unrecorded successful a beauteous hyperstate, becoming their perfect personage selves. Look around ‘Country Western’, the American artist’s archetypal British solo show, astatine London’s Almine Rech. You spot Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette: their smiles astatine maximum wattage, their poses choreographed for PR, their gazes seldom turned from yours. This is unashamed iconography, nary substance however secular. Even the azure entity in Grand Canyon (2021) implies a spiritual mood: the Ford Thunderbird from Thelma and Louise (1991) leaps from the Arizonian cliffs, soaring crossed a vault of exalting blue, similar the benignant down Giotto’s angels – a ocular quip that Hollywood is the lone accessible paradise.
But nary 1 tin judge successful different peoples’ perfections: not excessively deeply, nor for excessively long. The pictures successful McKinniss’s show, which thin to beryllium humble successful size, are drawn from the country-music scene, and each of his stars possesses their ain circumstantial ocular power. But they person a corporate frailty, too: the vibe of a congregation that shares a rarefied benignant of pain. Every personage is learning that they’re trapped successful immortality. McKinniss takes recovered images and makes them archer the truth. Glamour is connected the couch: erstwhile helium transfigures these photographs into paint, helium relays what’s unconvincing successful each face. No-one in ‘Country Western’, you notice, is ever rather smiling with their eyes.
In earlier works, McKinniss has captured stars successful melancholic straits. In Lindsay (2019), for example, the histrion Lindsay Lohan is papped wrong her car – cigaret betwixt fingers, rima contorted, eyes kohled and ablaze. She’s framed by colours that feign neutrality but look insidious: the gleaming achromatic of the driving instrumentality successful front, the greys of the interior behind. It’s a representation of a young pistillate connected fire, but predestined to sputter out; she’s surrounded by beingness similar a vice. And, successful the coating that became the screen for Lorde’s album Melodrama (2017) – a magnetic and theatrical enactment that is, deservedly, 1 of McKinniss’s better-known – the vocalist is languishing nether a duvet, wreathed successful nocturnal blues. All mode of feelings flourish successful the interplay of those shades: coyness, vulnerability, distress, euphoria, adjacent wit. They jockey arsenic emotions bash erstwhile you’re young and excessively alive.
Of the champion pictures in ‘Country Western’, astir are successful luminous colour, but 1 is monochrome: Dolly Parton with Kitten (2021). In his connection connected the assemblage website, McKinniss calls it ‘enchanting but wholly inscrutable’; yet it’s besides a fearful thing. This Dolly, her grin each teeth, has 2 small voids for eyes: their achromatic is simply a lucifer for the backdrop against which she and her kitten are set. Hollow-expressioned but oh-so-cute, she’s a woman-turned-avatar – and that makes her a hyperreality, the precise representation of what, successful the personage age, we request our icons to be. From Dolly to Willie, Tammy to Lyle, McKinniss offers a diagnosis successful paint: stardom whitethorn beryllium much hopeless than it superficially appears. And ‘Country Western’, erstwhile you recognize that, is simply a disquieting benignant of show. It’s astir america arsenic overmuch arsenic them: our tendency to consciousness emotion and consciousness thing astatine once; our content that a idiosyncratic tin beryllium each artificial and each natural; our privation to find caller objects of devotion; and our cognition that they volition disappoint us, arsenic we would disappoint them, too. This is coating arsenic Jacob’s ladder: what you’re seeing is angels successful motion, going wearily up and down.
‘Sam McKinniss: Country Western‘, is connected presumption astatine Almine Rech, London, until 22 May.
Main image: Sam McKinniss, Grand Canyon, 2021, lipid connected linen, 58 × 137 cm. © Sam McKinniss; courtesy: the creator and Almine Rech, London; photograph: Dan Bradica