Nostalgic Conversations: Johnny McKee

Art has a way of blurring the lines between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the distinctions between the artist’s personal experience and that of the onlooker. Two new exhibits at the Harrison Center explore these themes in their own ways. Johnny McKee’s show “No Place” at the City Gallery is nostalgic on a city-sized scale. He began his pieces by painting a panel black, and then using sandpaper to reveal “negative space to reveal positive shapes.” The result: scenes of Indianapolis “vague enough to allow a bit of mystery,” in Johnny’s words. At first glance, there is certainly something dark, maybe a tad gloomy about the pervasiveness of black in these works, the way the buildings are shrouded in some sort of all-pervasive shadow.

But Johnny suggests another way of viewing them that I think explains the feel of the paintings best: “They’re almost memories, or like images from dreams.” Like the fogginess of a dream or the imprecision of a memory, these renderings of recognizable Indianapolis buildings render visible the act of recollecting the everyday. By avoiding his own exclusive version of these scenes, Johnny allows for the mystery of their familiarity to each viewer. And yet, a number of his subjects are personal. He put it this way:

“I was looking for… a structure or building that I had a personal story that tied in. I did not want to depict a building just because it is part of an interesting view, or a popular Indianapolis landmark, but maybe a building that I once worked in (Midland, the Murphy Building) or a structure that represented a specific, personal memory (the Monon trail over the White River).”


Capitol Building

Johnny also sought subjects that were visually interesting, as well as famous structures or landmarks particular to certain areas of the city like the Soldiers and Sailors Monument or the Steam Plant near Victory Field. All in all, these “glimpses of Indianapolis” provide “bits of information” for each viewer to “finish the ‘story’ based on their own experience.”