There’s Nothing Here for You: 4 A.M. with John(ny) McKee

mckee diptych  

If you’ve been in the Underground of the Harrison Center in the morning hours, you know there’s something beautifully ominous about it, something almost dizzying… I personally think it’s where the century-old building speaks most clearly, both visually, and in audible creeks. I recently found out I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to meet with artist John or (if you prefer) Johnny McKee. We sat down in the Underground, and settled ourselves into the quiet space. Seeing as how I am still a relatively new face in these parts, I had never had a conversation with Johnny. My exposure to what I now know as his calm and thoughtful personality was, up until this point, seen only in his paintings of the Indiana horizons (both of nighttime and daytime) which always seemed to steady me in the dizziness of the Underground.

We sat down in the middle of the big room and I asked him about his upcoming September show in the Harrison Gallery. “I’ve been working on this body of work for about a year and a half now,” he said. “Right now my work is all about reflection and using the sky as a muse, I suppose. It’s always there.” As Johnny was speaking, I saw to my right two pieces of his work proudly displaying horizons of both day, and night. The daytime horizon took me out to the green fields of Indiana, where the sky seems limitless and free, and where the white wisps of clouds dance in the contrast of their white to the sky’s blue. The nighttime horizon, boasting numerous stars, left me calm in its simplicity, but also uneasy in my finitude and in the realization that each tiny white dot was unbounded in its own right.


Johnny explained that the dots (stars) started when he inherited a collection of negatives from photos his grandpa had taken. He started printing them and then circling the mistakes. Eventually he said that he started adding dots to them and from there the dots started taking on a life of their own. Such life, in fact, that painting them has become much more about the process than the end result. “I come in the studio before 4:00 A.M. and this has become a ritual for me. I love getting here before everyone else when the building is silent, and I feel completely by myself in my studio [in the Underground]. It’s very much a time for me to meditate and pray, or whatever that is. I’m not Catholic, but I sort of think what I’m doing is like praying the Rosary.”

Johnny went on, “I’m really interested in quiet work, and not so much in trying to impress people because it’s really more about me, and honestly, I’m a little bit nervous about showing everyone this work because it’s a little soul bearing. I know all artists feel that way to a certain extent, but this has become very personal.” He continued, “I think a lot of artwork reflects the artist’s experiences at the time he or she is making that work. The experience could be whatever music you’re listening to, or whatever is going on at your job. In a sense, you’re representing all of that experience in your work. The whole purchase of art is strange to me for that reason. You’re not just purchasing this painting; you’re purchasing that real experience of that artist represented in his or her creation. That’s what makes me nervous.”

By the same token, this is what excites me the most about Johnny's work.

Johnny McKee's show “There’s Nothing Here for You” opens on Friday, September 5 in the Harrison Gallery.