Casey McKee’s narrative works are a commentary on society and systems of power. His process is a combination of photography and painting. First creating the photograph, then printing it onto a canvas, wood or paper substrate, McKee spends the majority of time working with oil paint to bring out the desired expression in his works. The final work is both a photograph and a painting, at home amidst collections of either discipline.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Casey McKee has spent most of his professional career in Berlin, Germany, where he continues to live and work. His works have been exhibited and collected throughout Europe, the United States and East Asia.
Published on March 31, 2014
The art of Casey McKee is dynamic, spanning an array of subjects, some serious others not, and maintaining degree a levity. He is one of a number of great artist from 5 pieces Gallery whom we are proud to be spotlighting. Check out his interview and take a look at his work!
Introduce yourself, where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. In 2003 I moved to Berlin, Germany because I wanted to experience living abroad. I ended up staying in Berlin for 10 ½ years. Three months ago, I moved to Denver, Colorado where I’m currently living.
Did you go to school or are you self-taught? What have you learned living in different places? What have you learned about yourself recently?
I went to some school, just a few semesters. Otherwise I am self-taught. I built my first darkroom when I was 18 and figured a lot of things out through trial and error. Living in different places causes one to meet and interact with a variety of people who one may not otherwise meet. I learn more from people who I meet and get to know than from the places themselves. But to define what I learned might be too broad a question to answer. I’ve known many different people in each of the places I have lived, and from each person I learned something unique.
You utilize both emulsion and painting, was that a technique you developed yourself? How do the two separate parts of the process speak to you? What does each part of the process add to the image? How do they work together to your benefit?
Yes, my technique of working with paint and photographic emulsion is one I developed myself. Not to say that I am the only person who has ever combined paint with photography, nor even that I am the only one to have combined photographic emulsion with paint, but I have not seen any other work that combines the two in the way that I do. I consider myself a photographer first. I don’t have a background in drawing or painting. For the first several years I produced work that was purely photographic. They were large-scale black and white photographs printed onto varnished wood. At the time, however, almost all of my artist friends were painters and most of my inspiration came from paintings rather than photographs, so I think it was inevitable that paint was going to enter into the process eventually. I began slowly integrating oil paint into the works as I gained a feel for how I wanted the two mediums to merge. I also switched from wood to working primarily on canvas.
I really enjoy my process because each step is very different from the others. My composition and ideas start from the perspective of the camera. That is how I first learned to communicate visually and I have a lot of fun setting up shots and creating the photographs. Because I am working analogue, I enjoy that there is a level of authenticity to the works, that what one is seeing in the final painting did, to some degree, exist and was captured on film. After that I switch to printing in the darkroom, which I also love to do. I paint the photographic emulsion onto my canvas in near darkness, sometimes onto a 2 x 2 meter surface, and cannot know what the result will look like until the very end when I immerse the substrate into developer and watch the image appear. Finally, when I begin painting the works, there are an infinite number of directions in which to take the image with regards to color choice, painting style, what to leave in or paint out, etc.
Besides the process, I also enjoy how the two mediums interact with each other. There is an element of reality to the works because of the presence of the photograph and the photographic detail, but the final works tend to resemble paintings more than photographs. I describe them as neither photographs nor paintings, but something in between with qualities of both.
Men wearing suits fighting each other seems to be a common theme in your work, what does it represent to you? How do the juxtaposition of violence and professional, ‘mature’ dress play out in your mind? What do you hope or presume the viewer will see?
Men wearing suits fighting represents the macho brutality nonsense of the corporate world, as I see it. It’s all about crushing your opponents… Corporate Warfare, Hostile Takeover, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as business leader inspiration. The business suit as a costume speaks volumes… power, success, respectability? … Having them punch each other in the face was a way to actualize the violence in a visual way. With regards to the viewers, I only hope that it makes them think. I try to keep the works somewhat ambivalent, hopefully leaving some space so that the viewer can fill the space with his or her own story, experience or expectations. I would rather someone have their own experience with and interpretation of the work rather than me dictating how they should think. I think that is often the problem with political works, they try too much to tell the viewers ‘this is bad!’, ‘you should feel this way’. I find that patronising and not very engaging. I prefer to use humour and exaggeration to communicate the topics that I am interested in working with.
Would you disagree with the analysis of your work being a depiction of corporate America? Does the outright brutality and violence of your work reflect the subtle and veiled violence done by men and women in expensive suits making business deals to move 12000 jobs from here to there without regard for the people being put out? Or is that an unfair reading?
I think your analysis is fair and spot on, but I wouldn’t limit it to corporate America, though it is the most extreme in the US. I think this corporatism is totally insidious and is a problem in most countries.
How would you describe the perception of our heads of state and corporations through the lens of society at large? Are they regarded positively? Negatively? How do you align or diverge from the depiction? Does it even matter? Should we as a society have a conversation about the men and women who we let run our affairs? And what recourse do we have to address the injustices they commit?
I think that more and more people view our heads of state and corporations far more negatively now than just a few years ago. I think that primarily has come about as a result of the global financial crisis and particularly due to the responses by most governments to it, i.e. the austerity on the masses while the ones responsible continue to get ever larger bonuses without any punishment. I made my first businessman series in 2001, which at the time was more of a personal series, imagining if I had listened to my father and gone into the 9 to 5 world myself instead of pursuing my artwork. After creating that series, I began to look more closely to the business world, which led to me becoming more interested in global economics. When the financial crisis hit in 2008 and it became culturally popular to be critical of the business world, people were surprised that I had been working with the theme already for seven years. But I am quite happy to see movements developing. I think it is a valuable conversation for societies to have, one that I think the Occupy movement did well in inserting into the public debate. As far as what can be done about it, I think the first thing that must be done is to get money out of politics. Before then, not much else will be able to be accomplished. This again applies primarily to the United States, where elections are typically ‘won’ by whoever has the most money. That is one thing that I appreciated about living in Germany, where the elections are short and publicly funded. I felt that the government was more responsive to the will of the people than in the US. Of course, Germany is still far from perfect, but it seemed that the politicians there were not quite so directly bought and beholden to large financial contributors as they are in the States.
Your work changes drastically from 2011 to 2012 to 2013, moving from almost naturalistic depiction of trees and back roads to seaman meets industrial plant to well-dressed men in a boxing ring respectively. What happened in each of those years that was so different for you? What have you learned from each of the series? What has each meant to you?
My work is almost always produced in series because I like to be able to tell a story with a body of work and to create a larger context that one painting alone cannot achieve. Each series is its own short story or idea. While I feel that there is a thread that connects all of the series together, each one is nonetheless its own narrative. So, I wouldn’t say that there was anything specific that happened to make me go from trees to offshore oil platforms, to a nuclear power plant to businessmen fighting. These are each ideas I wanted to explore. I personally have diverse interests and I feel that my artwork should be able to reflect that. I never could understand it when I would see a retrospective of an artist’s 30+ year career where all of the work looks the same. I can admire the focus but I would get very bored with myself.
Do you seek to challenge yourself? To push the boundaries of your capabilities and comfort zones? If so, how? Do you meditate?
I do challenge myself, yes. I create a lot of works that are never seen by anyone, where I can experiment and try things out. Often, when I have an idea for a new series, I have no idea how I will pull it off or if it will work at all. But besides making work, I also play drums which I have done since I was eight years old. That is my form of meditation and is always a good physical as well as creative challenge. My last year in Berlin I played drums in a German noise rock band. That was an incredible challenge that I had a great time with. I recorded an EP with them just before moving back to the States. Now I am working on starting a new music project with my girlfriend here in Denver.
What are you currently working on? What will the 2014 series hold for you?
At the moment, I have a few different ideas for series that I am looking into and creating some sketches for. They are not developed enough to be able to say yet what they will be, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
If you could have one piece from any artist in history, who would it be? And do you know what piece it would be?
That is a difficult question… there are so many. I would probably have to settle for ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ by Diego Velazquez.