Judy Kensley McKie and Todd McKie

A Marriage of True Minds
At the Rose Art Museum, June, 1990.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, June 1990)

Todd McKie is an abstract painter and Judy Kensley McKie makes furniture, but both are artists who transform the terms that define them. Todd McKie brings unexpected qualities of narrative, humor, and irony to abstract art; Judy McKie brings the static forms of furniture to life with wonderful carvings of animals and birds.

Both Judy and Todd McKie were born in 1944. They met while studying painting at Rhode Island School of Design; after art school, they got married. In their early years as struggling painters, they shared a small studio, and in 1969, they painted  banners with the signs of the Zodiac for Woodstock, which people pulled down to use as tents and blankets in the rain.

The McKies support and admire each other’s work, but for many years they have had separate studios, and they never work collaboratively anymore. They now spend half of each year in New Mexico.

Judy McKie began making furniture in the early 70s to furnish their apartment. One day she impulsively carved two crouching figures into the arms of a butcherblock couch. Since then, she has carved leopards, lions, dogs, lizards, and birds into tables, couches, chests, and beds. Many of Judy’s pieces feature animals working together in harmony. The thick glass top of her Proud Dogs Table is supported by two ebonized cherry dogs with long, straight backs and elegant necks. The panthers of her bronze Panther Table crouch and hold the table between their teeth. The back of her bleached mahogany Leopard Couch is two leopards, face to face; the pure curves of their tails curl into armrests.

The animals that Judy carves have a powerful sculptural presence, and they convey the physical intelligence and mysterious otherness of real beasts. Her animals remind me of Wittgenstein’s phrase from Philosophical Investigations, “If lions could talk, we could not understand them.”

Todd McKie’s work is witty, and like all good wit, it has an edge. In Crime and Punishment, the sentence “I will not make fun of Conceptual Art” is repeated many times in white on black, as if scrawled on a blackboard.

His watercolor paintings simultaneously spoof and respect the conventions of abstract art. They work as formalist compositions — smooth-edged biomorphic shapes dividing the picture plane in colors that deepen and fade; but those abstract shapes behave like characters in a contemporary novel. They fall in and out of love, argue, sulk, look at pictures, eat dinner, and talk about art. “I’m an abstract artist, but I’ve never made just abstract art,” says Todd.

We like to look at the same stuffMore than sharing an aesthetic, we like the same sources,” says Todd. “We respond to the same things,” says Judy.

This double show of the two artists affords many pleasures, including the McKies themselves. It’s beautiful, in this day and age, to see a marriage in which love and work come together so completely. Theirs always makes me think of  Shakespeare’s phrase:

“the marriage of true minds”

bu also Rainer Maria Rilke’s:

“Love consists in this:  two solitudes that protect and touch and greet each other.”

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com


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