Portraits of an Artist: How artist Danielle Mckinney, now with an Aspen show, discovered she was a painter during pandemic

Danielle Mckinney, “Reading Room,” 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery.

What: Danielle Mckinney, ‘Midnight Oil’

Where: Marianne Boesky Gallery

When: Through July 25

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Danielle Mckinney had the kind of creative breakthrough that most people only dreamed of during the pandemic.

The New Jersey-based artist dipped her toe into the waters of a new medium and discovered a deep and rich new body of work as a painter, reimagining portraiture and oil painting for the Instagram age.

A collection of her new paintings, “Midnight Oil,” is up at Marianne Boesky Gallery in Aspen through July 25. It marks Mckinney’s first show with Boesky but also her third major solo painting exhibition of 2021.

Until the pandemic, Mckinney was best known as a photographer. She’d always painted as well, but had not exhibited the work.

“I wasn’t able really to photograph during the pandemic, because my work was really about sociology and observation,” she recalled in a phone interview from Jersey City. “I wasn’t able to do that in the streets of New York because it was empty. So painting really was my saving grace.”

So during the grim stretch of 2020 stay-home periods in the New York area, Mckinney found herself painting.

“It was just my place to feel productive and I went hardcore into it,” she recalled.

The works developed into profound, transfixing new entries in the long history of portraiture. Mckinney found herself creating mostly solitary figures, Black women posed in everyday ritual acts like smoking, reading, eating, napping. In their postures and expressions, Mckinney found ways to craft narratives about these characters and their lives.

Mckinney began sharing on Instagram, where they started circulating widely, and she began reaching out to galleries. After a virtual studio visit with Night Gallery in Los Angeles, the gallery signed her up for what would become “Smoke and Mirrors,” which ran in May and June. Then she landed a springtime show at the Fortnight Institute in New York.

Danielle Mckinney, “Blue Room,” 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery.

“The more I paint, the stronger the females become, the more I trust the work, the more I feel confident to put all of these feelings and emotions into the paintings,” Mckinney explained. “They have become stronger over time.”

She draws inspiration from vintage photos posted on Pinterest and Instagram and she finds old photo archives, she said, careful not to duplicate images there but to draw on their mood and imagery.

“If I use a photographic image I’m trying to deconstruct it in a way that maybe you wouldn’t see the original image,” Mckinney explained.

She has been fascinated by archival photos from the 1960s and ’70s especially, studying how bodies were framed and seen in the pre-social media age.

Danielle Mckinney’s exhibition “Midnight Oil” will be on view through July 25 at Marianne Boesky Gallery. Ian David Edquist

“The female portraiture [from then] is not so saturated with sexual imagery, it’s not about selling something,” she said. “It’s really about the gaze, the atmosphere, about pulling the subject into the photograph where they can create a narrative.”

For the Aspen show, Boesky reached out for a studio visit this past winter, saw some of the work that was headed to her springtime solo exhibition at the Fortnight Institute and asked her to make new work for an Aspen show.

“So I worked with her over the past couple of months to develop a series and ideas,” Mckinney said.

Among these three shows, Mckinney has now exhibited some 60 paintings in this still-young and still-developing body of work.

Danielle Mckinney’s exhibition “Midnight Oil” will be on view through July 25 at Marianne Boesky Gallery. Ian David Edquist

Though she’s found a rich vein in painting, she has clung to some classic photographic techniques. In darkroom development style, she paints her canvases completely black at the outset. Then she slowly develops her portrait out of that darkness as if it’s an image emerging on film from darkroom chemicals.

“The first thing I’ll build is her, then I’ll build the atmosphere,” she said. “Then this figure emerges with the developer, then you add the fixer and it brings out the interior space. … It has remnants, to me, process-wise, to what I felt in the darkroom.”

She’s often ended by adding details, like a subject’s fingernails or a cigarette between fingertips, before calling it done.

Due to have a baby in early August, Mckinney has not been able to see the Aspen exhibition in person. Looking ahead at her life as a mother and painter, Mckinney is content to leave photography in her pre-pandemic past.

“I get anxiety when I think about going back on the streets to wait for a moment to happen,” she explained. “Just waiting, constantly hunting. That can be exhausting. … I don’t want to go back to photography. When I’m painting it’s a very relaxing release for me. I don’t think I’ll go back to what I was doing before.”