Sam McKinniss: Country Western | Almine Rech

It’s hard to think of a more universally loved celebrity than Dolly Parton. Not an original observation - there was a whole podcast about it a year or so back. Adulation for the country superstar has hit new heights, as if it were possible, over recent months when it emerged she’d helped fund the Moderna vaccine.

The job of the artist is to mess with the narrative. So when the very talented and original painter Sam McKinniss picked up on this latest wave of adulation, he felt… fear. “It seems like the entire planet loves Parton, which terrifies me,” he said, in the show notes accompanying his exhibition at Almine Rech, which features two Dolly paintings. “Parton is show business personified, however, showmanship at its most successful, pure, and opaque… Face as the front of shop. Parton’s teeth look bulletproof to me.”

sam mckinniss ‘dolly parton with kitten’ Dolly Parton with Kitten (2021)

McKinniss is famous for his paintings of celebrities, based on Google image searches. He does strange and compelling things with this source material. His Dolly Parton with Kitten is a good example. It’s as flat as a Byzantine icon, and about as human. Dolly’s eyes have the same deep black as the painted background. Looking closer, there are the merest accents of Francis Bacon orangey-red, ringing her bulletproof teeth and fingers, and the jaw of the (frightened-looking?) kitten. Dripping down the sides of the canvas, a shocking pink.

“Most pictures of her, including the painting I made of this one image in particular, are enchanting but completely inscrutable,” McKinniss adds. Later in the show, there’s another Parton-painting, this time of the diva in her 80s shoulder-padded heyday. Her painted nails, on the end of her claw hands, are deep red for danger.

sam mckinniss ’nashville’ Nashville (2021)

Along with some other blank-faced portraits of country stars - Shania Twain, Lyle Lovett - McKinniss is showing a few landscapes. These share the same flatness of the portraits, and I’d bet they’re painted from online image searches too. I loved Nashville, a painting of a photo of the same town that Dolly went to to make her fortune as a teenager. But there are no signs of country music, or even much culture at all, in McKinniss’ scene of chunky, bland skyscrapers. Each of the square windows on these square buildings, picked out with an electric light, are as featureless as a tooth veneer.

Car headlights are picked out in wide roads towards the foreground. One - perhaps mirrored - skyscraper is highlighted in red, the same red of Parton’s fingernails, as if reflecting a hellish sunset. What a scene!

In a recent interview, McKinniss flagged 19th century impressionist (and noted dreamboat) Henri Fantin-Latour as a major influence. He’s most famous for his flower paintings, but he was also a noted portraitist, and ended his career making mystical scenes under the Romantic influence of Richard Wagner. The unifying quality of the two painters? According to McKinniss, it’s strangeness.

“The longer I look at [Fantin-Latour’s] paintings, the stranger they look," McKinniss said. “They care not for specific dogma or a prescribed point of view or approach. I think they’re extremely intelligent paintings, endowed with an innate intelligence and sensitivity that has nothing to prove.”

It’s not too much of a stretch to endow McKinniss’ portraits with such carefree intelligence, though, then again, perhaps these qualities are imported from the (beloved) celebrities he portrays. As the artist himself has said: “I’m a good copyist. I like mimesis as a post-modern attitude toward imagery and image-making.”

Sam McKinniss: Country Western is at Almine Rech (London). 15 April - 22 May 2021