Kevin McNamee-Tweed’s Objects of Amazement

Kevin McNamee-Tweed, “Kiln Interior” (2023), glazed ceramic, 8.25 x 6.75 inches (all images courtesy Dutton)

I first learned about Kevin McNamee-Tweed from the poet Bradley King, who told me they both admired Joe Brainard’s art and writing. Shortly afterward, I received the monograph Kevin McNamee-Tweed: Ceramic Paintings (2020) from the dealer Steve Turner in Los Angeles. It includes an essay by the painter John Dilg, who was McNamee-Tweed’s professor at the University of Iowa and whose work I have written about a number of times. Although they have little in common stylistically, both artists are tonal colorists who share a love for celadon green. Both combine imagination, memory, and observation with their appreciation of the American vernacular, and work in their respective mediums on a modest scale, shunning the post-easel model associated with modern and contemporary painting in New York and Los Angeles.

For years, artists working on this small scale have not been seen as ambitious — a prejudice that still persists in some quarters. By stepping away from that narrow sense of history, artists as varied as Brainard, Dilg, Lois Dodd, Thomas Nozkowski, and Richard Mayhew pursued idiosyncratic trajectories. It is in this distinguished company that McNamee-Tweed belongs, and why I went to see the exhibition Kevin McNamee-Tweed: Pilcrow at Dutton.

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The 113 works in the exhibition can be roughly divided between irregular rectangular glazed ceramic slabs that are mounted on the wall and bowls, cups, and vases. The largest ceramic slab is less than eight by seven inches while many of the objects are around two or three inches tall or less than five inches in diameter. 

All the glazed ceramic slabs are pictorial. While it is possible to tease out various groupings, such as still lifes or nature, doing so denies the pleasure of seeing all the different kinds of images the artist comes up with. Here, I think, the comparison to Brainard feels accurate. McNamee-Tweed seems to draw inspiration from many sources. More importantly, he transforms the source material or inspiration into something that stands on its own, which is not that different from Brainard, who synthesizes his collage material in fresh and surprising ways that supersede their sources. Viewing McNamee-Tweed’s work, I could never recognize the source and I never cared. Rather, I became immersed in enjoying the seamless combination of craftsmanship with offbeat humor, homages, and imagined situations. The fecundity of the artist’s imagination is a pleasure in itself. Every piece is unique; he cares little for stylistic unity. There are no signature pieces.

Installation view of Kevin McNamee-Tweed: Pilcrow at Dutton, New York

Using a sharp instrument, McNamee-Tweed incises a drawing into the clay. Through paint and glazes, he arrives at an image composed of multiple colors and clearly defined areas. Disinterested in the kind of perfection associated with factory-produced ceramic tiles and vases, a number of the works have a speckled surface, like an adolescent with blackheads, which, paradoxically, adds to their charm.

Beneath the row of ceramic tiles, which winds around the length of the gallery, are low, unfinished wood benches holding the artist’s cups, bowls, and plates. He wants viewers to consider the physical texture and material weight of the objects, and to bend down and look more carefully. The dark, unpainted wood compels a close look, as many of the objects are earth colored and almost blend in at first glance.

In “Frog Hop” (2023), a dark green frog with a large, white oval belly is set against a mustard-yellow background. Standing on its bent back legs, its holds its front legs in the air. This comes across as a gesture of human resignation, contradicted by the slight smile and large eyes. As pictorially simple, straightforward, and lighthearted as “Frog Hop” seemingly is, more is going on than meets the eye. This is why I want to look again. 

In  “Cherub with Writer’s Block” (2023), McNamee-Tweed reinvents the classic pose of Auguste Rodin’s large bronze sculpture “The Thinker” (1904) — a seated, muscular nude man with his hand on his chin, in deep contemplation. Facing forward and wearing a white toga, the cherub presses its right hand against the side of its face and rests its left arm on an empty sheet of paper. A cherub who is a writer — the sweet absurdity of the situation is one of the many places of self-reflection on the part of the artist to which the work transports me. Why would a cherub — a figure not known for being self-conscious — get writer’s block?

Kevin McNamee-Tweed, “Lemon Tree” (2023), glazed ceramic, 6.5 x 7.25 inches

While gentle absurdity recurs in McNamee-Tweed’s work, this does not preclude pathos and enigmas. In “Lemon Tree” and its smaller twin, “Lemon on the Tree (Looking)” (2023), we see part of the brown lemon tree along the right edge. Near the middle is the lemon, extending out from a short branch, like an eye; within it is an eye — a large white cornea with a black pupil. In the large work, a long white drip falls from the cornea. What is this fluid that is not a tear? In the small work, the lemon-eye looks at us. 

These two works are in dialogue with Odilon Redon’s “Eye-Balloon” (Œil-ballon) (1878), a charcoal drawing of an eye-like hot air balloon rising above a marshy field, with a severed head on a plate in place of the gondola. The eye looks upward at the infinite. McNamee-Tweed’s lemon-eye looks at the viewer, a yellow orb against a blue sky. Both artists’ images are enigmatic, but in the latter case we have no sense of what it seeks. Redon wrote of his work: 

My originality consists in bringing to life, in a human way, improbable beings and making them live according to the laws of probability, by putting — as far as possible — the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.

McNamee-Tweed expands on Redon’s ambitions, but moves away from his portentousness. His work is more cheerful, though no less serious. Working on clay sheets, he makes paintings and cups and bowls we are unlikely to use as their miniature scale seems more fitting for Alice in Wonderland. What is most satisfying about his work is that he has not lost his sense of wonderment. 

Kevin McNamee-Tweed, “Long Rain” (2023), glazed ceramic, 3 x 3 inches

Kevin McNamee-Tweed: Pilcrow continues at Dutton (127 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 2. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.


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