Kelly McKernan‘s latest series of hybrid photo/paintings contain white butterflies, white patterns that could either be snowflakes or doily placemats, single white feathers frozen in midair, white birds that might be doves, and flowers that might be magnolias, but aren’t. I don’t bring up the color white to criticize the artist’s palette; McKernan’s hues are among the sharpest weapons in her arsenal. But I do mean to highlight the symbolism in Fight or Flight at Beep Beep Gallery (recently extended through this Sunday, May 9), an exhibition meant to engage our basic human urge to run away from life’s challenges or, bravely, to meet them head on. The show’s overly simplistic imagery suggests neither fight nor flight, but rather an artist who’s stuck in between and still doesn’t know what it is she wants to say.
Still, McKernan’s paintings are surprisingly vibrant in person. Her watercolors wax the fullness of summer orange or olive green, yet always recede under noticeable restraint. Compositions like Foreshadowing know how to keep their cool, never stepping outside the schema of rainwater gray and Van Dyke brown—the color predetermined for every work in Fight or Flight due to McKernan’s choice of photographic process. Touches of gold leaf vaguely recall the saintly glow of Byzantine icons; bodily themes, though halfheartedly developed, carry inklings of Frida Kahlo; and meticulous curvilinear lines show an obvious reverence for Aubrey Beardsley and all things Art Nouveau.
The series depicts nine women in various stages of indecision: standing, sitting, crouching in fetal position, walking, and tiptoeing away from authority, or in pursuit of a scurrying band of sweet little mice. (Each figure is a photograph of a former classmate incorporated into the painted scene.) The models are wistful, shyly turning their faces away. There’s something about girls today and long bangs—we can’t see their eyes. With the exception of only two, McKernan hides their vision behind shadows and dangling swooshes of hair. Maybe the mice can see for you?
And all this from an artist who’s becoming something of a micro celebrity in the Atlanta scene. A 2009 graduate of Kennesaw State University, McKernan has already exhibited as far as Los Angeles and Baltimore. She’s a prolific worker and knows a thing or two about design and tasteful promotion. This online gallery, for example, documents her artist statement and nearly every work in the show. As her name continues to populate across cyberspace, friends and strangers cheer and give her love virtually every day.
But gratuitous design elements are still gratuitous, and empty symbolism is still empty. The artist was tremendously candid to admit over the phone that she didn’t have many reasons for the motifs she chose, and I thanked her. Creative breakthroughs require a commitment to something—anything. That’s what will make us really cheer.