Artist Interview: Tom Mckinley

Words by Jody Hume | 7.20.14

Bay Area-based artist Tom McKinley’s works are like love letters to all things mid-century modern. Minimal, clean-lined houses with windows for walls are perched atop hills (one gets the feeling they’re in Los Angeles), with pools and palm trees in their perfectly manicured courtyards. It’s dusk or twilight. You’re able to peer in, voyeuristically, to the homes lit from within where you can see iconic art and instantly recognizable furniture. No humans are present. We caught up with McKinley recently when he stopped by our San Francisco office. Read on to find out about his process, his unlikely dream home and why dusk offers the most compelling lighting.

Tom McKinley Tom McKinley

What is your process like? Are the structures and scenes you paint real or imagined? Do you start from a photo?
It’s always an amalgam of fabrication and some photo references. Sometimes I use the bones of a photo but change elements and usually change a lot of the landscape. Dusk offers a lot of wiggle room because so much is in silhouette.

What draws you to painting architecture?
My elementary school was in the middle of a new neighborhood where many of the houses being built were high quality mid-century with the corresponding furniture added at move in. Several years of observing this at a young age influenced my interest in domestic architecture. Much more interesting than what was going on on the blackboard. I wanted to do nothing more than to become an architect. Obviously that didn’t end up happening so I transferred it all to painting.

These clean-lined geometric houses are what many would consider their ideal house. Are they your dream houses?
Not exactly. My dream house would be rural, very minimal, have a fair amount of wood in the interior and be able to be sprayed down with a garden hose. Probably no art. The older I get the fewer objects I desire.

Tom McKinley

It’s almost as if you are not only painting, you are also interior designing. There are so many icons of art and design painted within your pieces — paintings by Ed Ruscha, Warhol and Ellsworth Kelly, Barcelona chairs, Arne Jacobsen chairs, Calder mobiles, Knoll couches. What compels you to include these and how do you choose the iconic artworks and recognizable designs you showcase in your paintings?
I have always been interested in interiors but like architects, I like rooms empty. Non-architects like furniture and art  – so like staging a house to sell, I furnish the houses with popular furniture and select primarily blue chip art because it’s the most desirable and coveted.

The scenes in your work are often set at dusk or twilight. What makes you keep coming back to this lighting?
It’s the most seductive time of day for several reasons. Post-sunset offers me the opportunity to use artificial lighting that can be very dramatic. Daylight reveals everything and there is little mystery unless there are very deep shadows. Before the advent of gas and then electricity, sunset was when the world became dangerous for humans throughout our history. We still have a subconscious memory of this and so dusk is a poignant time for us. It’s also when most people begin to unwind and relax in the modern era. On that note I’ve started to do paintings that are day lit. I’ve tired of the dusk palette but I’m sure I’ll return some day. I am always attracted to images of that time of day.

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