What does rest look like for Black women? Danielle Mckinney’s Metamorphic at Night Gallery in Los Angeles addressed this question with an arresting sense of empathy. The collection of sixteen new oil portraits demonstrates the liminal space between rest and action. As Mckinney’s first foray into oil from acrylic, the paint is a vehicle to capture the feeling of impending movement. Just as acrylic paints are transformed by interacting with their surrounding colors, Mckinney’s subjects are a product of their environments with potential for transfiguration.
Awakened through the artist’s lively brushstrokes then grounded by her earthy color palette, these solitary subjects hold a quiet dynamism. They’re caught in the moments before action. Rest, Mckinney poses, is a form of rebirth, necessary for the beauty and vitality of metamorphosis to be realized.
Comforter (2023) was the first work I saw upon entering. This piece signifies the beginning of the metamorphosis, introducing the exhibition’s main themes: intimacy, intrusion, privacy, transformation, and rest. Startlingly intimate, this introductory figure is half-hidden, a motif that persists in many of the following paintings. Mckinney obscures her subjects’ faces in most of the work present in the gallery through mundane gestures–hand over the face, a teacup positioned just so, or a knee pulled up to the chest. These protective gestures are a form of cocooning, as an insect does to create space for metamorphosis.
Comforter depicts a figure, eyes closed, enveloped in their comforter. Though the colors suggest white sheets, there is very little whiteness apparent in the strokes. With its lighter hues, Comforter adds brightness to a series that reads as dark.
Brightness here is separate from whiteness. Comforter uses broad strokes of grays and beiges to submerge the figure in a sea of color, decentering whiteness in the palette and as a power structure. Mckinney’s work is known for its play with shadow and light to create strikingly emotional tableaus that disturb cultural narratives of Black women as service providers or receptors of the emotional needs of others (think: Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863). Instead, Blackness, rendered in a sea of rich hues, is generative, rather than a source of contrast and otherness. Deep, dark browns, greens, and navy are used throughout this series. Using a natural color palette, Mckinney contrasts the earthy shades with the existentialism of her subjects, which is showcased by their pensive postures and averted gazes. In this and all the portraits, the focus is on colors that reflect the dark skin tones of the subjects. By representing the complexity in darker shades and centering their beauty, Mckinney subverts Western beauty standards and creates, in these safe spaces, a theater to celebrate the private beauty of Black women staged in the private spaces they inhabit.
Stand Still (2023) in particular illustrates this juxtaposition. Behind her, the ubiquitous Matisse figure is almost opposite to her own posture—while the color in its background is identical to the color behind Mckinney’s subject. Staging both figures on the same background in reversed poses contrasts Matisse’s idea of womanhood and beauty with Mckinney’s. While the Matisse figure is devoid of personhood, Mckinney’s is alive with movement.
The intimate perspective combined with the themes of rest recalls the work of formative African American artist Betye Saar, who often painted scenes framed by windows. “I am intrigued with combining the remnants of memories, fragments of relics, and ordinary objects, with the components of technology. It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously. The art itself becomes the bridge,” says Saar of her own work. In the same way, Mckinney transforms familiar spaces using perspective and blurring the lines between public and private. Her metamorphoses rely on the push and pull between the subjects and the audience.
This constant state of transformation is most apparent in Shelter (2023), encapsulating the series as a whole. The angelic subject, haloed in a golden brown, bathed in bright, brown light, and draped in a coat that resembles the blanket in Comforter. She is neither facing us nor facing away. Her hand is open, accepting. And instead of a cigarette between her fingertips, a monarch butterfly.
Days after viewing the exhibition, I remembered these women as I imitated their quotidian gestures. The elevation of the mundane is empowering, which led me to wonder: what if Black women were just allowed to be? On our own terms, in our own timing, what would we transform into?