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KEEGAN MCHARGUE

Drawing circles is the secret to a new visual language

by Monty Dipietro

It is exceedingly rare for a contemporary art show to sell out at the opening reception, and especially so in Japan. It is rarer still to arrive at a vernissage to discover that the show has sold out even before it opened. But that was the case with the Keegan McHargue exhibition that debuted at the Hiromi Yoshii Gallery in Roppongi last week.

Titled “Drawing Circles,” the show comprises 10 McHargue works on paper, and every last one of them had a red dot beside it at 7 p.m. when the doors swung open. Gallery owner Hiromi Yoshii attributes the success to his knack for picking edgy artists, part of a philosophy which sees him focusing on post-9/11 art:

“I show artists from after 9/11,” he says, “people doing the most original things, that is, things from after the reality of 9/11, which I believe is a universal point of division. In the ’90s, artists addressed their private lives, but now they are looking outside, for universals, and that is the sort of artist I am looking for.”

But selling out shows is nothing new for McHargue — an unassuming 22-year-old wunderkind whose rise to fame began just two years ago and shows no sign of abating.

“The sudden success happened because of a few generous people who had the weight, and lent me a hand,” says San Francisco-based McHargue. “I didn’t even know what to expect when I Fed Ex’d my work to New York for my first exhibition, but then I got there and there was a Village Voice article and a sold out show! It was unheard of, but the art market at the time was pretty swollen.”

McHargue’s work here, mostly either graphite or guache on paper, weaves lines, figures and symbols into a codified language and proceeds to tells us stories.

It is clear speaking with the artist that when he starts a work, he does so knowing not where it is going, unsure what the story will be. I think that is where the appeal of McHargue’s work originates — in the childlike joy of the uncertainty of a journey, a journey McHargue has unbridled confidence in. And why not — he hasn’t hit any bumps yet.

In “Ease of Extraction” (2005) we see a woman with an Egyptian cat face, lying on a table undergoing surgery in which, Keegan explains, “something is being removed.” The extraction is being performed by a conical device, connected to what appear to be vacuum tubes, these in turn wired up to and possibly powered by candles. Nearby we find what might be a rocket ship, or is it a silo — along with a series of geometric forms. Above is a dark field, penciled on in a rough, violent manner. Something unsettling is going on here, yet the woman appears calm.

Across the gallery hangs “Pivotal Moment” (2005), which sees a carefully detailed dog-boy and a knight stand before a disjointed high-rise, executed in high-key colors. “They are beings dressed in futuristic outfits getting ready to go on a journey to the most futuristic city I could imagine,” says McHargue. I ask about the smoke spewing from the top of the high rise, surely in the future, buildings won’t have such emissions? McHargue doesn’t miss a beat: “It is not a very good future.”

Every piece in the show began with a circle and evolved from there. In the visions McHargue creates, we find no comic-book sensibilities, no inside jokes, nothing that is dated. What frequently do appear are lines worked into patterns; spiritual motifs coalescing with organic forms; and humanoid figures delivered to unexpected places where unexpected things happen to them. Journeys, and that universality Yoshii speaks of, are undertaken with a youthfulness free from immaturity — and all from the center of a circle.

“There are people who stay on the outside and do all sorts of things, and there are people who get into the center and work there continuously,” says McHargue. “I think both places are equally vast, if you understand the limitlessness of the human mind. Then it’s just your brain and a piece of paper and your hand in the middle. By working it and working it, it spirals into a topographical mental inventory of what I am thinking, of what I am doing.”