100 Creatives: David McGee

(This is the first part of our ongoing series profiling 100 Houston-area artists. It's not a best-of-Houston list; it's not in order. It's simply an exploration of the creative impulse--what sparks it; what keeps it going. Check back every Tuesday and Thursday for another edition.)

What he does: David McGee is a painter, and a prolific one at that. The Louisiana-born artist has been the focus of several solo exhibitions, and his work is held in the collections of The Menil Collection; Museum of Fine Arts Houston; Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Addison Gallery; Dallas Museum of Art; and Harvard University Museums.

McGee doesn't like labels, especially being typecast as an African American artist. "My art isn't about the African American experience, it's a study of the human experience," he says. His thought-provoking paintings seek to upend the surface, image-obsessed world we inhabit to arrive at a greater, underlying truth. "If it looks like a duck and swims like a duck--it's a duck," he says. "But suppose we change the symmetry of its environment, perhaps substitute [a] quack for a bark and all other possibilities while maintaining its appearance. Then what?"

David McGee, Isis (2003)
David McGee, Isis (2003)

Why he likes it: "Painting is like method acting; you have to use your heart more than your head." McGee loves the visceral nature of his craft, favoring experience over intellect. He likens the exaggerated manner in which art reflects nature to the punch-drunk sensation of being in love.

David McGee, Conversion of St. Paul (2007)
David McGee, Conversion of St. Paul (2007)

What inspires him: The works of writer, playwright and civil rights activist James Baldwin had a profound impact on the artist growing up. Like McGee, Baldwin loved testing boundaries and resisting labels. One famous example is Giovanni's Room (1956), Baldwin's second novel told entirely from the perspective of white, homosexual men living in Paris, challenging the current opinions that African Americans could only write about the African American experience.

If not this, what else? "If I couldn't paint, I'd be a professional baseball player--but since that didn't work out..."

David McGee, Duchamp (2005). Included in the "Ready Made African" lithograph series at the Menil Collection.
David McGee, Duchamp (2005). Included in the "Ready Made African" lithograph series at the Menil Collection.

His proudest moment: "I've always been a fan of the Menil [Collection]." McGee recalls his first trip to the museum, how even as a child he was able to appreciate the beauty of the space and recognize the unique sensitivity to how art is presented. "To see my art hanging on those walls--I'm very lucky."

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