This too may pass, but let it be said that “outrageous” is currently one of Mission District artist Keegan McHargue’s favorite descriptors — applied with equal enthusiasm to the thugs who smoke blunts down the street, his waxy-eyed portrait by Japanese artist Enlightment, Heavy Metal Parking Lot sequel Neil Diamond Parking Lot, and a new art book with a cover font composed of turds — and one that could easily apply to the refreshingly direct, boyish painter himself. Not many young artists are in the position to tell national television to take a cold shower in a couple hot minutes, but that’s just where McHargue is: he isn’t your archetypal stylist-damaged celebutante or attention-ravenous art star. The 2004 Goldies winner — last sighted at that award’s soiree shaking his sharp, narrow suit on the dance floor alongside beat legend Bruce Conner and hip-hop crew Sistaz of the Underground — warily considered this interview and then consented.
“Seriously, it’s crazy. Recently, all sorts of different people have been interested in me for different reasons. It’s pretty strange,” he marvels, leaning back in front of a recent large acrylic ready to be packed off to New York, where it will be exhibited in “Control Group,” McHargue’s solo show at Metro Pictures opening Sept. 21. CBS Sunday Morning was one such caller. “But I just said, ‘Fuck you.’ Kinda. I told ’em straight up, ‘I was, like, y’know, really flattered, but I don’t know if your demographic is exactly who I even want to know who I am.’
“If I’m doing that, I’m probably doing something wrong!”
It may sound like the arrogance of youth on line one — who wants to cater to the crowd who’s even up on Sunday morning? Yet it’s gotten to the point where Devendra Banhart (who described McHargue as his “favorite living artist”), Interview, and even Spin have lined up to lavish praise on the 24-year-old artist, with the last naming him one of the top 25 hottest people under 25, beating out Nicole Richie. “Outrageous!” exclaims McHargue. “Seriously, I swear to god. I don’t know what the general consensus is. It’s weird. It’s strange. I’m just a normal person who makes artwork and just happens to be an artist for a living.”
Perhaps this miniature media frenzy is linked to the fact that the self-taught McHargue is so young and makes such intriguing, increasingly exploratory work: paintings and drawings that swing between clean, Byzantine sophistication and fresh, obsessive energy, bright pop abstraction and darkly foreshadowed storytelling. His latest extravagantly hued, sprawling acrylics — a new series that differs from those in McHargue’s “Air above Mountains” show (named after a Cecil Taylor free-jazz disc) at Galerie Emmanuel Perriton in Paris earlier this year — revolve around true crime and headline news narratives populated by murderous mothers, power plants, dozing or dead kittens, and sinuous streams of toxic runoff. Picture the Yellow Submarine adrift beneath a mushroom-clouded sky.
As ripe and exciting as this week’s tabloids and likely less perishable, the canvases reflect McHargue’s latest ideas and techniques. “I’m just basically trying to constantly be expanding the scope of my practice or something,” he says, puttering around the tidy studios in the top-floor flat he shares with another artist — this despite the fact that his works have landed in such collections as the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. “I guess the long and short of it is now I’ve got tons of time on my hands and all I have to do is make art, so the bottom line is to just continue making better and better pieces.”
Psychedelic is almost too easy an adjective for his enigmatic imagery, the natural product of a childhood steeped in art, courtesy of his watercolorist mother. “That would make me instinctively want to change what I was doing,” says McHargue, who moved to San Francisco from his native Portland, Ore., five years ago. “I understand that people want to belong to cliques. But that’s not where my head’s at right now. I would just like to make some paintings that are insane to look at. Just hurt some people’s brains a little bit.”
Small pieces by Barry McGee, Will Yackulic, and others are clustered on the mantel above a Roland SP808, a drum machine, and an iPod emanating keening noise collaborations between McHargue and fellow artist Ry Fyan — the work of what McHargue describes as a Whitehouse tribute band. Some of the music will probably be released later this year by Tarentel’s Jef Cantu, along with a Japanese book surveying his work. “I’m just a hardcore music fanatic all across the board,” the artist explains. “Luckily, I live close to Aquarius, and I collect records too. That’s where I get inspiration for the work, from listening to music. It’s really, really important to me.”
And it’s an increasingly necessary hobby — preferable, he cracks wise, to “photography or yachting.” After working almost continuously for more than a year on consecutive gallery shows and finding himself on a rotating exhibition schedule stretching to 2012 (2007 will see shows at Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco and Hiromi Yoshi Gallery in Tokyo), McHargue is hoping to take it easy at last — following the “Control Group” opening and his partner Tauba Auerbach’s October show at Deitch Projects — and spend his autumn months in New York City. “It’s like all of a sudden I’m totally grown up and doing this all the time,” he says. “I need to cool out. Between now and the fall, I’m just going to kick it.” SFBG