Review of Danielle Mckinney: Quiet Storm

Installation view of “Danielle Mckinney: Quiet Storm” at Marianne Boesky Gallery. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

Exhibition under review

“Danielle Mckinney: Quiet Storm”
Marianne Boesky Gallery
509 West 24 Street, New York
4 April-4 May 2024

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One woman looks mischievous, another imperious, while yet another withholds her gaze. Several women hold long cigarettes between their fingers. Others romp on beds and recline on couches. Some are naked, others wear robes or sheets. Depicted alone in each frame, they are caught in the middle of play, rest, or relaxation. With their small size and muted colors, Danielle Mckinney’s portraits of Black women are, as the title of the show that ran last month at Marianne Boesky Gallery suggests, a Quiet Storm. And yet these scenes of interiority invite dialogue: Mckinney trusts the viewer to hold these women—and their tenderness. 

In Memoir (2023), a woman rests on the bed. Her head is angled toward the viewer, her eyes are closed, and her hand is curved in toward her face. There is an abandoned silver vessel on a tray next to her on the bed. Our dialogue with her begins: Is she sleeping? Thinking? Her posture is vulnerable, yet she is relaxed. Mckinney foregrounds the teapot and bed, leaving only her arm and face exposed in the upper quadrant of the painting. This obfuscation only makes her more compelling—the viewer is still drawn in by the quiet. 

Or consider Hold Your Breath (2024), whose title, reading like a command, makes our dialogic relation with its figure all the clearer. In this painting, the woman is dressed in a shaded orange fur coat whose tint matches the shaded green background. She holds a cigarette, its burning tip matching the color of her fingertips and her coat. The minimal color palette complements her affect: her closed eyes, luxuriating in the inhalation. If it were not for the title, she might seem to exist only for herself, enjoying this moment of relief. But because we are invited in, we realize that we are also called upon to bear witness to this quiet, to observe without interrupting it.

Danielle Mckinney, Memoir, 2023. Oil on linen, 14 x 11 inches. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.
Danielle Mckinney, Hold your Breath, 2024. Oil on linen, 24 x 18 inches. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

In her meditation of what it is to listen to images, Tina Campt offers a description of quiet images as “neither silent nor inaudible,” for they “resonate just below the threshold of hearing. They do not speak, but they are not mute.”1 For Campt, the quiet offers a way to think about the vibrational economies of images—to consider the ways that they produce effects in the world through other sensory modes. In Mckinney’s quiet, I see both an invitation to think about the haptic aspects of the paintings, the ways that they summon the feeling of living and breathing women—and the way that this sense of quiet offers a sort of protective aura. 

We feel that, outside this world—for instance on the city streets from which the viewer has retreated into the gallery to view these paintings—such care is rarely offered the Black woman. Overburdened with representation, called on one day to nurture and the next day to polemicize, she lives always for someone or something else. This is what the quiet of these paintings protects from: the demand to appear always a means to an end rather than an end herself. By luxuriating in the quiet, Mckinney’s women pause the political world. They fill up the frame with their mere presence, declining to speak or make an account of themselves. 

Guided by Mckinney’s calm focus on the quiet, the viewer is invited to slow down, too, and to linger on the details before us. We are, for example, invited to notice the delicate orange-red brush strokes of lips and wonder if they might sigh open momentarily. We might look closely at the shadows of her inner ear and the loose curls on the pillow as if to consider the texture of the life before us. The quiet allows these women to unfurl into complex beings before our eyes, enabling us to wonder about their desires, disappointments, and emotional landscape. And, in this becoming whole, we can find a play between the display of their interiorities and the spaces that they occupy. 

Danielle Mckinney, Read the Room, 2024. Oil on linen, 18 x 24 inches. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

Read the Room (2024) portrays a woman in a bathrobe with her hair up in a towel, peeking over the edge of a book. She is sitting far from the viewer on a green sectional with her legs crossed behind a large wooden coffee table. Next to her is an end table piled high with boxes. As with Memoir, only a sliver of her face and body are visible. Most of what the viewer sees is the dark background, the setting, her clothes. These are the externalities that provide coordinates for understanding the world that she might occupy. But we do not feel as though we are trespassing into a private scene. The woman meets the viewer’s gaze. Though posing, she is comfortable and playful—and to be played with requires another join her. Mckinney has invited viewers into these spaces and surrounded the women with just enough furniture, objects, or props to be held in space. These tethers to a social world give the women something to interact with while also giving the viewer some context to stoke their imagination.

This physical grounding is also part of the hapticity of the paintings. We can feel these women inhabit these spaces, their bodies having been given room to release and become unguarded and vulnerable. Through these multiple forms of framing—furniture and muted backgrounds—Mckinney has given these figures space to emerge as their own creations. As viewers, we feel Mckinney’s deliberate care for them and, in turn, the experience of looking at the exhibit becomes pedagogical—how can we mirror that tenderness? How can we step into the experience in the way that Mckinney’s brush asks us to? The larger underlying question, of course, is how might Black women—both on these canvases and elsewhere—be given space to just be.  

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  1. Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017)25–6.