You may have seen artist Mark McKenzie’s lively characters on tree stumps, garbage cans, slabs of wood — anything he can get his hands on, really — in neighborhoods like Bucktown. Humboldt Park or Logan Square.
The work boasts whimsical imagery, painted in a crazy, clashing palette by an artist whose creations make his roots in street art clear. If you’re drawn to that kind of bright, whimsical art, McKenzie’s (whose artist alias is Mac Blackout) one night show this Saturday at Uncle Art Gallery is a must-see.
The tongue-in-cheek name comes from the first punk rock band McKenzie played in, “The Functional Blackouts,” he says while hanging up a piece for the show at Uncle Art, a small space on the corner of North Maplewood Avenue and West Hirsch Street in Humboldt Park. The gallery would almost blend in with the surrounding homes, were it not for McKenzie’s wall-to-wall Cosmic Cat mural, where a fiesty black-and-white cat is ready to pounce, with the universe on its back.
McKenzie grew up in Bedford, Indiana where he says he was inspired by “small town grit” and the fantastical art of his family. He recalls wandering through his grandparents’ house and into his mother’s childhood bedroom, which was painted bright purple and completely covered in images of eyeballs.
He’s still not sure if that was a dream, or reality. But the “crazy” 1960’s style black-and-white photograph of a smiling pair of lips that hung over his grandparents’ fireplace was very, very real.
Eyeballs and lips are often the most distinguishable features in McKenzie’s paintings, be it a pair of bright blue eyes with full lashes, or a row of clenched teeth set between fuschia lips, atop a rainbow collage of symbols.
“It all comes out in the way it feels,” he says of the art. Perhaps the personalities are self-portraits, McKenzie muses. He points to a large painting in the back of the gallery, where faces of varying colors, shapes and sizes are staring at one another. It’s his favorite. “I think my wife inspired that one,” he says, pointing to a smiling, black-and-white face in the middle.
A lot of McKenzie’s art, with its bright colors and lack of structure, evokes classic abstraction. He graduated from the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis in 1999 with a concentration in painting and printmaking, then moved to Chicago to hone his craft.
But McKenzie’s roots lay with street art. Throughout high school and college he gained a reputation on the Midwest underground world as a talented street artist. When he moved to Chicago, the thriving ’90s street art scene met him.
His street projects are quirky: spray-painted plywood tacked onto tree stumps, characters spray painted on abandoned furniture, fanciful public murals at Shake Shop (3247 W. Fullerton Ave) and Reckless Records (1379 N. Milwaukee Ave), to name a couple. And even as McKenzie is focused on increasing his gallery presence — his work has also been featured at spaces such as Galerie F, and Chicago Truborn, “street art keeps me active, both physically and artistically … but especially physically,” he says.
Tom Choate, who co-owns Uncle Art Gallery with his cousin John Mays, was hoping to “open up a space to people (like Mark) who may not get traditional space in galleries,” Choate says. He approached McKenzie a year and a half ago to participate in a group show, and was sold. “His art is lively, and his style is unusual for street art,” he says. “It’s … more thoughtful, the way he paints people and uses colors.”
McKenzie’s art isn’t social commentary, a theme some popular street artists such as Banksy, have gravitated toward. It’s escapism. Like a puzzle in an old MAD magazine, you notice something new every time you look, like devil horns or a cut-out of a woman’s body from an old art reference manual.
“I hope people get inspired to … dream and see themselves,” McKenzie says. “Art is a mirror of sorts, I want them to take the energy from my art forward and create something.”
What: Mac Blackout at Uncle Art Gallery
When: Saturday July 14, 6-10 p.m.
Where: Uncle Art Gallery, 1359 N. Maplewood Ave, Humboldt Park, Chicago
Tickets: Free; www.macblackout.com