Sketches: David McGee

The Houston painter on pop culture, painting, and angry dwarfs

By Peter Holley January 16, 2014

"Mofo," David McGee

Dwarfs were a popular motif in the work of European painters between the 15th and 18th centuries. The paltry human rights record of the day dictated that little people were almost never portrayed as autonomous beings, but rather—according to a 2006 PBS documentary—"decorative elements situated at the fringes of the lives of others more important than themselves," their status barely above the dogs and monkeys that also entertained European royalty.

David McGee: The Return of MOFO
Jan 16–Feb 15 
Opening reception Jan 16 6–8
Texas Gallery
2012 Peden St

The 18th century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez is credited with humanizing, and even heroizing, his dwarf subjects by rendering them in ways sensitive, defiant, and fully human. It would seem appropriate, then, that David McGee’s latest protagonist —a brooding dwarf intent on airing things out— was inspired by a Velázquez painting that hangs in the Louvre. That painting, The Dwarf Sebastián De Morra, has long fascinated McGee because of the subject’s mysterious, thinly veiled anger.

“I always wanted to know what the real deal was with this dude,” McGee says of De Morra (left). “He’s a little Spanish guy and he’s looking pissed!” 

For his latest exhibition opening tonight at Texas GalleryThe Return Of MOFO— McGee has created a rough approximation of Velázquez’s dwarf and inserted him into the modern world. The new protagonist is still angry and vengeful, but pretty much everything else has changed. Version 2.0 is black. He is a member of the hip-hop generation and has an appropriate moniker to boot: “Motherfucker.”

“I decided I was going to center a whole narrative around this little fella, one that included his women, his mistresses, lone sharks, Wall Street people, etc.” says McGee. “He was going to talk about stop-and-frisk, about celebrity, about vanity, about his own inconsistencies and guilt; he was going to talk about religion, about love and the losing of love, and we were just going to see what happened to him. This is what that show is basically about.” 

"The Dwarf Sebastián De Morra," Diego Velázquez.

That, of course, is not all the show is about. All of McGee's shows are continuations of those that have come before, each one another step in a broad and perpetual investigation of topics that have fascinated McGee since boyhood—imagery, politics, race, class, pop culture, and their intersections. He has proven himself to be a master object maker, with a keen sense of how imagery and labels can be used to incite, confuse, or arrest an audience. His imagery, he says, is just as important as the meaning behind it. 

"You can have all these high, intellectual ideas, but you have to make something that people want to look at," he says. 

In another life, McGee could have been a talented propagandist, but in this one his goal is to promote questions, not causes. That's why, he says, it can take him years to come up with the concept for a single painting. 

"In the paintings there’s a lot of trickery going on," he says, referring to a series of works that reappropriate African sculpture from the work of modern artists like Picasso and Gauguin, who often fetishized the art of "exotic" peoples. "There’s a lot of me being involved in both high and low cultures, which is me participating in the world. I can hang out on the Upper West Side of New York City, but I can also hang out in Harlem and see how those worlds fit together. The bottom line is we all have a lot in common in our misreading of what images are." 


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