Passerby, which ran from September 3 through September 8 in the Tjaden Experimental Gallery, displays work by Maggie O’Keefe ’19 that spans her time in New York, Ithaca, Rome and the Chautauqua Institute over the course of two years, from 2016 to 2018. The exhibit draws upon a theme of intimacy and liminality, featuring works whose subjects exude a sense of familiarity. A largely autobiographical show, the artist invites the viewer to participate in the works, drawing upon one’s own memories to understand this state of in-betweenness as passerby.
The exhibit plays with scale, featuring full body, life-size portraits of family and friends of the artist that invite the viewer to come face-to-face with the art. One particularly striking piece is “Welcome,” which features the artist’s mother and grandmother sitting opposite of each other on a porch. In the painting, the subjects mirror each other, arms crossed, levelling the viewer with their matriarchal gaze. Visually, however, they are juxtaposed, with the younger of the women depicted in bright pink hues and the older woman painted in neutral shades. There is a feeling of depth to the painting, as if the viewer has come upon their own stoop to their family members.
The underlying narrative plays on themes of gender and intergenerational relationships, offering a branch of relatability and thus bringing the viewer into the artist’s family. The artist emphasizes scale and the humanity held within each portrait. “They’re human. I didn’t want to make them any smaller than they are. I wanted to make sure these paintings were true to who they are. I started painting these life-sized portraits because I missed a friend, and it was comforting to paint someone you love and show how they feel to other people,” O’Keefe said.
While O’Keefe’s portraits are exuberant and full of life, her series Nightscapes focuses on stillness and isolation. The three paintings each depict homes in the night that are cast in the eerie glow of late-night television, family dinners and pools of street lamp spotlight. These nighttime scenes, though inspired by homes in Ithaca, draw from a collective suburban consciousness that can be found in Anytown, USA. The paintings turn the viewer into a voyeur, demanding a level of attention to the quotidian that feels almost like a violation of privacy.
For the most part, O’Keefe’s work is never convivial, always centering around individuals or places of solitude, but her work emanates warmth. She paints subjects that toe the line between personal and the imaginary, inviting viewers to dig into their own personal mythologies — the landmarks, legends and giants in our own personal histories that we’ve cobbled together to shape our stories. In this exhibit, artist and viewer share a mutual experience; we not only get a chance to look into O’Keefe’s life but also meditate further on the everyday in our own life.
Isabel Ling is a senior in the college of Art, Architecture, and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected]cornell.edu.