Flamboyantly psychedelic: Self-taught artist combines colors, words and symbols

Nathan McKenney's recent work splashes symbols that would be at home in Day of the Dead celebrations and New Orleans voodoo ceremonies.

Here's how eye-catching Nathan McKenney's paintings are.

A Times Free Press photo taken in the home of a local artist and music impresario happened to have one of McKenney's paintings visible on a nearby wall. Readers emailed and phoned the paper, pleading to know about the artist who created the cool painting which said "RIP Lou Reed" and "Candy Says," an homage to the late Velvet Underground rocker who died in 2013.

"My Lou Reed was a completely different painting at the time," McKenney says. When he heard the music legend had died, he simply painted over whatever he had on the canvas while listening to Reed's "Candy Says" and "Coney Island Baby" for two days.

photo "Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board" borrows its title from a popular preteen party game that involves "magic".
photo Sure, it's a death's skull topped with Calvary crosses. But it's lit with a dazzling golden glow that branches out across the paint- ing, like a life force that fights back hard against the dark.

"Musician names or lines from songs or even bits of quotes find their way into some of my pieces," he says.

McKenney, 29, says his colorful, flamboyant work is influenced by psychedelic album art like the Beatles' "Revolver" and satirical cartoonist David Shigley's graffiti-like art and tattoo designs.

"It's the hodgepodge of colors, text, signs and marks that really interest me in Nathan's work," says Ashley Hamilton, Barking Legs Theater's artist-in-residence who has exhibited McKenney's work in the venue. "He uses colors, combinations that break the rules yet make total sense. He seems to use a process of excavation, where he continuously reveals and conceals through paint, creating a type of mysterious visual language that is for the viewer to decipher."

Along with Barking Legs, McKenney's works have been shown during Hunter Underground, the party/art show at the Hunter Museum of American Art, and several of his paintings currently hang in the Market Street location of Lupi's Pizza Pies, the Meeting House in Red Bank and Kaleidoscope Textile Printing.

With a day job that takes up about 50 hours a week at a chemical plant and a wife and two daughters, ages 4 years and 6 months old, the self-taught McKenney can't afford a studio, so he paints in their apartment's dining room. He listens to music while painting, a playlist that ricochets wildly from Dizzy Gillespie's "Kush" to Swans' "No Words No Thoughts" to Richard Strauss' transcendent tribute to immortality "Im Abendrot (In Evening Glow)" to Miley Cyrus' "Do Ma Thing."

"I paint in between cooking family dinners or warming bottles, while holding a baby or playing with our oldest daughter," says McKenney, who meets most of his buyers and dealers through his Instagram and Tumblr accounts.

In the two years he's been in Chattanoog since moving from Minnesota, he senses that, while some art shoppers mainly want "pastels of the Walnut Street Bridge," he's inspired by the courage and creativity of artists here.

"What excites me are some of the artists I've met are creating pieces they know won't sell in a Bible Belt conservative town like Chattanooga but are making them despite that," he says. "I hope to see more of that in this town."

Contact Lynda Edwards at ledwards@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391.