‘You Can Imagine Yourself Owning It’

Sam McKinniss, Cop Car in Brooklyn, 2020, 11×14 in., oil on linen, via JTT

Yesterday I relistened to JTT’s 2022 podcast episode where gallerist Jasmin Tsou talks with Sam McKinniss about Mischief, his 2022 show at JTT, and about Costume Drama, a 2020-21 show at the Ovitz Collection in Los Angeles. Costume Drama opened in a moment when it was almost not even possible to go to shows, and McKinniss talked about his attempt to convey that early COVID-19 era experience of historic disaster and looming uncertainty. The show included a sweeping 6×8-foot painting of the sinking Titanic—or rather, of a shot from the movie, Titanic—amid almost tiny paintings, including an 11×14 painting of a cop car on fire. Tsou asked him about how he decides the size of his paintings:

It’s intuitive but it’s based on trying to decide what would feel the best, what would feel the most appropriate, what would feel the most effective, in terms of the encounter of a gallery visitor walking into a gallery. Walking into the exhibition arena and being confronted with one of my paintings– a large canvas kind of dominates or envelops the viewer in a different way than a small picture invites and requires a viewer to come closer and really investigate its detail on a smaller scale. Also, smaller canvases are much easier to collect, which is a business decision but it’s also an emotional reaction of feeling like you can approach an object and feeling like you can imagine yourself holding it. You can imagine yourself owning it, you can imagine the possession of that object much easier than you can imagine the possession of a large billboard size canvas. It’s harder for you to wrap your head around that because you can’t wrap your arms around it – do you follow? So it’s a difference physically. But I also thought– I was imagining it being very sweet and kind of funny, but also sympathetic, to share, reshare, essentially reblog, a picture of that cop car being lit on fire – which did in fact get reblogged millions of times because it was a viral sensation on our internet. But I was trying to imagine resharing that image as an almost tenderly rendered experience from our backyard. Almost to say– I don’t know what I was saying, but I was trying to extend my political sympathies towards the person who lit that car on fire and had to go to jail probably forever, and say, “I too agree that there are too many cops and I think we can afford to light some of those vehicles on fire.” And the image of it alone is thrilling. At the time, it was so thrilling and unexpected and it was sensational and also now we are realizing it is hard to live up to and hard to duplicate. We haven’t so far had a summer that was as intense on the streets here in Brooklyn as what we experienced in New York in the summer of 2020. And I’m kind of shocked at that, that we got to live through a summer of social protesting that was that intense and has not yet been replicated.

I absolutely love Sam’s articulating this as a business decision, which feels like a dodge. Except that his business is making things that people experience by standing in front of them. And his business is taking images that people see in one place, probably on a screen, and getting them to see them anew, in a new context. That awareness of a viewer’s imagination, of wanting to own, to hold, to possess an image, is part of why his paintings are so effective. It’s very good for business.

Sam McKinniss, Costume Drama, Ovitz Family Collection, 2020-2021 [jttnyc]
JTT Podcast | Sam McKinniss, Dec. 2022 [jttnyc]