Dave McClinton’s Striking Art Transcends Time and Style to Confront Racism’s Enduring Roots
It was by chance that I visited the Commerce Gallery in Lockhart, TX. In an attempt to veer away from sounding too much like a line from an inspirational film, it was fate that intervened on my behalf to bring my attention to something that changed me so fervently. It wasn’t a singular emotion that washed over me when I stepped into the gallery and viewed Dave McClinton’s art for the first time. It was a complexity so raw and vulnerable, yet possessing such a reverent power. Tangible words couldn’t escape my lips. They attempted to solidify and soar from my mouth, but they froze in astonishment. Tears cascaded like ringlets down my face. I stood, feet tethered to the ground in a state of magnificent awe.
My eyes flooded with seamlessly juxtaposed images built upon one another to configure people, with backgrounds of words slewn together. But what first stood out to me were the eyes. Bright and beaming, with some solemn, some were formed from the image of coins. The eyes, they say, are a window to the soul. They indeed resonated with my spirit and soul as I gaped at the artwork, so moved by something so intricate and profound, that my ability to speak was shattered. The art, clung to the walls of the gallery, glanced at me.
He displays history: cruel, heart-wrenching, and so unlike that glorified description of America that we have had ingrained in us since youth.
Dave McClinton, Austin based artist extraordinaire, details the contradictory semblance of the notions of American democracy. In nature, there is this duality that exists between the principles this nation praises, such as the glorious idea of “freedom for all” and the horrendous truth that is just a meaningless phrase, that true equality is yet to be achieved. McClinton illustrates how poignant and frustrating that concept is by using his art to speak about the past and ongoing racial injustice in America, and in addition, celebrating the resilience of African Americans. He displays history: cruel, heart-wrenching, and so unlike that glorified description of America that we have had ingrained in us since youth.
That is why McClinton’s art evokes more than one feeling in me. It has sparked a deep contemplation. With a singular glance, his art conveys so much. His artistry and innovative creative style radiate. His intent is to make you think about the dark history and present of our nation and to make you realize the impact of that past and the intense weight of the present. It’s also a celebration of African American history. Detailing the resilience of those who fought against the grips of slavery, hundreds of years of prejudice and oppression, and those that live today, his art tells the stories of then, and the elements of continuity today, sharing personal experiences with racism in modern society.
From his early days studying graphic design, he utilized Photoshop to create art. He earnestly wished to be an artist, using paint to craft his pieces. During those initial days, it was much simpler to pop open Photoshop on his computer and start creating. He began to cultivate a varied collection of images to integrate into his first artworks with Photoshop.
“[One] important tool is the camera on my phone, because a lot of the textures you see are me just taking tons and tons of photos of textures,” McClinton said. “[This consists of] a lot of tree bark, concrete, asphalt, wood, leather, [and] just [a lot] of industrial items. I have this huge collection of textures, patterns, and things like that, and I also started using family photos. I didn’t want to just leave the face alone, I wanted to build it from scratch. I would take an eye from a face, off of a photo, and take a mouth off [of] another face, and a nose off [of] another face and stitch it together. That’s still what I do, [and] a lot of times, if I can’t find a hand in the right position or the nose in the right position, I’ll just take a picture of my own face or use my own hand. Then in Photoshop, I just blend all that stuff together to create an original face. Those are portraits made up of what might be six or seven faces and the bodies might be more than that. It’s a digital college, but it’s not real until I print it out, and then I do a really limited edition.”
His unique pieces generally are only printed a handful of times, in various sizes. Each piece is likely to comprise 30-40 single images and it can take 40-50 hours to craft one of his spectacular works. It is interesting to note that an integral part of these art pieces is that McClinton takes family photos as a resource to form his characteristic individuals within the frames of his art. The first time he did so was a moment of great significance for him, and catapulted him into his creative journey.
“One of the first times I used family photos was [for] a very specific piece,” McClinton said. It’s a series of three. There was a young boy in the ‘40s named George Stinney. He was a young Black boy, 14 years old, [and] convicted and executed for a crime that only recently got vacated. The prosecution was vacated due to [a] lack of evidence. He wasn’t allowed to see his parents [and] wasn’t allowed to talk to a lawyer. There is no way this little 90-pound boy did what they said he did. He was just railroaded. The trial only took a few hours. He was executed in an electric chair and he was so tiny that they had to sit him on a couple of books to get him to fit into the electric chair.”
In an age where police violence is disproportionately taking the lives of Black Americans, McClinton’s work resonates an intense message, warnings of the wrongs of the past and the corrupt systems that still reign triumphant today.
George Stinney was accused of killing two young girls in South Carolina and was executed in 1944. His tragic story is a reminder for so many of how unfair the justice system has been and still is. No evidence traced the murders to him and the trial proceedings terminated in one day. Stinney died for a crime pinned to his name that he had nothing to do with. The terrible instance of his death is written in the worn pages of American history, a blemish of great intensity. In an age where police violence is disproportionately taking the lives of Black Americans, McClinton’s work resonates an intense message, warnings of the wrongs of the past and the corrupt systems that still reign triumphant today.
“So there is this famous mugshot of that young boy and it [had] always struck me,” McClinton said. I took the shape [and] silhouette of his head, and used the eyes, noses, mouths, and ears of my cousins [and I], all as young boys. I rebuilt our faces within the shape of his face because you know, that could have been us if we had been born 40 years earlier. We could have been the ones being railroaded and if he’d been born 40 years later, he could have been the one lucky enough to have parents send him to school. [These are] moment[s] in time where two Black boys have two completely different fates. That was the first time I used any aspect of a family photo and then once I did that, I started doing it a lot with other family photos. It just became part of my thing. When that piece was made, I really didn’t know what I was doing yet. That was one of the pieces that sort of led me on my path of how I actually make the work now.”
The trilogy of artwork “1607 Westbridge” is named after McClinton’s childhood address. This beautiful though tragically inspired collection instills the message that McClinton aims to highlight through his art. Though time has passed, racial injustice looms large. Less than a century ago, a young child was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Now, a passionate artist tells his story, interweaving the components of his cousins’ and his own face to show the startling and jarring stories of the past. Though opportunity and years gone by saved McClinton and his own family from the cruel fate of George Stinney, that past warps into the present, emphasizing the progress that is yet to be achieved in the arduous struggle for racial and social justice. Currently, the artist is venturing towards new projects that seek to challenge racial stereotypes through intelligent art. His new ideology is to dress his art’s subjects in ornate and formal clothes as a way to challenge prejudice against the African American community.
That’s been a lot of fun too because the idea of making the Black body as ornate and fancy as possible is just not necessarily the way Black bodies are viewed in this country.
“That’s been a lot of fun too because the idea of making the Black body as ornate and fancy as possible is just not necessarily the way Black bodies are viewed in this country. I do love the idea of messing around with the perception of what it is to be Black.”
McClinton carries a fascination with logos and the double entendres that are brilliantly hidden within something that sparks a deeper message. He emulates that intricately in his work, selecting each aspect with great precision so others can piece together the message he is trying to communicate.
“I’ve always been fascinated with little tweaks and plays on words,” McClinton said. “That fascination is carried over in the art to where I like to embed things that have meaning. One of the things I regularly go to is elements of money, because money is just covered in lies. You know it will say something like ‘e pluribus unum’. That phrase in terms of a country that was built on slavery is hilarious. So just the idea of sort of taking all these patriotic tropes that we’ve got in this country and then twisting them and putting them on images of Black people just shines a light on the hypocrisy. But, I’m not necessarily standing up in front of people saying ‘Hey look at this, look at this’ it’s kinda left up them to look at the art, see the little details, and maybe do a bit of research or something and realize ‘Oh there’s a hidden metaphor in this’ and I love doing stuff like that.”
Even in the midst of our interview, McClinton became inspired by our conservation to think about a topic to include in his new art. Continuously thinking about his art illuminates how raw his passion is. He divulged stories of how he has connected with art and when viewing other people’s artwork, he can immediately go through a “time machine” as he coins it, to interact with the feelings and motivations of an artist when they initiated the creation of the artwork he is viewing and analyzing in the present day. He seeks to view the humanity and intent behind every piece of art he sees, forming a link between artist and onlooker through time passed and spaces ventured.
To young students seeking to communicate their individual artistic voice to the masses through creative forums, McClinton offers beneficial advice.
Build an infrastructure around what it is you want to do and support it, guard it, and cherish it.
“Don’t wait to do it,” McClinton said. “Because I waited. I do love designer work but I chose that route because I knew I could get a job as a designer. The art route was going to be more school and going to get an MFA. There were so many doubts. You can hear me still thinking about the doubts all these years later. My advice would be [to] find a way to build a life around your art that supports your art. I know a lot of artists who chose to have regular jobs that don’t follow them home so they can have the spiritual and physical energy to work [on] their stuff. The day job is something mundane, maybe they don’t enjoy it, but it pays the bills. But they aren’t completely depleted with this career and they can take the time to either stay in school or take the time to work on their art. So [essentially], build an infrastructure around what it is you want to do and support it, guard it, and cherish it. Don’t let anything get in the way of what that is because you could wind up like me and be 25 years late making artwork.”
McClinton is using his vivacious technique and enthralling style to convey heavy yet critical topics. Along with the art aspect, he is in a state of continuous adaptation in regards to how to utilize digital forums at his disposal, such as posting new works of his on Instagram.
“Be open to things that change,” McClinton said. “Imagine someone who wanted to be a musician 20 years ago. They didn’t have the tools and the networks that are available to people today. The tools and networks that are going to be available five, ten years from now, whatever it is you’re doing, pay attention to the [fact that the] landscape of what you’re doing changes. Be ready to pivot really quickly into whatever new technology or platform is available. Be ready to make moves at all times when it comes to how you promote and how you make your creative things.”
Looking towards the future, McClinton is seeking to find his niche in the art world in terms of how to represent himself and his vision. His vivid portraits and stunning collage-style work are sure to leave an impression on all those that view them and he’s glad that he is able to help “break through the noise”.