McKenzie Cunningham, a native of Prosper, Texas, is a junior art major at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Cunningham uses acrylic paint to make stunning abstract paintings, which document her personal style and intimate parts of her identity.
Her works share a number of similarities, namely the colors that she chooses to use: black, white and burnt orange. Though all of her pieces are non-representational and therefore reject sharing a similar subject matter, her use of the same three colors creates a continuity in her art, making her palette a hallmark of her style.
Though she loves black and white, the interplay between which she finds to be almost more evocative than what can be achieved using bolder colors, she uses the orange, on the other hand, specifically because she was never fond of it.
As a result, the burnt orange lines, a reoccurring trend throughout her pieces, are perhaps the most striking aspect of her art. “I chose a color that I thought was ugly,” she says. “As I was painting with it, I realized how much I liked it. I related that to my insecurities. I had to learn to accept and love that I was an artist.”
Beyond her traditional visual arts, Cunningham has also begun delving into fashion and clothing design as well. Rather than designing clothes, though, the Pepperdine student has toyed with using her clothing into a canvas.
She typically paints on denim, meaning jeans and jean jackets, and most of her finished apparel resembles her paintings in their aesthetic. All her work shares her distinct color scheme, and the pants and clothing bear her familiar, non-representational subject matter.
The paint manages to make the clothing look both out of place and perfectly normal, challenging viewers’ perceptions of what they can expect from the visual arts. Though the denim may make an unlikely vehicle for her work, her creations question why that is. Why not combine painting and design, much in the same way that other mediums collide in collage, theater or music?
Though the clothing offers a necessary refrain from her normal work, Cunningham still finds herself focusing most intently on painting, and has recently finished two new series and is working on a third. The paintings in the first two are boundaryless.
Both contain shades of black, white and burnt orange, which meld together to create an array of shapes and colors that are emblematic of Cunningham’s emerging style. Both series capture her personal journey as an artist and portray her evolution through striking, yet impressive works that create a harmonious image.
Her first series, “Underlying Evolutions,” represents how her artistic style has matured rapidly over the course of several months. She described the series as messy — full of trial and error — and frequently uses the word “explode.”
“You don’t know whether you should touch the paintings or not because you can mess the entire thing up,” she says. “A lot of time you do mess it up, but it ends up being worth it.”
“Soul Toxins,” Cunningham’s second series, helped more accurately refine the new direction she was taking. The paintings in the series appear to be more tamed, structured and systematic in their overall form.
The pieces are sensible and showcase Cunningham’s becoming familiar with her style, rather than her creating it — a contrast from her previous series. “The series was about controlling my explosive phase. It allowed me to become more organized and find a method to what I was doing,” she says.
Cunningham is in the midst of planning an exhibition for later this month, where she will showcase her third series. She also features her art on her website and social media pages under the handle @maclynneart.