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Radically Feel-Good: Thoughts on Pete McKee’s Paintings

It's difficult to leave a Pete McKee exhibition without feeling an incredible warmth towards the people in his paintings. As the Sheffield artist’s work becomes more explicitly political, this feel-good factor is perhaps one of his greatest strengths.

Wish you were here

Wish You Were Here

Pete McKee

Pete McKee's paintings exist in stark contrast to the gritty realism which I have otherwise found Sheffield to be portrayed with, by bands such as Arctic Monkeys, Pulp and Reverend and the Makers. Using blocks of bright colours and clean lines, his paintings can leave you feeling as if the grit of life has been airbrushed out somewhat. And yet, when you take another look, it is all there: pubs shutting down, young carers tucking into a cereal dinner, staycationing before staycationing was cool, kids in prams left out on the pavement, feeling like a misfit as a child.

His work is unwaveringly feel-good. The style allows harsher experiences to be softly explored. It is in his rose-tinted depiction of what could be quite bleak memories that I think Pete McKee's work is so gently radical. It refuses to leave the viewer with feelings of shame or guilt for the life that they lived or the memories they hold. By creating a story of rougher times in a way that is overridingly warm and quietly celebratory, he transforms not only how we see our past, but also what we expect from our future.

In part we tend to determine our self-worth, and evaluate our deservedness, in response to what we get from life. We individually figure out how much we should get from how much we do get. There appears to be nothing strange in the story of someone being humbled by living a simpler life. Or someone’s self-esteem being permanently lowered by ill-treatment. Nor is it a surprise when someone becomes more self-assured in response to the attentiveness of waiters at fancy restaurants. Or when drivers become pushier once in control of a more expensive car.

As the cost-of-living crisis worsens, this thought pattern becomes increasingly harmful. Across the country price hikes are dramatically reducing what people can buy with their money. Falls in income are predicted to result in 1.3 million more people living in absolute poverty by next year, including 500,000 children. These problems are undeniably political. Only by some trickery could it be claimed that we are each individually responsible for our own worsening of living standards - that we are deserving of what we get. Whilst ever we accept this falsehood, it pushes us to accept the reductions in life quality across the country, and we fail to ask the important questions of what can be done politically to respond.

Absent drinker

Absent Drinker

Pete McKee

All this is to say why I think Pete McKee's rose-tinted paintings of some of the more difficult aspects of life are so important. In sharing them in such a way, he allows us to view our own lives with similar warmth and feel good about ourselves, and then we can see ourselves as people who deserve to have their needs met, in the same way we view those closest to us.

Pete McKee's latest exhibition began with this characteristically kind depiction of everyday life, then in the second room he introduced more explicitly political themes: the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill; ongoing war; anti-racist solidarity, and the unmet promises of trickle-down economics. He first allows us to cast off shame, to recognise that the difficulties we face are shared, and that there is beauty even in the rougher moments of our lives. Then he encourages us to consider how the difficulties we face are political in source and so require a political solution.

There is much to be learnt from his work for those campaigning in politics. Focusing on deficits and problems only leaves people feeling disengaged and unworthy. With warmth and nostalgia we can begin to believe that we are deserving. It is only then that we can begin to create a vision for a better future.

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