Columbus expat embraces his murky, libidinal urges in body of work on display at No Place Gallery through February

Last year, Near East Side native Jacob Mason-Macklin spent a magical summer in Maine with dozens of other artists at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. The residency was life-changing. But when Mason-Macklin returned to New York, where he’s been living since graduating from CCAD in 2017, he found himself homeless, unemployed and single.

“I was feeling pretty raw and frustrated. I was grieving,” Mason-Macklin said recently by phone. “It was a powerful experience, and from that experience I began shifting the process of how I work, from a tighter, academic approach to a more expressive, liberating approach. I let my hand go, and I was just drawing as a means of releasing.”

While living on a friend’s couch for more than a month, he began making cathartic charcoal drawings and then began painting while sharing a studio with good friend and fellow visual artist Devin B. Johnson.

“We often ask ourselves, ‘Who do we want to be in the studio?’ And Devin is this charismatic, rhythmic brother. He wants to be a musician when he steps into the studio. So when he asked me, I said, ‘Well, I want to be a madman, a criminal,’” said Mason-Macklin, who began painting dark figures out of those internal urges. “When I'm in the studio, it's the sanctuary where I can release these murkier, more carnal, libidinal urges that we all have. And so these people became visualizations of how gritty and toothy and raw and energetic and passionate and sexy — how much of that can I be? Not in my real life, but on the canvas?”

That body of work, titled “Pure Hell,” is now on display at No Place Gallery through the end of February. No Place director and “Pure Hell” curator James McDevitt-Stredney set up the exhibition so that visitors are first confronted by a series of charcoal- and oil-on-canvas paintings depicting glowering men whose faces are mostly obscured by hats. “They’re lurking, like in the back of a bar or some type of club, smoking to themselves,” McDevitt-Stredney said. “At a glance, we're immediately the outsider.”

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The hatted men, whom Mason-Macklin refers to as “the Watchdogs,” came to the artist first in this body of work, inspired in part by a man he noticed while wandering the street late at night. “I had a little bit of a monastic lifestyle in making this work, where I would find myself walking at odd hours. I would head to the studio at like 10 at night and leave at 3 in the morning, and then have to decompress by going for a walk. I would speak to people who were outside with me, and that informed a lot of the characters,” he said. “I saw this brother outside a bodega, and he had this kind of retro, fitted hat that is shown in the paintings. It was on a tilt and a slant. He was surveying the entire intersection, and I wanted to communicate that energy in my own way. So these hatted gentlemen came about from that one moment that stuck with me.”

Other figures are shown with painted faces and engorged features, particularly enlarged hands with pointed fingers. In one piece, “Lord of Poison,” which Mason-Macklin described as the definitive painting of “Pure Hell,” a sinister-looking man with a tattoo of a weeping Jesus on his chest beckons.

“Before he was Lord of Poison, he was a preacher man. ... I painted him as a preacher, and then he morphed into what he ended up being on the canvas,” Mason-Macklin said. “I was trying to figure out ways in which I could throw off the sense that all of these were just bad guys. There's something to them that I had a desire to engage with, and therefore I wanted that to resonate with the viewer in the same way.”

“It's incredibly luring,” McDevitt-Stredney said. “The drawing is incredibly sophisticated, yet the palette is so discouraging and really muted and disgusting. To see this neon-piss yellow next to these browns, it really tears you up. But it's painted so well — the way that the paint is handled, the modulation of the face, the contours of different facial features. It works so well that the color just doesn't matter in the end.”

The ugliness inherent in some of the paintings is an almost guttural response to the paintings Mason-Macklin was seeing in New York right after he returned from Skowhegan. “It was all really clean and banal and very glitzy and ready for a social media post,” he said. “So when I got into the studio with Devin, I had an MO where I was like, ‘I'm going to make the ugliest, nastiest, most sinister, evil shit I can make.’”