Moscow Joe McKinley

Naive artist survived by only four early works.

Joseph McKinley, born in Carnlough, Co Antrim, in 1931, was a self-employed milkman when he made his first recorded paintings in 1984. These topographical views of Carnlough employed various pictorial and graphic devices to carry historical and humorous texts. When he retired in the late 1980s, he began to decorate the interior of his two bedroom, single-storey cottage in Glenloy by collaging the hallway with magazine cuttings, labels, ephemera and found objects. Consequently, his wife walked out, permitting his home decoration to become obsessive. Spreading to his bedroom, it inundated walls and ceiling and crept onto the window.
By 1999, now publicly accessible and provocative, McKinley’s art had overwhelmed the yard in front of the cottage and its roadside margin with a confusing array of objets trouvés and hand-painted signs mythologizing the objects to which they were attached. Some signs notifying the public of his not-to-be-missed display could also be seen on neighbouring fences and telegraph poles. These were not incongruous within a culture where evangelising hand-painted signs such as ‘Jesus Saves’ were common features in the landscape.
‘Outsider’ artists, academically speaking, are often regarded by society as aberrant or dysfunctional. Often they do not, or cannot, conform to society’s mores and norms. Joe McKinley’s art was too satirical, too self-mocking, too self-consciously ‘art’ and too deliberately comprehensible to be strictly categorised as outsider art. In many ways it defied classification for it was neither naïve, amateur, visionary nor outsider, but all of these in varying degrees.
As well as being profoundly private and prone to depression McKinley, who prefixed his name with ‘Moscow’ or ‘Soviet’ after visiting Russia on three occasions, was also a public entertainer who began to perform as soon as someone stopped to look at his complex roadside installation or entered his yard. He made various props—hats, walking sticks and badges—to support his anecdotes and personal mythology. Latterly he enjoyed appearing in public with a kitten on his shoulder.
Adopting such a public persona did have repercussions. He was a target for all sorts of abuse and acts of violence. One night his two ‘artcars’ (ordinary automobiles transformed by adding various found objects to the bodywork and interior) were set on fire destroying them completely. When he died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in May 2003, his family wantonly destroyed all his art and props.
Moscow Joe McKinley is survived by three early works in the Londonderry Arms Hotel, Carnlough, and one in the medical practice in Glenarm. A few signs remain in the area, as well as a large boulder by the side of the road on the way to Cushendall inscribed ‘Joe McKinley 1971’. Given that his remains were cremated and that he is not remembered by a grave, this lone rock is his tombstone and marker.
Further reading
Outsider Art (1972) by Roger Cardinal; Raw Creation – Outsider Art & Beyond (1996) by John Maizels; Outsider Art – Spontaneous Alternatives (2000) by Colin Rhodes; The Great Exhibitionist (2002), a short documentary film by Stephen McDonald & Lorna McNeill for Ulster Television; Raw Vision magazine.
By Peter Haining