Pete McKee: Sheffield artist takes off his rose-tinted glasses for latest exhibition

Pete McKee is one of Yorkshire’s most loved contemporary artists, bringing irreverence and joy with works that have popped up throughout Sheffield over his career.

But a new exhibition at the city’s Millenium Gallery sees a more contemplative side on display.

Don’t Adjust Your Mindset is full of art created by Mr McKee during the past two years of lockdowns and restrictions and is in part, a response to the pandemic.

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Mr McKee, who is self-taught, has created art that is emblematic of Sheffield over the past 15 years.

Pete McKee at his new exhibition

One of his most popular works, The Snog – a mural on the side of Fagan’s pub – has become an attraction with countless couples posing for their own kiss in front of the painting.

But in his new exhibition, which opened yesterday and ends on May 22, digital dependence, climate change, internet fame and police brutality are some of the themes explored.

A photography series explores the use of emojis in day-to-day life, including a provocative image of a coffin being lowered into the ground surrounded by mourners – one of whom has the face one with tear emoji instead of a head.

It’s a poignant message for those bereaved who are still grappling with the aftermath having to attend funerals on social media.

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Mr McKee said: “The exhibition is a result of lockdown and how we experienced the world in our own little cocoons when we all turned to social media for what was happening in the outside world. As an artist, I thrive on human interaction and contact – and this is a reflection of what it was like to live in the world of social media and its bombardment of a range of different subjects.

“My work is often very nostalgic, and this was me taking my rose-tinted glasses off and seeing the world in its flesh. It’s quite a cornucopia.”

Other parts of the exhibition include a pastiche of popular seaside postcards.

But instead of idyllic beach scenes, or cheeky ‘kiss me quick’ slogans, Mr McKee has chosen to juxtapose cheery messages with scenes of environmental devastation.

Holiday homes have tumbled over a cliffside, with Mr McKee writing: “This tension is a metaphor for how many of us feel about climate change. Even though we worry about it and to varying degrees, do what we can to combat it, we often feel powerless.”

That feeling of powerlessness was also experienced by many artists beyond the pandemic, he explained. He said: “At the beginning of lockdown, I thought that was the beginning of the end of the business.

“I deliberately threw myself into lockdown and tried to be as entertaining as possible to keep people smiling, and I kept working all the time. But everyone took to their phones and were spending more time online.

“Now it’s a little bit more serious – the news is bombarded by the cost of living crisis. There’s more anxiety now in the sector than there was in Covid.”

He is buoyant about a return to exhibiting in the city for the first time in four years.

“Sheffield is the heart and soul of my work – and the heart and soul of me,” he said. “My passion and love for Sheffield never diminishes and 80 per cent of my fanbase is related to the city, so it’s important it gets seen here.

“The city has a healthy cultural mindset and there’s a new vitality that always seens to come through.”

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For Pete McKee, Sheffield’s influence cannot be underestimated.

Born and raised on a council estate in the city, he taught himself art after being inspired by his favourite comics: Whizzer and Chips, The Dandy, The Beano.

Now, while his art still has irreverence and fun at its heart, he is inspired by the great masters of painting including Caravaggio, Vermeer, Hopper and Manet.

Mr McKee was rejected by an art college in 1990, but refused to be deterred from a career pursuing his dreams and in 2018, he was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University.