Pete McKee’s work has long been synonymous with music. As a life-long fan, many artists and albums have served as inspiration, perhaps almost as frequently as McKee’s beloved home city of Sheffield has. However, his latest pop-up exhibition, Thud, Crackle, Pop, is perhaps his most blatant celebration not just of the bands and the genres he loves most, but the way he likes to listen to them too.
The exhibition, launched in London earlier this year, has been taken to Harrogate and Manchester and fittingly has just arrived in Sheffield at McKee’s own permanent gallery, A Month of Sundays, for its final three-week run.
While McKee’s artwork is the focus of the exhibition, it’s more than just a series of prints on walls for sale. The premise was to transform each location into a record shop with original pieces, LP prints and special one-off editions added to the mix. And with the travelling record shop having arrived in South Yorkshire, visitors are now able to browse the art as they would the racks of their favourite record store. For some that might mean listening to a Gary Numan record being played on a turntable. For others it might mean popping on a pair of headphones while thumbing through a selection of McKee’s 7in records.
As for the artwork, the LP-sized prints are exhibited just like records used to be displayed in shops, while McKee has also set up a listening booth to play a specially commissioned poem by Ralph Dartford, which is effectively an ode to music and McKee’s love of it.
One piece, Vinyl Progress, depicts the lifespan of a record. It begins with a schoolboy queuing up early to buy the latest addition to his record collection. Later, he swaps it and the record is in turn sold and over the following decades passes through the hands of a series of new owners.
“The part of that story where the vinyl gets sold is basically what happened to me,” says McKee. “I sold my record collection to pay council tax arrears and since then I’ve always pined for vinyl. It’s a lost love I’m trying to get back.
“When I was deciding on the exhibition itself, I knew vinyl would provide a springboard to allow me to tell certain stories because it’s something I understand.”
Much of the exhibition captures those formative years in one’s life, when we first fall in love, not just with people, but also with music.
“I drive myself nuts, if I go on Spotify or start looking at my record collection,” says McKee. “I always end up playing the ones from when I was 24. I go back to Orange Juice, Lloyd Cole or The Pale Fountains. They were the soundtrack to my younger years and they still have such a powerful grip.
“Music can save your life, it can cure you from a broken heart. Music is an incredibly powerful force, so it’s not surprising that the records you listen to when you’re young and at your most impressionable is the music that never leaves you.
“I remember the big headphones from the 70s that you would put on and bang, you were instantly transported to this little world. It allowed you to soak up every inch of the record, it was just you and this piece of music.”
While many of the paintings in McKee’s latest series capture a private relationship between people and music, they also show moments of love and romance, something McKee is increasingly gravitating to as an artist.
“I’ve become more and more romantic actually, a lot of my paintings used to be about solitude. It was about stolen moments, but more and more now they’re an expression of love or passion between two people. The one thing you want to do as an artist is to create an emotion and the two emotions that are most valid are love and sadness. At the moment I’m going through a phase where I’ve got a lot of love.”
McKee also sought the help of many other music lovers for the exhibition, asking notable friends, fans and collaborators for their top 10 records, which then feature in some of the paintings. The contributors include Sir Paul Smith, Noel Gallagher, Marc Riley, Richard Hawley, Paul Weller, Mary Anne Hobbs, Irvine Welsh and Paddy Considine.
The success of the exhibition has already led to enquiries coming in from as far as New York and Mexico, meaning that a love of music and art born on a Sheffield council estate could soon be seen and shared all over the world.
• Thud, Crackle, Pop, Month of Sundays gallery, Sharrow Vale Road, Sheffield, to December 23; www.petemckee.com