• The Debutante

Are you sitting uncomfortably? Iva Kinnaird’s uncanny couches

In her first London-based solo show, the Texas-based artist invites viewers to step into nostalgic paintings characterised by absence. This exhibition review of Iva Kinnaird's 'I Would Love You If You Looked Like This:' is written by Jennifer Brough. The exhibition is currently on display at Maximillian William Gallery (4 November 2020 - 9 January 2021).


Iva Kinnaird’s house has six couches, sourced from Craiglist for comfort or convenience, “they’re just kind of there and it’s impossible to move them”. It seems sensical, then, that she would add an additional seven to the mix.


In 'I Would Love You If You Looked Like This,' Kinnaird’s intricate acrylic renderings make for a tactile experience. Inspired by nostalgic designs and furniture catalogues from the 1950s-1970s, these paintings prompt the viewer to imagine the characters that could inhabit these worlds.


The exhibition’s title comes from a painting on the artist’s website, featuring a shabby green sofa on a water damaged panel. The statement feels like something approaching intimacy or a private thought, a comment thrown over the shoulder from one person to another as they relax together, maybe watching television. Kinnaird reflects that she painted this in “a manically depressed post break-up state”, thinking that her ex would have loved her if she was a couch, but not a person. This speaks to the way things become imbued with meaning through memories. How we keep certain items for sentimental value, and discard others because of the feelings they provoke.


There is little information accompanying the exhibition, leaving Kinnaird’s intentions open to interpretation. In an interview, Kinnaird comments that the sofas “are more of a mood than a place”. But in a period marked by social distance and spending more time than ever indoors, her paintings lend the familiar an air of the uncanny. The sofas are elongated and empty, allowing for many people to commune, yet there are none. Here, the sofa becomes conceptual, representing togetherness, community, comfort, as well as absence — an everyday item that the viewer can project their imaginings upon. Each couch holds a space of quiet possibility, imagined conversations, or scenarios as they dominate the canvas.


Some of the paintings’ titles lean into this uncanniness, grazing cultural touchstones to offer an entry point, but little more. The sofa in ‘Baby Bench’, for example, is reminiscent of a crib or bassinet, resting atop a somewhat clinical tiled floor of muted blues and pinks. Kinnaird could be alluding to the way gender is assigned at birth and the power that those hours in a hospital have to imprint upon tiny bodies.



Installation view. Left: Ear Plug Couch, Acrylic on Canvas, 2020. Right: Baby Bench, Acrylic on Canvas, 2020

Another striking piece is ‘Bamboo Bench’, apparently inspired by King George IV’s predilection for Chinoiserie bamboo furniture – European-crafted items inspired by Orientalist fascinations. Kinnaird’s intricate brushstrokes demonstrate not only the craftsmanship that went into such objects and bamboo’s integration into ‘western’ furniture, but the longstanding fascination with an imagined ‘East’. A viewer can almost imagine the oft-repeated figure of an odalisque lying in repose on this sofa.



Above: Bamboo Bench, Acrylic on Canvas, 2020.

Others paintings, like ‘Ear Plug Couch’ and ‘Sawtooth Couch’, raise a smile in the way that certain objects invoke others. The former shows an orange sofa, with plump cushions (the ‘ear plugs’) resting at each arm. What sound is being silenced in the distance between the cushions? Who are we to imagine is sat, unlistening, on this sofa? Could it be the aftermath of an argument between lovers, or is the sofa itself a space of safety, blocking out the noise beyond the home?


Ear Plug Couch, Acrylic on Canvas, 2020.

In ‘Sawtooth’, the shining leather couch could be a saw or a business-like crocodile jaw, opening to usher in suited people at their peril. Equally, it could be neither. Deceptively simple, the longer you ‘sit’ with these paintings, the more they reveal. Kinnaird allows this playful projection from her viewer.


Sawtooth Couch, Acrylic on Canvas, 2020.

Although you may not be able to visit the exhibition in person, with the current tiered parameters echoing the distances in Kinnaird’s work, each painting is available to view on the gallery’s website — from the comfort of your own sofa.