John Hurrell – 27 May, 2014
While they can verge towards a cloying sweetness en masse, the sheets are irresistible to anybody who loves looking at improvised drawing and cartoons, especially those with a blotchy, wobbly fluid line (as found with Steadman, Scarfe or Searle). McKenna is not though, a satirist - the images convey empathy, not hostility or criticism. There's lots of love and affection, especially for animals, fellow humans, and the everyday rituals that are part of ordinary interactive living.
A Walk from One Tree Hill to Half Moon Bay
2 May - 31 May 2014
In South of No North, the MCA touring show that was presented recently in City Gallery, Sydney artist Noel McKenna was contextualised in the company of photographers Laurence Aberhart and William Eggleston, accentuating through careful selection the whimsical humour and compositional nuances commonly found in his invariably quite intimate paintings.
With A Walk from One Tree Hill to Half Moon Bay, this current large show that accompanies the Two Rooms residency, the emphasis has changed to being more about reportage and observation where, inspired by McCahon’s ‘Walking’ paintings, McKenna has done a lot of riding Shanks’s pony in Auckland’s outer suburbs, incorporating diaristic note taking and quick image making of whatever stimulating scenes, people, animals or objects he encountered.
On the walls there are fourteen oil on plywood paintings, plus two fourteen page diaries - numerically connected to the fourteen Stations of the Cross, and his own Roman Catholic upbringing. The oil on plywood and watercolour on paper works are very different; one focussing on outdoor scenes, the other on mental impressions conveyed via chunks of printed language and incorporated images (as if a scrapbook).
McKenna is a verbally articulate artist in his own right, conspicuously so even when not having his work compared to that of artists who are not. Artists like, for example, Yvonne Coleman in Taranaki, a ‘naïve painter’ of sufficient standing to be represented in the Govett-Brewster Collection and their purchasable postcards. Yet I prefer Coleman’s houses to McKenna’s despite her lack of sophisticated drawing and paint handling. For even though the best of McKenna’s oil paintings can be related to, say, Michael Stevenson‘s Inglewood paintings, or (Hamilton’s) Margot Philips’ surrealist fantasies, many of his works in this particular show are anaemic and tonally bereft.
The successful ones - such as White Dog, Cornwall Park, Auckland and Ellerslie Race Course, Auckland - are darker overall, with a theatrical sense of drama where key protagonists seem spot-lit. Of the others, he is more accomplished painting wind-swept trees on cliff edges than vaguely melancholic, sometimes cute, suburban houses. The placement of form and paint handling is much more engrossing.
Looking at McKenna’s ‘Auckland diaries’ lined up on one wall, their compositional arrangement makes them akin to a form of ‘bubbleless’ (or ‘balloonless’) comic with a very casual organising structure - as if loosely improvised on the spot. He obviously enjoys looking at his immediate environment (landscape, buildings, signage, clothing, newspapers, …everything), and photographing it in order to later whimsically draw it in watercolour back in the studio - perhaps while musing about the reasons behind those details that intrigue him. For Auckland gallery-goers the interest lies in seeing what a keen-eyed, curious and talented outsider makes of the city and its suburbs: the place and its inhabitants. Somebody not jaded, but someone freshly introduced to it and them.
These pages - with their multiple viewpoints and unpredictable juxtapositions - have a liveliness missing from many of the house paintings which seem comparatively rigid and listless. While they can verge towards a cloying sweetness en masse, the sheets are irresistible to anybody who loves looking at improvised drawing and cartoons, especially those with a blotchy, wobbly, fluid line (as found, say, with Steadman, Scarfe or Searle). McKenna is not though, a satirist - the images convey empathy, not hostility or criticism. There’s lots of love and affection, especially for animals, fellow humans, the things they make, and the everyday rituals that are part of ordinary interactive living - all mixed in with scribbled opinions about this and that: lists and evaluations. Without the liquid, puddly medium it probably wouldn’t draw you in; you wouldn’t hang around. This way you’re hooked.
To read a transcript of the panel discussion “Whose Oceania?” held recently in London, and more on NZ arts abroad, CLICK HERE
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