There's a special sort of trouble on tap for most of the inhabitants of Noel McKenna's world. The cat up a tree in Flood Picture is only the most obvious model for the straitened circumstances that grip most of these figures and their settings. Usually it doesn't require anything as spectacular as a flood to promote the sense of deprivation. McKenna loves loss. He finds the trees bare, the fields empty, the sky washed out. Even the water drowning the red-roofed house is not much more than a milky grey cloud.
Such reduction is practised so rigorously that we look at those objects spared sometimes with a curious sort of fondness, always with renewed and quizzical attention. What's the value of what is left? Faced with the elementals--branch, limb, shadow--one is tempted to agree that less is more. And yet that kind of minimalism feels too comforting a vision for this work, where it seems the artist is letting us know that sometimes less is also less.
I used the term 'inhabitants' to speak of the people and animals and things in these paintings; frequently 'inmates' seems a better fit. There's nowhere to hide in these paintings, though escape may be their key concern. Which raises another question: escape from what, into what?
Here we might readily proceed to the single interior painting in the show, where we find someone already gone. Where is the boy in Boy’s Room, Brisbane 1967, that potent study in monastic adolescence? If the bedroom, with its tiny bed and bare walls, its boring wardrobe and crude hanging light, suggests a prison cell, the bike nevertheless has promise. Maybe the boy has used it to cycle off into the wonderful Bicycle with rider on path through forest, an uncanny picture with the ordinary menace of the best children's book illustrations. We work hard not to imagine the path on the point of closing up and swallowing the disappearing figure.
This same boy certainly seems capable of having conjured those riddle images, Small Sphynx and Grey Cat. These are the sort of things he might have looked at. Likewise his loneliness may have found an echo in Grey Horse in Field, where repose and boredom are forever fixed to each other--this too an insight from childhood.
We should note that McKenna's animals, at least from a distance, frequently appear stuffed. However, there's a kind of shock in store. The close-up paintings capture the comic, grave natures of these domestic creatures, their awkward awareness of being looked at, the shy uncertainty of being petted and kept. His cats stare out at us and we wish them gone. There is something compromised for them and compromising for us in this exchange. And while the horse in the field is scarcely a victim, he is as stilled as the boy's bedroom cat which looks as though it’s made of concrete--either that or the cat is another inscrutable intelligence, waiting, just as we wait, for the boy to come home.
What are the options anyhow for these sentient beings? Where can they go? Who can they be? The one animal that is in motion--Horse and Rider Jumping Fence in Field--is only doing so under urging, exercising a 'freedom' that will follow exactly the dimensions of the makeshift riding course.
And finally what should we make of the two cliff paintings? Is that the boy's chair at the top of the cliff, then his dream of falling? Hardly the end we might wish for, though the fall is accomplished while in the sitting position and minus any noticeable distress. There is also the ghost of a bounce in this figure, as if on landing he might come back up. Might he yet somehow escape? (The ambiguity of this bereft 'jolly' image is something like a signature, though McKenna's work feels a million miles from the smirky, didactic ironies of a good deal of contemporary art.)
Of course I'm reading these beguiling paintings as if they belong in a narrative sequence. Moreover the sequence I've described is marked by an adventure, a chase even, certainly a mystery about a boy. Fanciful maybe. And how can such a story be accurate when many of the paintings, experienced individually, seem defiantly undramatic, quiet?
Here I think we're closer to describing not only the way these pictures can work on us and on each other but also something of the tone of McKenna's art. It is precisely through insisting that every scenario convey constriction and every impulse towards motion is circumscribed--the cat-up-a-tree syndrome, we could call it--that McKenna brings his allegory of escape alive. In choosing vulnerability as the point of composition--jumping, balancing, falling, staring, disappearing--McKenna invests the 'not-muchness' of each painting with the quality of an involving struggle. It's as if McKenna looks at the world and is immediately, effortlessly existential. The effort comes in combating dread with care and feeling. The most placid of encounters, meeting a cat one knows, say, gains a rightful strangeness. There is something to be worked out in this moment, the image seems to be saying. That a painting can speak without moving its lips is further evidence of the artist's affecting reticence.
There's one more escape to acknowledge. I have no way of knowing whether the little red bed in Brisbane belonged to the artist as a boy, or whether the cat in the corner, posed like an ornament, had a name, or whether the artist as a boy cycled through the forest or fell from a great height or dreamed of falling--such details belong to Noel McKenna. These paintings are the places he’s hidden these and many other things for us rather beautifully and in plain view.
Damien Wilkins, January 2005