I always know when I’m in the company of a great artist when I leave an exhibition of their work and the whole world around me seems to be overlaid with the essence of their vision. It happened in 1986, after a Bill Woodrow show at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. When I left the white cube space and wandered the streets back to Leith, everyday objects took on the “look” of his considered juxtapositions of found objects. It happens when cruising through Los Angeles, and witnessing the fingerprint of Ed Ruscha all over that mega-city’s shop-fronts - stretching up to the Hollywood sign. Rosalie Gascoigne, John Wolseley, Sean Scully, Cindy Sherman, Pat Brassington – each in their very own way hits the spot and makes the mental connection for me.
Then there is Noel McKenna. Since first seeing his work decades ago I have been thrilled with every subsequent encounter. Are they naïve? Are they cartoonish? No, they are some of the most sophisticated paintings and constructions it could ever be your pleasure to encounter. They have the simplicity of form of Giotto and the recognizable characterisations that nod in the direction of Pieter Bruegal the Elder, or Frida Kahlo. But it’s only a nod, because they – those three -are utterly different from each other. These drawings and paintings also have a dark, noir-ish, psychological edge to them. They veer between the surprising and the everyday. But when they enter that (often domestic) territory, the one we think we all know, they become totally transformative. And we become yet another stranger in a strange land. For this is the world of Noel McKenna himself. His imagination seduces us, and like a reverse-pickpocket, when we get home we find something special secreted in our pocket or purse.
I’d been thinking intently about Noel’s work recently, travelling the Iron Rooster from Geelong to Melbourne, most days, to meet up with Paul Greenaway who was in town for the SPRING 1883 art fair in the Windsor Hotel, where the Australian constitution was signed. And that was where I first saw these wonderful doors. Each day, through the train window, the passing landscape filled with McKenna characters – many of them inanimate objects that under his spell came alive. There were the fly-swat lights of the Cats stadium, where I joined the train at South Geelong station. A cat, weaving through the railings on the platform, gave me a very McKenna-like stare.
There was an abandoned racetrack, seemingly constructed of thin pencil line and watercolour. There were sheds of all descriptions, weather-beaten and paint-peeled – some joined to others, at strange angles, like badly constructed Renaissance chapels and churches.
Then there was the signage, in desolate fields between the big city and the You Yangs. The fairly straightforward “Poo $4 a Bag”; the more puzzling “BOMBARDIER”; the universal graffiti beginning around Footscray but taking on a very particular McKenna spray.
And at the point of entry into Melbourne, the big wheel rising from the desolation of Docklands, with a tiny helicopter hovering overhead like a sinister mozzie.
A quick tram ride up Bourke Street and the head porter gave me a McKenna wink as I entered the faded grandeur of The Windsor. The grand piano on the first floor looked like a painted backdrop to a McKenna theatrical production. And then, I walked through a very special door, at the far end of an Alice in Wonderland-like corridor, and was in Suite 130 GAGPROJECTS’.
I was here to see an example of McKenna’s latest, and I think finest, series of works. Each one is a real door, although sometimes the handles and fittings are at different levels to those you might expect. Set into panels of varying sizes and numbers, are his cast of thousands: the blue cat; the man reading in his armchair under a triangle of light; the woman in bed staring at the ceiling; a computer screen in a strangely-angled room that is as subtle and luminous as a Morandi still life; a clock that might read ten to seven, or is it sixteen minutes to ten?
These museum-quality works – large and chunky, yet at the same time small and intimate, a combination very rarely seen, mark not so much a new departure for McKenna, but an ambitious laying out of his wares within a brilliantly chosen framing device – The Door.
As the artist wrote recently, “Take the domestic interior, which is what this series of doors is about. When we need privacy we close the door and whoever is outside is left to ponder what is going on behind. This set of works is about me thinking about what people do once they are behind the door. For the most part, they are scenes of the everyday, which is what goes on behind the majority of doors. The strangeness of people is sometimes expressed by the rooms they inhabit, by the colour of the wall, the way they place furniture, and other objects around their house or bedsit. The interior is also about the inner, internal part of a person, where one has thoughts about many different things. These range from simple things, like what to wear, to more serious ones that can take in memories both sad and happy, to abstract and even nonsensical thoughts and dreams. Some theorists say babies come out of the womb dreaming. If that is true, then a life lived makes for lots of thoughts and dreams in people’s minds.”
And there you have it. It is as simple and as magically complex as that. Once seen, these images are never forgotten.
Dr Peter Hill