Across town there’s another show of paintings that could loosely be described as “conceptual” – if such a term means much anymore – but where an artist like John Young eschews any expressionist inferences in his work, Noel McKenna embraces them.
It’s not that McKenna’s show at Darren Knight Gallery is all big paint drips and gestural marks – the works are carefully considered and constructed pictures – it’s just that McKenna takes his sense of humour, his sense of whimsy and irony and puts them on display in the same way a cooler hand might frame their big ideas. McKenna is painter who is acutely self aware, but in a lesson to many other artists, he never lets that self awareness curdle into cloying knowingness. He’s an artist with a light touch.
Those who saw the Big Things Australia painting in this year’s Wynne Prize at the AGNSW will be happy that you can get a second chance to view McKenna’s careful diagrammatic mapping of where big things are located around the country. We described the painting back in March as showing that inanimate objects seem more popular up north (pineapples, bananas, avocados, bottles) whereas animals seem more popular down south and to the west (koalas, crayfish, penguins). Well, we were wrong. On second examination we discovered that McKenna’s painting in fact shows that it’s all pretty even in the world of monster objects – there are cows, sheep and Captain Cook in Far North Queensland and out west there are bottles and sheep as well as cameras and big men with bag pipes. We stand humbly corrected.
Queenslander is another example of grouping information so that not only do the words and lines create pleasing visual patterns, they also teach you something, which is really what art should be doing and we encourage more of it. The painting explains all the peculiarities of Queensland culture from dress and cuisine to local customs. For example the phrase “gone troppo” means:
“To adapt to a tropical climate by adopting local dress + customs to such an extent that it is perceived as bizarre. This is a specialised use of “go troppo” from elsewhere in Aus. Meaning to act in a crazy manner. Troppo first recorded in 1941.”
The pity of this painting is that it can’t be folded up and put in your pocket to be used as a handy guide when you next visit Queensland. There’s a crossword painting called Australian Art History 1933-1978 which has a rather difficult series of questions and, perhaps significantly, no answers arte supplied. Obviously, you can’t fill in the painting, but the artist and the gallery have helpfully provided an A3 photocopy of the painting which you can take away and do at home.
There are also a number of smaller paintings in the show featuring details of the Big Things Australia painting, such as the Big Koala, Dadswell Creek, Victoria and Big Strawberry, Redlands, Queensland. We also enjoyed the artist’s beer art, XXXX being a big spiritual part of the show, as well as the very special curtain between the two main galleries at Darren Knight.
Our favourite painting was Home, Blue Mountains which shows either (we’re guessing) a Crimson Chat (Epthianura tricolor) or a Mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum) sitting on a fence. It’s a sweet painting, charming really, but the clue in this picture is that the bird is sitting on a fence that has musical notes as a decorative element on the fence wires. The idea of the bird and its sound are neatly and succinctly described. It’s a method that McKenna uses through all the works in the show – a house has a fake garden with fake animals in it, replacing reality with its simulacra, or the map of Australia that is made up from the names of artists who created it. Elsewhere the artist also challenges visitors to the gallery to guess the worth of the world’s smallest painting and make bids for it. We’re assuming that the lowest bid will win. There are plenty of jokes in the show and there’s plenty of McKenna’s whit – but there’s something else that’s really unaccountable – magic.