STORY GREGORY O’BRIEN
In March-April 2014 Sydney-based Noel McKenna was International Artist in Residence at Two Rooms Gallery, Auckland. During that time he produced an exhibition comprising 14 oil paintings— ‘From One Tree Hill to Half Moon Day’—as well as two 14-part suites of diary-like works-on-paper. Gregory O’Brien visited McKenna in mid-April. They borrowed a car and headed north in New Zealand..
1. Passengers; Auckland / Whangarei
Leaving behind in the studio nearly four weeks’ worth of pen and ink journal-drawings (produced at a rate of one per day) as well as 12 of a projected series of 14 paintings, Noel McKenna—a resolute non-driver—sits in the passenger’s seat beside me as we head towards the Harbour Bridge. Continuing northwards, we are soon discussing his earlier paintings of New Zealand: the Southland roadscapes from 2002, and the Houses 4 Sale NZ exhibition at Niagara Galleries in 2010. Noel keeps coming back to New Zealand. It reminds him of how Australia was a few decades back—Brisbane most of all—with its visible bones, recognisable social pattern and its sense of incompletion... The out-of-the-way, underpopulated region of Northland offers a particularly dramatic recasting of Noel’s ‘provincial’ Brisbane. Consumer/capitalist culture hasn’t quite digested the place yet, although it is nibbling at the edges. We drive forth amidst a cloud of information, broadcasts, bumperstickers and billboards. We are reminded, far too often, that Royal Baby George is now half-way through his Grand New Zealand Tour, and the missing Malaysian Airlines plane is still missing. On a brighter note, a sign in front of a roadside factory— CONCRETE IDEAS—offers good advice for artists and writers alike. Continuing onwards, we pass countless ‘McKenna’ compositions—pruned trees and grazed paddocks, the oil refinery at Marsden Point, fruit stalls, stray dogs… People sometimes talk about the banality of McKenna’s subjects—lazy horses, volcanic stones piled into walls, pets and beerbottles —but it is not their banality he is drawn to, it is the fact that these things are, to him, genuinely very, very interesting. It is hard to find a car park near the Whangarei Art Museum as the local Corvette car club is holding a muster and shining convertibles clog the vicinity. In the midst of a cacophony of revving engines and loud provincial banter, I am scheduled to give a lecture on the expatriate New Zealand illustrator and artist Graham Percy (1938— 2008), an exhibition of whose drawings is installed adjacent to works by another ex-pat, the kinetic sculptor Len Lye (1901-80). With an installation of ceramic swans from the Crown Lynn studio also on display, the gallery offers a heady mix of art and design—a much needed tonic in a region that can seem, at a glance, dour, pragmatic and unimaginative. Various theories are offered how it is that some of the country’s most remarkable art continues to emerge from, and can still to be found in, outlying regions of New Zealand—encircled by hotted up cars and with the sound of doughnuts in the distance—but few conclusions are reached. An old friend of mine, Damian Wojcik, turns up at the lecture. A medical doctor, ex-Trappist monk and watercolourist, he later takes us up the hill behind his house, where he has built a ‘hermitage’ —a
meditation room, 22 years in the making. Here we enter a remarkable octagonal structure, the entrance corridor of which curls around, like the inside of a shell, before finally opening onto the inner space. The layered, ferro-cement roof has been designed to cut out radio waves or any manner of transmission, cellphone or wi-fi. The structure seemed to have more in common with a well-made watch or machine than a conventional building. Damian shows us some of his religious paintings, inspired in part by Stanley Spencer (whose works he once sought out in the Art Gallery of Western Australia storeroom). High on the living room wall, his watercolour of a dog in a coal bucket, dangling from a crane, catches our attention. For Damian, painting is a way of solving specific moral as well as aesthetic problems—the images are at once a part of the world, yet withdrawn, hermetically sealed from it. Like a dog in a bucket hoisted high above an industrial landscape or a hermitage on a hill. I think it was John Keats who wrote: “My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk.” That feels apt for Damian, as it does for Noel. What are the themes in Noel McKenna’s art, I ask myself: isolation (and tentative formulations of family, community), uprootedness, introversion… We drink tea and ponder the sky seen through an empty bird-cage. Autumnal light. Painting and Truth. The way things are and/or might be. Noel tells us, fervently, that if a painter is to place a tea-pot in a work, then the tea-pot must be of viable proportions and, here’s the crux of the matter, the thing should be able to pour. Potters have to learn this hard fact, so why shouldn’t painters.
2. As Is, Where Is / Whangarei to Omapere
Summoned by a–roadside placard ‘ALL BOOKS $1’, we pull over at an off-season fruit store which has been converted into a secondhand bookshop, untended if you discount the figure on a tractor, one paddock away, who waves as we enter the small, prefabricated structure. Noel wends his way from Chemical methods of weed control to Sheep Part 1: Sheep Husbandry. He comes across a book he thinks Margaret, back home in Sydney, might find useful: The Mother Manual. Most impressive among his $1-a-copy bundle is the New Zealand Jersey Herd Book Vol. XXX1, 1934, which dates from a time when every cow and bull in New Zealand had an officially registered name. A litany of these resurface in McKenna’s visual diary of the day: Glee, Darkie, Lovelight, Singing Bird, Topsy, Attar Rose, Persephone, Literature, Patience, Wisp, Idol, Masterpiece, Patchwork, Sunny Boy, Sunbeam, Dark Boy, Combination, Royal Rascal, Monopoly, Frisky, Palatine, All Black… Amidst the predictable Mills & Boons and Dick Francis novels, we confront surprising manifestations of the farming province’s inner life: Shakespeare. Herodotus. Wilson Harris. Coleridge… I wonder how Adonis’s An introduction to Arabic Poetry ended up here—or a copy of The Music of the Renaissance that once belonged to a woman whose irresistible name, Arum Jung, is inscribed on the fly-leaf. Produce-related labels and prices, written on the wall in felt pen, fill the gaps between books: “WE ARE UNABLE TO SUPPLY FRENCH TARRAGON AT THIS STAGE GINNY” or “SWEET CICELY WILL NOT GROW UP HERE. WELL IT…” (the rest of this statement is obscured by a large glory-box with a slot in the top, inscribed neatly: “PLEASE PAY HERE”). In lieu of seasonal vegetables, literature. An hour further down the road, we pull over alongside the Dargaville Raceway. When I lived in the nearby town—late in the 1970s—the annual race-meet had the solemnity of a feast day. On every other day of the year, sheep graze on the grounds and in the members’ enclosure; the racetrack lies on the land like a burst balloon. In an era of online betting and Melbourne Cup-style hype, country racecourses like this are everywhere fading fast—apart from in Noel’s art. This place I recognise instantly as the hub of McKenna’s Northland. We continue through the dismal town of Dargaville, passing the foot of Awakino Rd, where I used to live (and sleep in the bedroom which McKenna conjured back into being in ‘Writer’s bedroom, Dargaville’ (2007)—a work included in the touring MCA exhibition, South of No
North). The miniature rocking chair we saw back in 2007 on a child’s grave at nearby Mount Wesley Cemetery is nowhere to be found— presumably stolen. (Fortunately it lives on in a 2003 photograph by Laurence Aberhart.) Outside a Maori church, a Broncos flag flies over a freshly dug grave. In a junk shop called ‘Lock, Stock and Barrel’ we are confronted from every direction by an unremitting barrage of “DO NOT TOUCH” signs. This hands-off imperative isn’t a problem for Noel, whose approach has always been a very acquisitive kind of looking but not touching. A note-taking, camera in hand—a leaving of things as they are. With its plethora of words and things—doll’s houses, dead appliances, half-full tins of paint, Easy Listening albums and (appropriately, given the river outside) Handel’s ‘Water Music’— the shop strikes me as a three-dimensional elaboration upon Noel’s wellstocked journal pages. Approaching a bend in the highway north of Dargaville, we are met by the sputter and roar of motorcycles and a disarming bird-like cry. Five or six massive Triumph motorcycles are braking suddenly on account of a large peacock which is bounding, strutting and almost flying across the road before them, its wings and tail extended. A blue fireworks display. The bird makes for safety, leaving behind a few feathers and then the roar, once again, of motorcycles accelerating. Later I proffer, from my $1 book on Arabic poetry, Adonis’s notion that “human nature is constructed in such a way that if a thing appears from an unexpected place, or emerges from an unfamiliar source, the soul admires it with a greater passion”. That would explain, in part, the potency of the peacock we have just seen. A metaphor. A something. And Adonis’s quote, like the book it is taken from, and the fruit-stall where that book was procured, is also, itself, an unexpected thing. Something out of nowhere.
3. If dogs run free / Omapere - Russell Despite signage along the roadside, DOGS KILL KIWIS, an alarming number of untethered canines are sniffing and panting along the gravel verges. I recount one particularly ruinous episode in the region’s history—late in the 19th century—when the colonial government tried to impose a Dog Tax on the Northland Maori community, oblivious to the fact that there was prestige in how many dogs they kept. On the brink of starting a major war, the government finally backed down. Now the Dog Tax is remembered as a poignant moment of Maori resistance—and is the subject of a mural which runs along one side of a Rawene boatshed, visible from the car-ferry as it departs northwards. A few kilometres up-harbour is the settlement of Horeke where, last time Noel and I were here in 2007, we were confronted on the foreshore by what appeared to be a wolf. We both remember the whiteness of its fur, indistinguishable from the shelly beach, toitoi and white blossums. Later my brother Brendan produced a book on his hand-press, The Wolf of Horeke, incorporating Noel’s drawings of the wolf and my poem about it. A morning as clear as anything rendered on paper— a wolf in a country without wolves, something the tide might have brought in news of a far off world— the wolf Horeke walking in its storm of whiteness. No one ever managed to explain the creature to us—whether it was just another of Northland’s multitudinous unleashed dogs or was it possible that a pack of wolves now prowled the Hokianga? I cited, as precedents, the legendary moose-population of Fiordland and the apocryphal panthers of inland Canterbury. Noel isn’t all that interested. He photographs a labrador with a funny walk on the lawn at Kohukohu.
Proceeding north, Noel’s attentions remain focussed on the unfurling roadside—the arrangement of cows on a paddock, the placement of a barn on a sloping field. There are occasional remarks from him: “The greatest artist ever: Paul Klee”. He likes to travel with no music playing; this way he can attend to the ordinary sounds and the litany of Northland placenames: Glink’s Gully, Bailey’s Beach, Omapere, Opononi, Rawene… “Theory is grey / Green the tree of life”. I think it was Octavio Paz who wrote that. I keep finding all manner of things in the Arabian poetry book. According to Al-Jahiz, poetry and art are “the antithesis of thought”. That shuts us up. A nervous traveller, at whose behest virtually our entire Northland tour is conducted at 70kmph, and whose most frequent remark is that I am positioning the car too far to the left, Noel admits that he feels more at home on a bicycle. We forge onwards towards Ahipara, which Noel knows about from Colin McCahon’s late paintings which reference the headland at the foot of Ninety Mile Beach: “Ahipara / here I come / back home where / I started / from.” A few weeks earlier we lingered in front of McCahon’s 14-part Walk (Series C), 1973 at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. McCahon’s seies of unstretched canvases directs the viewer northwards along his beloved Muriwai Beach (where he had a studio during the 1970s), heading towards Ahipara, Ninety Mile Beach and then Cape Reinga, which is in Maori tradition the jumping off place for the souls of the dead. Under a heavy, black sky, I am the only swimmer on Ninety Mile Beach (which is, truth be told, only a disappointing 74 kilometres long), diving into the surging water while Noel waits on the far side of an expanse of sand, sitting in the parked car with the windows wound up, just like a figure in a Noel McKenna painting. His face is obscured by the racing pages of the New Zealand Herald and, occasionally, by his camera. In the nearby town of Kaitaia, a sign on the restaurant frontage states that customers wearing pyjamas or dressing gowns will not be served.
4. negative spaces / Helensville to Auckland
He pays particular attention, he says, to negative space. He zeroes in on such spaces in works by others. The entire province of Northland is a negative space, I put this to him. A vacuity. A teenage poet’s Dargaville bedroom is a very negative space, I add. McKenna has always been drawn to vacancies—to underpopulated corners of living rooms, to deserted bedrooms, to houses and street-frontages stripped, for the most part, of their passing cars and proud owners. We talk about Laurence Aberhart, at whose home in Russell we will stay tonight, and about Lawrence’s friend Robin Morrison, whose 1978 publication South Island from the Road opened the eyes and minds of urban, as well as rural, New Zealanders to the strange, awkward, but occasionally transcendent inhabitants and habitations of Aotearoa/ New Zealand, as seen from main highway or obscure off-road. Camera in hand, Noel finds much to photograph on the journey south. He never asks me to stop the car so he can set up a shot—he would rather snatch the image from the flow of landscape as it is delivered unto him in the passenger’s seat. Photographing through glass means that random reflections and silhouettes appear on his images; at other times a rear-vision mirror or the strut holding up the car-roof intrudes. This kind of impurity he cherishes. (He dislikes non-reflective museum-glass on art works for a similar reason. He is happier that the glass in front of a painting registers the flow of light in the space, the movement in front of as well as within the work.) It is truer to his perception of the world. Noel is approaching Photograph No. 1000 on his digital camera. He says he will have to start deleting stuff. Or maybe it’s time to go home. Auckland-bound, we make our way back to the paintings he has already done and those others concealed, for now, in the future. We climb a fence to look at Richard Serra’s wall-sculpture on Mr Gibbs’ farm, just north of Helensville; we wonder if his pet giraffes have been trained to chase intruders from the well-mown property. And shortly thereafter our car-journey, our ‘narrative drive’—a calculated ploy to offset Noel’s recent rambles by foot in suburban Auckland— concludes. We emerge from sculptor Jeff Thomson’s studio and the cornucopia of John Perry’s museum-house in Helensville township, dazed and delighted, and ever-mindful of Bertrand Russell’s remark: “The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”
07 01 Wharf, Palm Beach, 2014, oil on canvas, 180 x 150cm
02 From ‘Second 14 Days in Auckland’, 2014, watercolour on paper, 40.5 x 30.5cm 03 Bird Home, Auckland, 2014, oil on plywood, 37 x 47cm 04 Top Pigeon Mountain, Auckland, 2014, oil on plywood, 37 x 47cm 05 From ‘Second 14 Days in Auckland’, 2014, watercolour on paper, 40.5 x 30.5cm 06 White Dog, Cornwall park, Auckland, 2014, oil on plywood, 37 x 47cm 07 Property Panmure, Auckland, 2014, oil on plywood, 37 x 47cm Courtesy of the artist, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, Niagara Galleries, Melbourne and Two Rooms Gallery, Auckland.