NOEL MCKENNA

STORY GRE­GORY O’BRIEN

Artist Profile - - CONTENTS - by 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.”

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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.

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