4–27 OCT 2007
Pictures and events
A chest of drawers occupies most of Moya McKenna’s painting A parting (2007). It is an object which has consistently appeared in her work, shifting between bedroom furniture and studio prop, at once a functional base for other objects but also – in a way that is difficult to pin down – the container of secrets. In A parting we view the chest of drawers from behind. An open drawer bears the painting’s central enigmatic form, and just as the drawer suggests the opening of a mouth, this strange form is like a single eye which looks back towards us. Although the painting is bathed in yellow light – and anyone who has visited McKenna’s Northcote studio can attest to the distinctive light of her studio – it does not approach the lyrical. Its mood is claustrophobic . Those objects compressed into a shallow space press towards us as we sort out the painting’s imaginary space. The meeting of yellows and blacks, and the interplay of raking light and deep shadows, make for a space of anxiety, where air assumes the thickness of paint.
A parting emerged through a practice which is common among artists, and perhaps especially painters: a work swap. McKenna and the Melbourne painter Bradd Westmoreland, who occupies a studio only a few blocks from McKenna’s, exchanged works, and then each produced a work conceived as a response to the work each had acquired. A parting is McKenna’s response to Sanctuary, the Westmoreland painting she acquired. The exchange is emblematic of the way images and ideas circulate amongst artists, a convivial and generous tradition which represents something of the utopian dimensions of the tradition of the profession of the artist. McKenna’s work itself curiously bears the mark of these origins: the blue “pupil” and pink “iris” in the painting are colours characteristic of Westmoreland’s palette, and alien to McKenna’s. The eye which looks back out of the drawer becomes the presence of another within the painting.
McKenna makes a painting in a single day. She does not return to a painting the next day or the following week. This is an article of faith. It is also part of the distinctive appearance of her work. Those oily surfaces – which often remind me of the look and charge of Phillip Guston’s figurative paintings – emerge through working wet into wet. They are of one extended moment – the encounter on one day between the artist and the picture, the light of that encounter, its particular speed, its mood – always articulated through paint, the meeting of one gesture and another, one colour and another.
Talking to McKenna about her work in the studio, I have often found myself reminded of Harold Rosenberg’s essay “The American Action Painters”. Rosenberg described the working method which set American Abstract Expressionists apart from the painters who preceded them: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of that encounter”. There is a charismatic appeal in Rosenberg’s contention, though in the oeuvres of all the Abstract Expressionists, and perhaps most glaringly in the case of Willem de Kooning, a consistent pictorial language is clearly evident, which refers both to itself – in the development of forms and devices from one painting to another – and to the history of painting – in the rejection or assimilation of preceding models of picture-making. There is no tabula rasa. But if we were to use Rosenberg’s idea of the event, we could perhaps talk about a three-way encounter between the artist, the material conditions of the painting “event”, and what we might call the knowledge of painting.
McKenna’s painting A parting might be examined in relation to the same three-way encounter. We are conscious of the painting responding to a particular set of conditions in the studio, and this response is manifested in one session of painting. The work is “an event”, to use Rosenberg’s words. But the work also grapples with pre-existing pictorial languages. Firstly, it grapples with McKenna’s own pictorial language, which has developed through a body of paintings (and super 8 film works) depicting a limited number of props and objects, exploring a certain kind of compressed interior space. Secondly, it relies on a collective history of images, and especially a history of paintings, which is the field into which the work is cast but also that which makes the work intelligible, which gives the work its richness. In the case of A parting this linkage to other paintings, implicit in any painting, is exaggerated by the work’s relationship to Westmoreland’s painting. The central and uncanny form in A parting is precisely the presence of one painting within another. It looks back at us, and marks the encounter with the painting as absorbing, even all-engulfing, but always linked to chains of other images.