There is something in the way Noel McKenna presents his ideas and the quiet pathos in his depictions of life that shows a profound understanding of the human condition with all its’ frailties. As respected curator Glenn Barkley so neatly puts it “he depicts the noble poetry of the everyday.”
McKenna chronicles these everyday journeys be they in Sydney, where he works, or on his frequent travels both in Australia and overseas. There is a deliberate banality in the material he chooses to paint and a spare language in his compositions, all underpinned by an insightful humour. In recent years he has made paintings of the big structures located in rural Australia (think Big Banana); a map of all the public toilets in Sydney with a rating system attached (very useful) and a list of things that bug McKenna about the world like “4WDs in the city”, “most politicians” and the fact that “too many things are made in China”.
Melbourne’s Niagara Galleries plays host to the most recent offering, the result of a trip to his ancestral homeland of Ireland and the famous racetrack ‘The Curragh’ in County Kildare. McKenna creates an air of melancholy by depicting the equine residents, these powerful racing beasts, mostly alone in bare paddocks. All the colour and frivolity of the racetrack is absent and in ‘Horse on a jetty’ a brown horse looks wistfully over the sea to a rising full moon and there is a sad inevitability in ‘Breeding Barn’. This relationship between human and animal has long been a curiosity of McKenna and these sparse works, painted in his signature naïve style, continue to hint at a narrative beyond the picture plane.
It’s certainly no co-incidence that this show is being held during the Spring Racing Carnival and in the home town of the race that stops the nation, the Melbourne Cup. These modest and yet surprisingly moving paintings present another side to the racing industry and also encourage the viewer to examine something about ourselves.