Noel McKenna

Untitled, 2000
oil on canvas
182.4 x 152.0 cm
signed and dated ‘N McKenna 00’ (upper left) and inscribed with artist name, address and title ‘Untitled’ (on the reverse)

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Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
Private collection, Sydney

Sulman Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2000

Untitled, 2000 is a major painting by Noel McKenna that was a finalist in that year’s Sulman Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

At the centre of the work is a large birdcage around an eastern rosella. Small black finches sit at the base of the cage in the middle of a desolate landscape and gloomy sky. A single black cloud sits behind the immobilised bird, protruding from its back like an outstretched wing. 

Domesticated animals – cats, dogs, horses and birds – feature heavily in McKenna’s work. As Art Gallery of New South Wales librarian Steven Miller has noted, McKenna’s depictions of animals “say something about our shared humanity, levelled in its affections and its vulnerability.” Set against a desolate background, void of any human presence, this painting reflects Miller’s observation that McKenna’s paintings “reflect worlds of loneliness and claustrophobia. But this is not all. There is hope; not derived from a vague feeling that everything will work out at the end, but rather from a choice about how one eventually makes sense of our untidy lives.”

In a sense, Untitled connected with McKenna’s broader interest in suburbia and domesticity, with the birdcage reflecting the same feeling of constraint or control of nature that is seen in his paintings of houses and neighbourhoods, as well as in his paintings of maps, in which McKenna draws attention to the human need to classify and take ownership of the land. Around the time of this painting, McKenna had just completed his Southland series of paintings from New Zealand’s remote far south, works that are more documentary than surreal, but share the same sparse, barren quality. The caging of the rosella – an Australian native bird – further reflects this human impulse to capture nature’s beauty, rather than to revel in it organically.

  • Untitled

Image courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

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Now Sydney-based, Noel McKenna was born and raised in Brisbane in the 1960s and recalls a childhood spent in the suburbs in the era before front doors were locked, dogs were muzzled and concerns for OH&S prevented kids from climbing trees and play equipment. He initially undertook studies in architecture at the University of Queensland in 1974 and transferred to the art department of the Queensland College of Art a year later. In 1981 he moved to Sydney to study at the Alexander Mackie College. McKenna has worked for over three decades with a broad range of materials across painting, drawing, printmaking, ceramics and sculpture.

McKenna developed an interest in ‘primitive’ art as a young man after reading the poetry of Sylvia Plath and following the artistic threads of her inspiration back to Paul Klee, Henri Rousseau and Giorgio de Chirico. There are echoes of surrealism within his works, with small moments – a window, an animal, an object – in his sparsely populated landscapes providing clues to an underlying narrative. Looking through the windows of homes, his works can carry the same effect as an Edward Hopper painting, a mode of storytelling through the unity of natural, structural and human elements. The primitive influence extends into his practice, with an intentionally childlike and innocent style and the painterly application of the enamel with exposed sections of canvas beneath the brushstrokes.

The experience of place is a focus within much of McKenna’s art. His recent major solo exhibition, 'Landscape – Mapped' at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, included his 'Map' series, which combines cartographical maps of Australia with native flora, fauna and landmarks in a quest to represent the variegated landscapes that comprise Australia as a nation. On a more intimate scale, place manifests itself in suburban or rural themes, with works depicting everything from street corners to homesteads in the countryside. ‘I have a sort of dream to live in a small dwelling in the country. This is the kind of place I would like.’

In 2016 his work featured in 'Close to Home: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2016' at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. In 2014, he was the subject of a major solo exhibition 'ABSURDIA: Noel McKenna – A Focus' at the Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle. He is a five-time recipient of the Wynne Prize for Watercolour, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and received the 1994 Sulman Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. McKenna is widely represented in public and private collections in Australia and New Zealand.