Dog in Backyard, 2000
oil and enamel on plywood
signed, dated and inscribed with title (on the reverse)
Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney
Acquired from the above in 2000
Noel McKenna is an artist who works across several mediums, but he is best known for his finely drawn paintings. He explores a range of idiosyncratic Australian imagery, returning frequently to images of the domestic dog and family home.
In this way, the delightful 'Dog in Backyard' (2000) is pure McKenna; an intimate oil and enamel on plywood that is not only a portrait of a hound lounging lazily on the lawn, but also a portrait of Australian suburbia. Beyond the artist's signature paired-back visual language, there is a multiplicity of layers at play in this deceptively simple work.
Lying outside his miniature house in his own 'front yard', the dog is also - as the title suggests - lying in his owner's backyard, seemingly gazing toward the human-sized version of his kennel. And behind the dog's house are two more human houses, playfully suggesting that in each of their yards there are two more dogs again, lying in their front yard, in their owner's backyard. In this way, the charming painting evokes the complexity of an MC Escher visual matrix, while showing the most ordinary of scenes.
This play with scale - the dog house as a miniature human house - also recalls McKenna's celebrated series of paintings which document Australia's 'big things'; roadside attractions intended to dwarf and delight the human tourist. The artist's characteristic quiet palette of green, grey and brown is in perfect harmony with the treatment of the delicate brushwork. It captures the wonderful, peculiar stillness of the Australian suburban landscape, or what curator Glenn Barkley has called McKenna's "noble poetry of the everyday".
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.