Moya McKenna: Not so still life - Art Collector

Issue 53, July - September 2010

For a painter working in the still life tradition, Moya McKenna certainly couldn’t be considered traditional. Instead her idiosyncratic tableaux are played out with a free arm that owes more to abstract expressionism than classical realism writes Amber McCulloch.

In a sun-drenched studio in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote, painter Moya McKenna is hard at work. Pulling a chest of drawers into place, she piles onto it whatever is lying around – disembodied mannequin limbs, a single sunflower, random cords, a houseplant – to create a quirky tableau which she will carefully photograph and then paint. The studio is a central to McKenna’s practice, its light giving birth to her distinctive, yellow-rich palette and its furniture becoming the subjects of her paintings.

The practical and corporeal elements involved in the production of McKenna’s work – as well as the physical matter of arranging them – are as essential to the artist’s practice as is the style in which she paints. Characteristically created using a wet-on-wet technique – in which the paint is not allowed to dry between layers – McKenna’s oils seethe with life, resulting in comparisons to the work of Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston and the American action painters of the 1950s. McKenna describes her work as gestural painting, in so much as the act of creation (what famed critic Harold Rosenberg described as “the event” of the painting) is evident in the finished product and is intrinsically tied to the work’s meaning.

For McKenna, painting is a process of discovery – each work informs the next, and each constitutes a surprise in its outcome. Painting wet-on-wet implies an urgency that precludes preciousness; indeed many of McKenna’s works don’t make the cut. It’s a matter of trial and error, which the painter herself admits can often result in “a mess”. What it amounts to, however, is a series of coherent projects that can be read in terms of a practical progression of thought and technique held together by a recurrence of motifs and consistency of colour.

Much has been made of the speed at which McKenna works – often a painting is completed during the course of a day – but despite the quickness of execution, each is several days in the planning. Setting up the still life and photographing it to ascertain a suitable composition, as well as preparing a fresh palette of colours, takes time and consideration. It’s a process that McKenna says is now taking even more time as her practice develops and her technique matures. McKenna also says that she is nowadays paying more attention to detail, as is evident in her increasingly crowded picture planes.

Although elaborately titled, the disparate objects in McKenna’s paintings do little to give away a coherent subtext. Rather, the regularly appearing items are mysterious subjects, onto which the viewer is welcome to impose their own readings. McKenna denies any significance in her choice of props – still, a partly opened drawer can’t help but suggest what may be inside, just as a roughly daubed sunflower will surely invoke art history and the iconic paintings of Vincent van Gogh. When asked about the relevance of the latter, McKenna does not frown on comparisons, but gently suggests she included the great yellow flowers for no other purpose than to simply add a “natural organic element” to her work.

Born in the United Kingdom in 1973, McKenna and her family came to Australia aboard a Russian cruise liner when she was two years old. The artist recalls little of the journey, but has seen “classic photographs” of the family at sea. The McKennas settled in Sydney, where Moya would go on to study fine art at the Institute of Technology (now the National Art School).

Upon moving to Melbourne in the mid-1990s, McKenna continued her artistic education, undertaking a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts. It was here that the artist honed her painting skills and developed the style for which she would soon become known. During her time at VCA, McKenna began to show her work in group exhibitions and in the year 2000 became associated with Melbourne’s DAMP collective of artists, which was founded in 1995 and has included members such as James Lynch and Blair Trethowan.

As her work developed and gained prestige, McKenna was included in group exhibitions at Melbourne galleries including the RMIT Project Space and the Ian Potter Museum of Art, and in 2003 she staged her first solo exhibition, entitled Still Life, at Melbourne’s TBC Art Inc. Notably, McKenna’s paintings attracted critical attention in 2006 when they were included in New Objectivity at Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne. Showcasing the work of three contemporary painters – McKenna, Michael Zavros and Jonathan Nichols – the exhibition heralded a new approach to painting, one that prompted Ashley Crawford (writing for The Age newspaper) to describe McKenna’s work in terms of “a visceral drama with a sense of unyielding urgency”. Since then, McKenna has gone on to stage three more solo exhibitions at both Sydney’s Gallery 9 and Melbourne’s Neon Parc, which now represents her.

The past two years have seen an upsurge in McKenna’s career, following the 2008 inclusion of her work in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual Primavera survey exhibition of emerging artists. Held in spring, Primavera is a veritable passport to art world success, providing institutional support and huge exposure to young practitioners, while earmarking them as ones to watch among collectors, critics and gallerists.

From here, McKenna has gone on to complete a residency at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces in Melbourne, where she worked towards an exhibition of new works, including a stop-frame animation, featuring her army of studio props. A recording of the animation accompanied her newest paintings in the exhibition at the end of her time at Gertrude, marking a tribute to her trusty subjects as well as an expansion of mediums at her disposal.

As testimony to her burgeoning success in the market, McKenna’s paintings have been bought into a number of collections in recent years, including those of the City of Melbourne, Monash University of Art, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (which also recently acquired McKenna’s Conversation and the Wall).

With a growing national profile, McKenna is now considered one of Australia’s most noteworthy emerging painters, and in December last year Neon Parc represented McKenna at the New Art Dealers Association Art Fair in Miami – constituting the artist’s first exhibition in the United States. The paintings shown from her Good Fortune series were met with a favourable reception, indicating that the upward push for her idiosyncratic still lifes has only just begun.

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