Known for his postmodern figurative paintings, a new retrospective exhibition of STEPHEN McKENNA’s work hangs alongside a group show of works by six artists influenced by McKenna’s techniques and processes …
Over the course of his career, McKenna’s immense output revealed his interest in classicism, architecture – the artist was an exceptional draftsman – landscapes, still life, cityscapes and the animal world. He was tireless in the pursuit of his practice, says curator of “A Painters Life: Stephen McKenna (1939-2017)” at Visual, Emma-Lucy O’Brien.
What is Stephen McKenna best remembered for in terms of style and specific paintings?
Approaching the world around him as his subject, enquiring and rendering, he fulfilled a life that was dedicated to the matter and subject of painting. He did not describe himself as an artist, he was first and foremost a painter, committed to this craft.
For the viewer, the work, especially when experienced in a survey exhibition as seen at Visual, invites a consideration of this artist’s perspective. You are held at a distance to speculate on painted scenarios imbued with a strangeness that is hard to describe, outside of the fact that this was McKenna’s take on life and the elements that shape it.
For artists he was a generous mentor and colleague, always happy to talk through the work and what was at stake. For those viewing his work he rendered visible an enquiring perspective on the world. His career portrays a man who journeyed with intent, always looking with an enquiring eye for the next moment or collection of moments to be interpreted through paint.
Can you tell us about McKenna’s background?
In an interview for 1990 Stephen McKenna was asked if he considered himself Irish, English or European? He replied, “all three”. A significant part of his practice was dedicated to the documentation of the cities and places that he travelled to within Europe. Capturing cityscapes at particular times in their architectural, social and political history, some are epic in scale, stemming surely from past traditions in European history painting. Berlin Havelsee depicts ruin and wasteland, loaded with symbolic tropes, monumental architectures – grand civic buildings recede into the background of a light-filled foreground full of waste and debris, documenting a period of change in the country’s history and a clearing of ground for a new future.
What was McKenna’s connection to Carlow?
McKenna lived and worked in many places throughout Europe over the course of his career. In 1998 he moved to Bagenalstown in Co Carlow, which he described as “without doubt a vision of Arcadia.” McKenna held a studio there where he worked until his death in 2017. At Visual, original watercolours by Mckenna from The Barrow Book, curated by artist Adam Bohanna, are on display as a nod to the artist’s connection with Co Carlow and the riverscape that he enjoyed so much.
Can you tell us a bit about the group show?
The exhibition explores the influence of McKenna on other artists including Adam Bohanna, Eithne Jordan, Stephen Loughman, Isabel Nolan, Mairead O’hEocha and William McKeown. Mairead O’hEocha has said, “Stephen McKenna’s work always stood out and separated itself from everybody else, he appeared to be on some great odyssey while everyone around him was looking on from the shore. The early work seemed sometimes indigestible and impenetrable to me, and later works just as often seductive, curious and enigmatic.”
Need to Know: “A Painters Life: Stephen McKenna (1939-2017)” is on at Visual, Old Dublin Road, Carlow until May 19; www.visualcarlow.ie.
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