A Painter’s Life


Writing on the notion of painting in 1994, Adrian Searle remarked that painting exhibitions are often classified as a “resurrection” of sorts. He argues that we need not consider these events in such a manner – that painting “is not a patient, it is not ill or dying, or in need of resuscitation. It is not convalescing, or in remission, reborn or revived. It needs no revivals: painting is not an old-time religion”.1 If anything can testify to this statement, it is the current retrospective exhibition, ‘A Painter’s Life: Works from 1958–2016’, and the accompanying group exhibition, ‘Legacies’, at VISUAL Carlow, which seek to celebrate the life and enduring influence of Irish artist Stephen McKenna. 

The genesis for this exhibition began in 2016, when McKenna was invited to create a retrospective for Ireland’s largest gallery space. During a studio visit with curator and gallery coordinator Emma-Lucy O’Brien, McKenna claimed that VISUAL was not a place “built for painting”.2 Seemingly driven by a desire to challenge the authority of this 29-metre tall cube, McKenna selected 71 paintings dating from 1958 to 2016, culminating in an incredible salon-style hang. The artist selected works specifically for ‘A Painter’s Life’, working continually from a scale architectural model he had built for the task. After the artist’s death in 2017, the exhibition was brought to completion with help from the McKenna family and the Kerlin Gallery (who represent the artist’s estate).

Upon entering the main gallery space at VISUAL, one is struck by the vast scale of the gallery space, as much as the dizzying arena of work on display. Paintings scale the walls, but are discreetly grouped by genre, subject matter or chronology. McKenna worked doggedly and faithfully from early forays into abstraction and surrealism in the 1950s and ‘60s, through to his more familiar classical European and mythological canvases. Still-life paintings sit within his famous interiors; picturesque gardens are bathed in Italian light. Trees are uprooted in an almost apocalyptic vision of Arcadia, whilst Dublin buses traverse Richard Scarry cityscapes. Narcissus stares forlornly into his pool, while chimpanzees roam free and Fionn MaCoul’s Irish wolfhound, Bran, grins. Marat and the French Revolution sit comfortably alongside native herons and gulls. 

‘A Painters Life: Stephen McKenna (1939-2017)’, installation view,  VISUAL Carlow, 2019; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, copyright and courtesy of VISUAL Carlow.

McKenna adhered strictly to the steady construction of his paintings, but there was an ever-changing flow and rhythm to his subject matter. A delicate study of a rainbow segues into a brutal seascape, demonstrating what the artist called “the rigour of self-permission.” There is no censorship in his production. The subject matter is matched in pace by the constancy of his output. Although he had said of his own work “academically, they are not great,” his practice eschewed the notion of ‘isms’ in favour of allegory and the “indivisible substance” of painted matter to construct a known, tangible world where Pompeian ruins lie apposite Donegal tweed; where the River Barrow hosts “Marie-Antoinette and her ladies playing at being dairymaids in the water meadows of Moneybeg”.3 

‘A Painters Life: Stephen McKenna (1939–2017)’, installation view, VISUAL Carlow, 2019; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, copyright and courtesy of VISUAL Carlow.

The core value at the centre of this retrospective is perhaps that which remained a central tenant throughout McKenna’s career as a painter. It is a show that represents a life’s inquiry, often in repeating fragments; something which only becomes apparent with a second visit or very particular attention paid to the accompanying gallery guide. One series (Night Festival, Crowd at a Fire with Water and Procession with Fire) depict figures grouped around bonfires and in an evening cortege with lit torches. They are also intense studies of light, reflection, figuration and flame, reiterating in painted matter what was crucial to the artist’s investigation: “I had been concerned with certain fundamentals of the human situation, or human activity, in spatial contexts, which were essentially landscape in character.” Stylistically, they look to be painted simultaneously or at most, weeks apart. More careful analysis reveals that these works bracket a timespan of thirty years. Another simple trio looks initially to group small flocks of fluidly rendered birds with a casual, unframed study (St Johns Point) placed elegantly below it’s own evolution into a Tuscan town square (Pitigliano with Bird Flock). These nestle a fluttering avian silhouette against intense blue (Birds and Trees). This little trinity demonstrates McKenna’s edict that painting is a “life’s craft”. Between the brisk study and the intricate Italian townscape, these small canvases span a quarter of a century.

‘A Painters Life: Stephen McKenna (1939-2017)’, installation view,  VISUAL Carlow, 2019; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, copyright and courtesy of VISUAL Carlow.

There is an exquisite poignancy to the group show, titled ‘Legacies’, which accompanies ‘A Painter’s Life.’ Housed in the Link Gallery, the exhibition features work by six contemporary artists: Adam Bohanna, Eithne Jordan, Stephen Loughman, William McKeown (1968–2011), Isabel Nolan and Mairead O’hEocha, whose practices were directly influenced by Stephen McKenna’s technique, advice and friendship. These artists benefited not only from practical resources and advice from McKenna (recipes for painting the sky; “if stuck for something to paint, paint a tree”) but from the unapologetic tenacity of an artist who painted and believed in painting. It was said in conversation at the exhibition launch that the constancy of his own constructs was matched only by the constancy of his personal making – that he was someone very much at peace with his work. 

This confidence is apparent in his legacy, with his seminal curation of ‘The Pursuit of Painting’ at IMMA in 1997, to his adherence that the work must happen everywhere – if not within meticulously kept studio hours, then fixed at the open window of a hotel in a European Port. The references to mythology and paradox – humourous, in that one could make a painting of a paradox – all form the scaffold upon which his work hangs. The foundations themselves are apparent in the ‘Legacies’ exhibition with Stephen Loughman’s precise trees, Adam Bohanna’s sumptuous Boy with Stick and Isabel Nolan’s canvas donkey, Pompeii, staring into its pool of goldfish, which a heron in the gallery grounds is rumoured to be fond of eating. 

Christina Mullan is a writer and researcher based in Galway.

‘A Painters Life: Stephen McKenna (1939–2017) Works from (1958–2016)’ and ‘Legacies’ continue at VISUAL Carlow until 19 May. 

1 Adrian Searle and Linda Schofield, Unbound: Possibilities in Painting; Hayward Gallery, London, 3 March to 30 May 1994 (London: South Bank Centre, 1994).
2 This expression was recalled by Emma-Lucy O’Brien during her talk on McKenna in VISUAL on 9 February. She had visited the artist in his studio, while they were planning the exhibition.
3 T. F. O’Sullivan, Goodly Barrow: A Voyage on an Irish River (Lilliput Press, 2002), quoted in Stephen McKenna, The Barrow Book (Carlow Local Authorities: Carlow, 2004).

Feature Image:
‘A Painters Life: Stephen McKenna (1939–2017)’, installation view, VISUAL Carlow, 2019; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, copyright and courtesy of VISUAL Carlow.

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