If you followed the artist’s statement for “The Curragh”, you might be led to believe that these new works solely concern animal rights. Central to every sparse composition is a solitary horse. These works were inspired by a visit to the famous racetrack outside Dublin where thoroughbreds are trained.

Compositionally and literally, McKenna’s horses stand apart. Their mute presence begs some other level of empathy and engagement. These are not Stubb’s noble trophy winners or Delacroix’s erotic stallions. Here instead, is the animal as an isolated entity, subdued and harnessed. Perhaps implied through the painter’s bleak narrative is the submerged idea of growing up as a dark horse (a minority Catholic in suburban Brisbane) or his memories of childhood racetracks in a far simpler (less emblazoned or commercialized) time.

McKenna’s landscape compositions evince history. As in a child’s drawing or a Quattrocento annunciation, the bare rudiments of scenery are reduced to flat planes of colour and a cleaved horizon. This hallmark of the artists’ style has been described by other critics as “Radically de-skilled” yet instead of simplifying, the charge of these painting only grows more intense.

It takes concentration to generate and sustain the tension of three known objects in a field. McKenna’s “Horse and Rider” has the blunt geometry of a medieval flag. And his honed minimal touch serves to amplify our focus. In these stripped, yet strangely agitated works, everything comes back to the horse.

As a result each composition acts as a set piece, like stations of the cross or a sequence of stage sets for a play. Preferably by Samuel Beckett. Here are lone creatures drinking alone in a Nolanesque stable, or cast adrift in a blank paddock, or hiding in the night within a fold of bare branched trees.

Horses in art. They have been there since Lascaux. Yet this artist makes you see them as so much more than scenery.

Noel McKenna | The Curragh
Niagara Galleries
Until November 14th

Courtesy the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne


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