Barbara McKay

“All you have to do, Barbara, is keep painting.” It’s advice most artists have received at some difficult point of their career, but few have had these words from Clement Greenberg, arguably the most influential art critic of the twentieth century. Even before his death in 1994 there was much argument as to Greenberg’s stature as a writer and a thinker, but there is no denying his historical importance or his pre-eminence as a maker of reputations. He will be forever associated with artists such as Jackson Pollock and David Smith, and with abstract artists of the following generation such as Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland.

Barbara McKay met Greenberg on his second visit to Australia in 1979, when he spoke at the Central Street Gallery in Sydney. The artists associated with the gallery had decided to each hang a work in the room, and Barbara had been invited to participate, possibly as the token woman, possibly because she was married to the sculptor, Ian McKay. She had been painting ever since she graduated from the National Art School in 1960, but had struggled for recognition in an art scene dominated by men.

For the event at Central Street she chose to hang one of her most difficult works, a painting called Reflections that nobody else seemed to like. She had the shock of her life when, during question time, someone asked Greenberg for his thoughts on the works hanging in the gallery and he pointed to her picture, saying he’d like to meet the artist who painted that green painting.

Barbara introduced herself and chatted with Greenberg for the rest of the night, at first in a nearby pub then in a Chinese restaurant. It was the beginning of a friendship that extended over two decades, being rekindled when the McKays visited New York the following year, and continuing from 1981-83, when they spent time in the city. When Barbara returned to Australia, she and Greenberg would continue to exchange letters.

Her meeting with Greenberg, and the instant rapport she enjoyed with a man whom many saw as dictatorial and capricious, has been one of things McKay has clung to over the years in the course of a long, often low-key career. No artist in Australia, and very few anywhere, have received such unconditional praise and support from this celebrated critic. If she never truly capitalised on such a contact it was perhaps because her ambitions as an artist were always bound up with the work itself, not with wealth or glory.

McKay has always had other preoccupations, chiefly her family, and the Australian landscape, which has provided an inexhaustible fund of inspiration. For while her paintings are essentially abstract, there is a powerful sense of place in these works. Most of the paintings in this show relate to particular locations, although McKay argues she never thinks of her work as ‘landscape’ per se.

‘It’s very hard to explain,’ she says. ‘I simply paint pictures. I’ve been branded an abstract expressionist, a lyrical abstractionist, an abstract landscape painter… I hate all these titles. Every artform has its own language, and all I’m trying to do is recreate a total experience through my knowledge of a visual language.’

Rather than capture the appearance of a landscape, McKay wants to recreate the feeling it inspires. Red Centre is self-evidently based on Central Australia. Looking into the painting is like gazing down at the desert from the window of an airplane, taking in the rusty red earth, the worn-down rocks, the salt pans and spinifex. There are often surprising bursts of colour in that sea of red, a trait echoed in the painting.

In the physical act of applying paint McKay has channelled the energy of the landscape. The work mimics the actions of the natural elements, with flows surging in from all directions. There is no illusionism: it’s an evocation of the desert rather than an image. We are always conscious of the paint that has been thrown and scraped onto the canvas. In a glance we recognise the transforming work of the artist, and the restraint she has exercised in knowing when to stop.

McKay says: ‘It’s very important to me that the paint never looks overworked. You’ve got to have that hand-touch freedom, and it’s the hardest thing. It’s such a thrill to whip the paint on, but you can control it. I think about the way Jackson Pollock choreographed his paintings. In that famous film by Hans Namuth you can see him dancing around the canvas.’

In Bones of Winter, McKay has brushed the paint on frugally, using the bare canvas to suggest a clear, pale light. Drought Hills is even sparser, but now it is summer that is being summoned up. The coldness of the first painting has been replaced with a blinding sunlight. Both pictures are drawn from the countryside around Uralla, where McKay has lived since 2003. Details have been added in the form of drips, splashes and busy little flicks of the brush – a loose calligraphy that guides the eye through each painting. One imagines the wind whistling over bare paddocks.

McKay says she loves driving around between Uralla and Walcha, looking at the paddocks, ‘because they’re so formally structured.’ In Paddock after Harvest she has ‘tried to bring the light of the sky right down into the landscape, so you feel you can reach out of the car window and touch the clouds.’

Where Bones of Winter and Drought Hills use colour parsimoniously, Paddock after Harvest is almost psychedelic in its mix of primary colours, greens and lavender. The fidgety gestures and wispy lines of the other paintings have given way to broad, sweeping gestures that could have been made by a squeegee or a roller. It’s a symphony of shadows and flickering light, as the blue of the sky intermingles with the yellows, reds and greens of the earth.

The Uralla pictures bear comparison with Millerton, painted in a town on the Hudson River, where McKay used to stay with a friend. ‘In the winter,’ she recalls, ‘Millerton was covered in snow. It was freezing and gorgeous and huge.’ The painting gives the impression of a vast field of snow, stained vaguely green, hinting at fields and forests beneath a layer of white. Painted on the eve of her departure for Australia, it also hints at experiences soon to be buried (or is it preserved?) by the snow drifts of time.

Artists and psychologists know that colour creates mood and stimulates emotional associations, but each viewer brings something different to the mix according to their own memories and experiences. For McKay these paintings bring back a whole host of recollections. Sheer was inspired by a cliff on the lower west coast of Tasmania; Knotted and Gnarled, by a day spent riding through trees on a sheep station. Her paintings are distillations of such experiences in which she conveys her impressions by means of colour and gesture. She knows that, like all abstract art, these paintings will only speak to those who are willing to enter into the spirit of the work and accept what she is offering.

It’s not always bright and cheerful. Dunville Loop, painted in memory of a visit to the forest where the Wollemi Pine was found, is a turbulent mixture of grey-purple shadows and brown-ochre earth tones, punctuated with slashes of green. We could be looking at the outline of some ghostly, prehistoric animal, although that phantom has been conjured by accident rather than design.

In Turn About (1986), McKay has used the formal device of rotating the canvas as she worked, adding contrasting slabs of red and blue, although the overall totality remains dark. In such a setting the red becomes an aggressive intruder in the work, imposing itself on the community of blues. The entire picture retains traces of its making, with a strong sense of circular movement preserved in the broken arc at the top left, and the way the planes seem to cascade in one direction.

McKay’s most absolute gesture is Wattle, a painting that immerses us in the vivid yellow of the blossom that announces the arrival of spring. The yellow of the wattle has a special density McKay has tried to convey by making the canvas into a monochrome in which a few minimal gestures impart a feeling of life and energy. If there is a quality called ‘wattleness’ this is its portrait.

Wattle is an unusually minimal work by McKay’s standards, but there is no ‘typical’ painting to be found in this survey. While most artists have a signature style that renders their work instantly recognisable, McKay has treated every canvas as an individual proposition. She has never gone in for in series or variations-on-a-theme: each painting is intended to be formally and thematically distinct, albeit the work of the same shaping hand.

This willingness to keep searching and experimenting is one of the reasons McKay is not better known, or more broadly collected by the major art institutions. If this comparative neglect is a cause for regret it never shows in her work or personality. She sees her paintings as living things with unique characters and temperaments. ‘It’s like children,’ she says. ‘Once they’re born into the world they exist and have lives of their own.’

Her constant pleasure, and motivation to get up in the morning, is the act of painting, which she considers an all-consuming intellectual and sensual delight. The exhausting work McKay undertakes in the studio is her comfort, her anchor, the very centre of her existence.

‘If I lost both arms I’d still have to find another way of painting’, she says, ‘because I love it so much. It’s pure physical joy. Paint’s beautiful stuff.’

Barbara McKay: Sacred
5 July – 15 September 2019
New England Regional Gallery, NSW


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