PRINT October 1985


Stephen McKenna is English, of Irish ancestry, the son of a military officer. He attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, leaving it in 1959 to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. There, for five years, he existed within a small island of “process”-minded students in the British wake of Abstract Expressionism. Out of Slade he taught painting, and otherwise spent most of the next ten years sorting through what he had himself been taught, seeking to reanimate what he had come to think of as a practice dying if not already dead: to make paintings of demonstrable skill that speak of art history and to the present, of the artist and, with optimal clarity, to others. He wished to rearticulate a pictorial rhetoric, and in effect traded in the example of Cézanne since Roger Fry a hero nowhere more than in Britain—for the more “heroic” models provided by Poussin and by David. “The most obvious task of any specialist,” he has written, “is to study the skills, conditions and method of practice of his métier,” and it seemed to him that Modernism had finally turned art into the Great Masturbator that Dali suggested it was—had made of it a form of onanism.

McKenna’s professional beginnings were a debut into doubt. In shedding the ill-fitting skin of one education he looked backward and adopted an attitude not unlike that of many early-19th-century protagonists, peripatetic chroniclers and students/seekers in stories by Kleist or by Goethe, writers whose prose styles he eventally borrowed from as well. (McKenna writes prolifically about art, often in parables, sometimes through the conceit of the invented diary in which incidents, landscapes, and personages, actual and fictive, perform didactic roles.) McKenna barely acknowledges his postgraduate decade of reformulation. It seems a kind of deliberate mystery, sort of like Duchamp’s alchemy. He makes mention of only one exhibition during that time—in Frankfurt, in 1964, the year he left Slade—and has never included his earlier abstract paintings in any subsequent show.

Between 1971 and 1979 McKenna lived principally in Remagen, near Bonn, in railway-station quarters allotted him by Johannes Wassmuth, under whose auspices Remagen’s train station, saved from demolition, was transformed into a small civic and cultural phenomenon. A tableau by McKenna of figures variously associated with the station—including Wassmuth, Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II, Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl, Liszt, Freud, and Marcel Marceau—now hangs there. In 1979 McKenna left Bonn for Brussels and his present wife, the photographer Maria Gilissen, widow of Marcel Broodthaers. An allegory painted that year, The Muse of Metaphysics, in which a woman resembling his former wife is shown holding a representation of one of his old paintings, can bluntly be understood as a double rite of passage.

Because McKenna uses traditional painting techniques and is a militant proselytizer for the classical tradition of history painting and allegory, landscape and still life (especially the latter, a genre he believes was debased by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the 18th century only to be corrupted utterly by Cubism in the 20th), his work tends to elicit confusion: is it modem retro or retro modem? Of traditional concept or about it? The nature of this confusion is at the core of McKenna’s mission. “Today” he writes, “even the painter feels in need of holidays. His travels are restricted largely to business trips to promote the sale of his work, and he usually sees even less of the culture and geography of the lands he visits than does the average package tourist?” McKenna promotes legibility and acculturation. His paintings do not aspire to monumentality, like those of Carlo Maria Mariani, for instance, but at a quick glance they appear as startlingly anachronistic pastiches without quote marks: academic, sometimes well painted and sometimes not, characteristically British, fundamentally literary oddities.

McKenna’s philosophy could be described as essentially anti-McLuhanite, and to this extent he has carried forward the emphasis put on process at Slade. What McKenna has transposed is the location of the painter’s gesture. Where once gesture was the realization of a painting, it is now part of his idea of a painting. Where it was once subliminal, registered through the medium, it is now the framing purpose of a painting, its locution, the cast of a story retold or observation newly made.

Landscape in McKenna’s work amounts to a repertoire of inflection. It is rearticulated each time,stylistically and emotively, to express the rhetoric of a particular genre. In his sky-and-cloud studies, and in the many studies and paintings of Richmond Park—for which Constable is the obvious modelMcKenna’s painting is at its most immediate, its most modest. The nature of those surroundings precludes any high rhetoric or stentorian formal armature, and one finds the Englishman at home and at ease in his park. In a painting such as L’Hêtre au Bois de la Cambre (The Beech in the Bois de la Cambre, 1981), a single tree becomes the subject of an ideal portrait, suggestive in its stiff, symmetrical composition, its greenness and nearly folkloric patterning, of all tree myths from Eve’s temptation to the union of Philemon and Baucis. Its inviolate stance is an invitation to falls both seasonal and metaphoric, and a standard of redemption. In The Blind Orion with Eos and Artemis, 1981, after Poussin, the landscape is an unsettled and unsettling composite, at once arcadian and, with its elongated, fouled cloud, polluted. It is a modern, postindustrial drama in antique clothing. McKenna’s Irish seascapes, mistful and wistful, are always in the lyric mode.

Surprisingly, perhaps, McKenna sometimes sounds like Robert Smithson. McKenna on landscape: “Working outside stresses the part played by immediate reactions to the motif under conditions of physical discomfort. One is more aware of the landscape than of what is on the canvas. Time becomes flow rather than duration, the changes in the weather are more actual events than symbolic experiences:’Smithson, on the subject of Frederick Law Olmsted’s parks, wrote that ”nature for the dialectician is indifferent to any formal ideal. This does not mean one is helpless before nature, but rather that nature’s conditions are unexpected, like Price’s hill torn by the flood:’Like Smithson’s, McKenna’s image of himself as an artist is split, in one aspect workmanlike and pragmatic—a modern-day guildsman—in another erudite and eccentric. The artist’s uselessness protects him from obsolescence, and thus ennobles him, while working in the anisanal spirit lends him the aura of humility.

McKenna bears the cross of Everyman and holds in his vest pocket a dandy’s bauble. It is to Marcel Broodthaers that we must return. Just as the guttural peasant dialect implied by Broodthaers’ famous mussels only adds to our estimate of his intellectual refinement, so the plainness and seeming egolessness of McKenna’s work is, naturally, its ultimate and deliberate elegance. But where Broodthaers’ rhetoric was radically disjunctive, used to isolate specimens of language and matter, McKenna’s desire is for a mellifluous pictorial prose, for a view. The cabbages, pigs, and fish of so many of his still lifes are allegories of bourgeois thinking; a dead nude is also a still life. From London to Bonn to Brussels, McKenna, a soberly suited, heavily shod, postindustrial citizen of the north, signs even the homeliest, most unassuming of his sketches with a logo that is as effete as Whistler’s butterfly.

Lisa Liebmann writes regularly for Artforum.