View of “Stephen McKenna,” 2019.

View of “Stephen McKenna,” 2019.

Stephen McKenna

A Painter’s Life: Stephen McKenna (1939–2017)” is an illuminating posthumous tribute to an enlightened, enthusiastic internationalist, a restlessly cosmopolitan painter whose art was often characterized by restful, rational, neoclassical composure. Stephen McKenna was born in England—to a Northern Irish father and a Scottish mother—but the family spent considerable time abroad: living, variously, in Norway, Hong Kong, and Austria. After studying painting at London’s Slade School of Fine Art in the 1960s—which led him to experiment, for a while, with abstraction—he moved to Germany, where he felt freer to pursue a representational style. Later, he lived in Belgium, then in Italy, absorbing influences from both northern and southern European art, before settling in Ireland during the ’90s. There, he became a revered and influential presence. An interviewer once asked if McKenna saw himself as English, Irish, or European; his answer was “Yes.”

The works included in “A Painter’s Life” were selected and sequenced by the artist himself in the months before his death in 2017, leaving us with a personal, retrospective guide to the tendencies and transitions of his art. Shifts in style, scale, tone, and subject are acknowledged in tightly grouped clusters of contemporaneous or otherwise corresponding paintings: art-school-and-after abstractions from the mid-’60s (diligently playful, of-their-time exercises); neo-Surrealist studies in uncanny figuration from the early ’70s; and erudite explorations of ancient myth from the ’80s (in pictures that could be viewed as arch and postmodernist, earnestly classicist, or not quite either). Some artistic preoccupations persisted throughout McKenna’s career, among them a recurring focus on temples, palaces, and historical ruins: evidence of the artist’s enduring desire to learn lessons in aesthetic and civic harmony from the architecture of antiquity. The results of such investigations vary in effect and achievement, from works characterized by rather arid academic seriousness (such as an ’80s series depicting Greek and Roman frescoes) to others that pull us in, or deliver the chill of encountering classical forms in the present. The controlled interplay of light and dark, space and structure, in Pantheon, 2013, or Venetian Stairway, 2003, both of which channel the spirit of de Chirico—an important but not overwhelming influence—suggests a mind drawn to the trustworthiness of geometry but alert to the anxieties induced by architectural order. McKenna’s art reckons beautifully with the dual aesthetic attractions of “extremity and equanimity” (to borrow terms Seamus Heaney once applied to the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert).

Yet McKenna’s paintings seem, now, most involving when least burdened by historical responsibilities—that is, when he uses his substantial learning to apprehend the living world directly, with care, clarity, and curiosity. A menagerie of understated, often peculiar, animal paintings—chimps and cows, a dog and a donkey, seabirds and city birds—prompts thoughts about the limits of human knowledge, perception, and meaning-making. The steady, staring eye of the fleetingly static creature in Aquablava Seagull, 2002, and the lone donkey sandwiched between a shimmering pond and a dense forest in Narcissus, 1999—are pictured, along with others, with a poised intensity that speaks, simultaneously, of a desire to see and describe the world precisely, and an awareness that we are restricted in our capacity to understand it as it extends beyond ourselves. Again and again, nevertheless, McKenna in his paintings sought an enlarged, enriched comprehension of life, experienced or imagined. Luminous, peaceful paintings of swimming pools and exotic gardens coolly conjure realms of untroubled pleasure. Grand, detailed views of contemporary cities highlight situations of animated, intricate human complexity. These urban scenes are admiring, benevolent visions of modernity. They remind us, perhaps, of McKenna’s quiet passion for changing places, for maintaining a plural idea of home—but with a certain detachment: They celebrate the energetic promise of each location, but keep an inquisitive, self-conscious distance.