Detail is important in a visual imagination, but it also punctuates an individual’s memory. This exhibition draws together artworks made since 2002 by Noel McKenna that are also highly personal and idiosyncratic maps. They illustrate a level of detail about subjects made interesting through the personal narrative that he builds around them. I have always loved his work because of its honesty, and the way it freely exposes his particular foibles in a contemporary world which often prefers a veneer of perfection and sameness. These map paintings take his exposures up a notch to a series of obsessive, yet completely understandable and accessible, detailed maps of subjects that may not, at first, appear interesting.
For example, his first ‘map’ painting in 2002 traced the locations of Australian racecourses.
His research, in these very early days of the internet, included writing letters to post offices in regional centres to ask about local racecourses. The written responses from all over Australia are included in the exhibition, and some have accompanying photographs and tips about other little known racecourses. These letters are vignettes which express a period of contemporary life when people had more available time and (possibly) generosity. McKenna hand-painted the names of the relevant towns over the map of Australia, which highlights much greater density over the eastern side of the continent. It leaves me wondering why racing facilities are so much more available on one side of the country.
Other interests McKenna’s maps explore include an illustrated map of Australia’s ‘Big Things.’ There are so many large objects in our landscapes (a national conundrum) that McKenna ran out of space to paint an image of each. There is a hand-painted printed list, which (as in all of these maps), varies in its leaded blackness. As the artist explains in the exhibition catalogue, “I use the brush to do as many letters as it can and then I reload it, so you get this kind of in-out-in effect in real life, which I like.” This quality gives each of these maps, and their weight of information, an innocent and discernibly human character.
Peter McKay, curator of contemporary Australian art at QAGOMA, identifies three themes within McKenna’s maps (infrastructure, nature, and memory) and suggested that this allows what began as a series of personal obsessions on the artist’s part to highlight aspects of the national character.
McKenna’s maps of infrastructure include the country rail network, lighthouses in Australia and New Zealand (painted, appropriately enough with light on dark backgrounds), and public toilets in Sydney (so useful!). Butterflies and birds represent nature, but so does his list of dangerous Australian animals, and freshwater fish. Most poignantly personal are SELF, 2011, (painted for the UQ Art Museum Self Portraiture Prize) which charts personal events with a happiness graph; memories of Brisbane with personal milestones from 1956-1979; and a map of Centennial Park in Sydney, whose history and features he has detailed, including the annual international travels of the long-finned eels that live in the Park’s ponds.
Landscape – Mapped is a project that McKenna began with landscape, but it has since interacted with every aspect of place, culture and his person. His interests, obsessions, insecurities and differences are writ large to engage us with humour and his own curiosity. They remind us of our own foibles, eccentricities, and memories. McKenna says that his maps offer him “a kind of calming by statistics and information.” I can vouch for a similar effect on the viewer.