works: painting and etching | 2008–2009

 

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Found, natural materials such as wood ash, are used in Janet McKenzie’s paintings 2008-2009, to allude to the mystery and power surrounding death and the unknown. Sombre colours and a reduced palette (earth tones, charcoal, gold leaf) are used for their ability to imply states of mind, specifically perceptions of loss. The works done early in 2008 depart from previous work in their conceptual focus, in direct response to learning that her husband had just months to live. This followed 12 years already dominated by his battle with advanced cancer, defying medical statistics and prognoses.

Falling House (2008), Burning House (2008), Burning (2008) are images that confront a personal void. The method of applying the mud or lava-like substance (wood ash, oil paint, linseed oil, turps, Liquin medium) to the canvas provided an extraordinary release of emotional pressure. It combined the immediacy of drawing with a primal substance, a necessary catharsis.

Author Christopher Rush observed that Falling House alludes to the building of a house, a home, a family, “which is itself a leap of faith: to see it crumble to ash represents the loss of life, the loss of faith. But in Burning House the fire, which destroys, also purifies. And out of its own ashes rises the Phoenix that resists destruction and obliteration. In Burning House, there are phallic flames – of course! – but also the plumes of the Phoenix”. In Head on (2008),  Void (2008), and Leap of Faith (2008), Arthur Watson RSA identified here, an affirmative quality. Rush wrote of the Wormiston Wood works (July 2008) quoting “The Wood’s in Trouble” by A.E. Housman: “The wind in the wood is a great metaphor for the human spirit, and for what is happening to you now: the anger, the ashes, the futility, the hurt. And yet – that connection, through nature, with the timeless and universal emotions, that are the same as yours. Housman looked on this as a spectator, somewhere in Shropshire. Your home – and therefore your life – are actually in the wood, so you are a more immediate part of it: the wood and you are one”.

In Head On, Rush observes a hellish tangle, “Here are trees, cathedrals, phalluses, swords, flints, Stone Age daggers – those very broad, crude weapons of war. It’s a battle scene (your domestic battle, the battle with cancer, your own battle, your deep needs). It’s a hymn to primitive virility. It’s a burnt-out wood that will rise again – with sexual and religious connotations”.  The use of gold leaf Rush connects with the medieval gold leaf used by monkish illuminators: the colour which (along with blue) always represented eternity in early medieval painting. In Leap of Faith, the arches suggest faith – not just because of the cathedral, but because an arch is an entrance – to new experience, to the unexplored. Quoting Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses: “All experience is an arch”.

Remarkably Michael Spens’ liver tumours stabilised anew. Janet McKenzie accepted a commission from Irene Barberis, (Metasenta, Melbourne) to write a new book on Contemporary Drawing in Australia, 22 years after the first. The initial research trip enabled travel to Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra in October 2008. In Canberra, one day with friend and former etching teacher, Jörg Schmeisser, resulted in 16 unique images, using four perspex plates, two copper plates, an electric Dremel tool and a dental drill. New techniques and Jörg’s expertise resulted in a liberating process. Together with a series of drawings and watercolour paintings also made during this time, these were key for a future series of work, back in Scotland in 2010. Most of 2009 was spent writing the new drawing book – a massive task but, as in 1985 it provided an intensive period of research on other artists’ work including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art = 75 artists, 90,000 words, 100s of images examined and texts read. = in turn, a massive challenge to her own studio practice.