48 TALLIES (BIRTHDAY STILL LIFE), 2004

Important Australian and International Fine Art + Important Indigenous Art
Melbourne
29 November 2017
38

NOEL McKENNA

born 1956
48 TALLIES (BIRTHDAY STILL LIFE), 2004

synthetic polymer paint on board in artist’s hand-made frame

30.0 x 89.0 cm

signed and dated upper left: NMcKENNA04

Estimate: 
$12,000 – 18,000
Provenance

Heiser Gallery, Brisbane (labels attached verso)
Private collection, New South Wales

Exhibited

Noel McKenna - Australia II including The Queensland Room, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, 31 August – 2 October 2004, cat. 24 (illus. in exhibition catalogue)
Snap Freeze: Still Life Now, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Victoria, 20 May – 11 November 2007 (illus. in exhibition catalogue)
Still Life 1930s – present, Gold Coast City Art Gallery, Queensland, 14 February – 29 March 2009

Catalogue text

Noel McKenna occupies a unique position in the Australian art scene. Not only does he enjoy wide recognition from institutional curators, private buyers and critics alike, but his work is so individual in style that he occupies a niche entirely his own. He is a quiet observer of everyday life; his subjects over the years have explored the points where high art meets the commonplace. The horse races, football, popular culture, statistics or sacred cows are the substance of McKenna’s work. His popular series of paintings based on Australian landmark big things, which featured the Big Banana, the Big Prawn, the Big Pineapple etc., illustrates this point. The paradox is that while his images are painted in a deadpan, quasi-naïve manner, the works are underpinned by a complex conceptual basis.

48 Tallies (Birthday Still Life), 2004, was exhibited at Sydney’s Darren Knight Gallery in Australia II including the Queensland Room, in 2004. Noel McKenna is a Queenslander and the exhibition had a Queensland theme. In 2004, Noel McKenna turned forty eight, so we can assume that the birthday referred to in the title was his own. ‘Tallies’ is the vernacular name Queenslanders use for 750ml beer bottles known elsewhere as ‘long necks’. At first the 48 tallies appear as they would the morning after the night before, still, empty, and arranged as they were left by the drinkers. On the other hand, their placement may reflect the birthday event in detail, the bottles are upright – the party was orderly. The guests mingle in groups; the bottle labels take on the role of faces as the guests converse and totter. The bottles are perhaps imbued with the personalities of the guests; one noticeably stands perilously close to the edge of the table.

A further work included in the 2004 exhibition that points to McKenna’s appreciation of folk art and the importance of everyday materials was the hanging flyscreen. McKenna made the screen in the Queensland tradition by hanging dozens of XXXX beer bottle tops on strings. Queenslanders create these homemade flyscreens by way of a useful pastime while sitting around drinking tallies on the veranda during hot Queensland evenings. The artist hung this ‘artwork’ across an internal doorway at the Darren Knight Gallery during the exhibition and in doing so, demonstrated his laconic wit while elevating this example of folk art to the level of serious high art.

McKenna’s influences are many and his forensic understanding of Australian art history and artists inform his work. Sidney Nolan and John Brack are two artists whose influence is apparent in 48 Tallies, 2004; Nolan’s matter of fact application of paint is complemented by John Brack’s formal analysis and arrangement of the composition.

Humble and yet complex, McKenna’s paintings maintain their broad appeal through the familiarity of their everyday subjects. His images speak directly to each viewer in the unique context of their own experience. The apparent simplicity of McKenna’s work can evoke the common refrain ‘my kids could do that’, but the truth is that they couldn’t, although your 80 year old grandfather possibly could.

HENRY MULHOLLAND