Late innovative artist honoured with exhibition

A Dublin gallery has held an exhibition to honour the life of the late artist, Stephen McKenna, reports Ugne Aksiutovaite.

Kerlin Gallery on South Anne Street in Dublin recently ended an exhibition of works of the late artist Stephen McKenna with a celebratory event. The exhibition was held to celebrate the artist’s life and legacy after his passing in May last year.

Stephen McKenna was best known for his postmodern figurative paintings and his work has been showcased throughout the world. Among many other galleries and museums, his paintings appeared in the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin, the Imperial War Museum in London and the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin.

Stephen McKenna had worked with the Kerlin Gallery ever since it was first established in 1988. The exhibition was a tribute to his career and turned out to be a huge success, attracting many art-lovers and fans of his work from Ireland and abroad. Terry Ann Newman and her friend travelled from England and Scotland to attend the exhibition.

 “We knew Stephen and had known him for many years. He was a very intelligent man and sometimes it can be hard to understand his paintings and the references he used. He always kept you guessing, which is actually a very good thing,” said Terry Ann Newman.

“He was very good at finding beauty in the mundane”

Stephen McKenna developed a figurative painting style in the 1970s when the popular trends were conceptualism and minimalism. However, he rejected these and returned to classical imagery and motifs. He was very informed in classicism but always mixed in elements of modernity, which led to his very own distinct style of figurative painting. His subject matter varied and featured street scenes, people, mythological scenes, cityscapes, plants, animals and buildings.

“He was very good at finding beauty in the mundane. I love his attentiveness to plants and animals and the kind of minutiae of life and textures that surround our existence,” said Rosa Abbott, press officer for Kerlin Gallery. Her personal favourites from Stephen McKenna’s exhibition were the plant paintings, such as Horse Chestnut Leaves and Palm Tree Pillar, which she described as “very minimal and modern, which then become almost geometric”.

The exhibition was curated by directors of the gallery David Fitzgerald, Darragh Hogan and John Kennedy, who liaised with Stephen McKenna’s widow to choose the right paintings. It was decided to “take a broad cross-section of works from the past 10 years of his life to show people the breadth of his work,” said Rosa Abbott.

In 1997, Stephen McKenna curated an exhibition, The Pursuit of Painting, at the Irish Museum Of Modern Art, where he chose the painters he thought were the best active despite the trends at the time. Painting as a form of art would often go in and out of fashion.

“He inspired people to look at painting again and revisit it and realise that it can still be very relevant. The impact he had on the art scene in Ireland was that he reignited people’s passion for painting,” said Ms Abbott.

She also claimed that she can see how he has inspired the younger generation, including a young artist, Isabel Nolan, who works in various mediums such as sculpture and video but also practises painting. Even though they vary in style, Rosa Abbott said: “Once you know she was inspired by him, you can see the sensibility and playfulness that is carried out in both”.

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