Noel McKenna appreciates the things of Australia


The Gallery has been gifted three of Brisbane-born artist Noel McKenna’s map paintings, the artist’s gentle and good humoured appreciation for the ‘things’ of Australia makes us better acquainted with our country, and with ourselves. Peter McKay profiles our three new works and delves into their inspiration.

Australian Racecourse Locations

Noel McKenna, Australia b.1956 / Australian racecourse locations 2002 / Enamel on canvas / 152 x 181cm / Gift of James and Jacqui Erskine through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2018. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Noel McKenna/Licensed by Copyright Agency

Australian Racecourse Locations 2002 is, in fact, the first in McKenna’s ‘Map’ series. McKenna has been a horseracing enthusiast since the age of ten when his father, Jim, first took him to a meet. Captivated by the competition and camaraderie of the jockeys, bookmakers, trainers — and, of course, the magnificence of the horses — he also saw that his usually quiet father seemed to belong at the races.

McKenna began researching racecourses around the country well before the internet became the comprehensive resource it is today, writing to hundreds of regional post offices to ask them if they had a local racetrack.

‘The majority replied to me — one from Laverton in Western Australia even went out and photographed the track for me,’ McKenna says. Free of imagery or adornment beyond the red locations dots, the understated ambition of this work draws viewers in as they turn through their own memories to try to locate the ones they know of, and undoubtedly registering new ones in the process.

Birds of Australia

Noel McKenna, Australia b.1956 / Birds of Australia 2004 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / 153 x 183cm / Gift of James and Jacqui Erskine through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2018. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Noel McKenna/Licensed by Copyright Agency

Not just a hippophile but an all-round animal person, McKenna also painted an illustrated guide to the Birds of Australia in 2004. Known for his portraits of pet birds, McKenna sourced these images from The Field Guide to Birds of Australia by Graham Pizzey and Frank Knight, making use of its precision and accuracy. In spite of the exacting nature of this source material, it seems McKenna’s renditions can’t help but exude a little hop and flutter.

While we might look at birds and dream of the great distances they travel, McKenna’s birds are mostly of the stay-at-home variety. Soon after starting his research, he quickly realised the scale of the task, given Australia’s nearly 900 recorded bird species: ‘I would have trouble getting them all on the size of map I had been doing, so I decided to do just birds that lived in a limited area, as well as endangered ones.’ Of the 69 species in McKenna’s painting, 17 are identified as vulnerable or critically endangered, including the Black-breasted Button-quail and Albert’s lyrebird, both found in south-east Queensland.


Noel McKenna, Australia b.1956 / Queenslander 2004 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / 183 x 153cm / Gift in memory of David Coe through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2018. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Noel McKenna/Licensed by Copyright Agency

Queenslander 2004 is another work of great personal significance to the artist, reflecting on the distinct Queensland vernacular and history that became much more apparent to McKenna after he relocated over the border in his early twenties. ‘After moving to Sydney, for the first couple of years, I was often called a “banana bender” when I mentioned to people that I had moved down from Brisbane,’ he says. ‘Queenslanders in the 1970s were seen as being not quite as sophisticated as people from Sydney and Melbourne and I think we believed it ourselves.’ Full of social, political and culinary insights, Queenslander is a work of endearing self-reflection and self-confidence.

In our digital world, the construction of physical maps becomes an absurd labour. Yet McKenna’s sincere interest in his subjects makes these maps a labour of love and good humour. McKenna’s gentle appreciation for the ‘things’ of Australia, and his enthusiasm for classification, description and location makes us better acquainted with our country, and with ourselves.

Peter McKay is Curatorial Manager, Australian Art, QAGOMA

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Feature image detail: Noel McKenna’s Birds of Australia 2004

Patricia Piccinini gives us an insight into studio life


In preparation for the exhibition ‘Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection‘, it was necessary to make progress visits to Piccinini’s studio in Melbourne to keep pace with her immense creative output. With so much to say about her work, and so many interesting people responsible for a giddying array of techniques, it was important that we record these visits to share.

I made the pilgrimage with the Gallery cinematographer on three occasions to capture the work flow and listen to Piccinini’s ideas evolve, with so much activity to document, filming days stretched into the night. Back in Brisbane we sorted through days of footage to construct this immensely watchable introduction to the artist, her studio, and her new artworks.

Related: Patricia Picinini

‘Curious Affection’ is Piccinini’s most ambitious exhibition to date, it includes a suite of immersive multisensory installations – including a large-scale inflatable sculpture – especially conceived for GOMA’s expansive spaces. Occupying the entire ground floor, the exhibition also includes a retrospective of her most recognisable works from the past 20 years.

Piccinini is unquestionably one of Australia’s most imaginative, thoughtful, and exacting artists. This-behind-the-scenes look into the ideation, creation, and fabrication process that inform studio life provides a rare insight into the workings of her formidable team. At the same time it also introduces many of the artists key themes and inspirations in her own words. This documentary has been paired with her exhibition walk-through highlighting four of her most recent works.

These videos goes a long way to introducing Piccinini’s enchanting and heartfelt vision. Enjoy.

Peter McKay is Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, QAGOMA

Behind-the-scenes with Patricia Piccinini

Subscribe to QAGOMA YouTube to be the first to go behind-the-scenes / Behind-the-scenes documentary created by Peter McKay, Exhibition Curator and Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, QAGOMA; Jeremy Virag, QAGOMA cinematographer and film grading; Shih-Yin Judy Yeh, QAGOMA Cinema Technical, editing.

Walk through the exhibition with Patricia Piccinini

Subscribe to QAGOMA YouTube to be the first to go behind-the-scenes / Exhibition walk-through created by Peter McKay, Exhibition Curator and Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, QAGOMA; Jeremy Virag, QAGOMA cinematographer and film grading; and Denny Ryan, QAGOMA Cinema Technican, editing.

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Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection‘ / Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) / 24 March – 5 August 2018.

Feature image: Peter McKay (right) with Patricia Piccinini in her Melbourne studio

Noel McKenna maps Australia


As a career artist since the early 1980s, Noel McKenna has honed what is best described as an idiosyncratic vision in paint, print and the occasional ceramic. Those who are already aware of his practice will know that his regular subjects include napping pets, cats and dogs begging for food at the table, watchful birds, people reading and people watching television.

Noel McKenna, Australia b.1956 / Tall dog at table 2015 / Oil on plywood / Ten Cubed Collection, Melbourne / Photograph: Simon Hewson / Image courtesy: The artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney / © Noel McKenna, 2015. Licensed by Viscopy, 2017

The works in McKenna’s ‘Map’ series, on display as a group for the first time in ‘Noel McKenna: Landscape – Mapped‘ at the Queensland Art Gallery until 2 April 2018, are information-rich, with something of the obsessive focus of a trainspotter in them. They are a contribution to the dialogues of nationhood and space, answering, one map at a time, the elemental question: What is Australia made of?

There are 19 works in the series: 13 of these take Australia as their central motif. One is of New Zealand. A further four provide finer details of parts of Australia: Queensland, Brisbane, Sydney’s Centennial Park, and the Sydney CBD’s public toilets (the male toilets, at least). Finally, SELF 2011 charts the artist’s life events in corresponding degrees of happiness in a graph.


Noel McKenna, Australia b.1956 / Big Things, Australia 2004 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Private collection / Image courtesy: Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney / © The artist

The exhibition, which groups these ‘Map’ works into three main themes — infrastructure, nature and memory — allows us to venture beyond their general-interest topics and glimpse a few impressions of the national character. About his work Big Things, Australia 2004, the artist himself writes:

‘One of the reasons towns build these Big Things is to attract tourists and to be noticed and I have seen similar things in New Zealand and the United States, but while not sure, I feel maybe we have more per capita than anywhere in the world? . . . They do work in getting towns noticed on the tourist map, but it is a different approach to a regional town in Italy that is known for a particular type of cheese made the same way for 300 years’.

McKenna’s appreciation for the ‘things’ of Australia, naive as it might seem on the surface, is sophisticated and contagious. His enthusiasm for classification, description and location endows us with facts, and facts build confidence. We are better acquainted with our country, and with ourselves, for his efforts.

Peter McKay is Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, QAGOMA

With an inquisitive mind we become travellers


If you ask, nearly everyone seems to have a place to travel to in mind — for a holiday, family reunion, destination for study or work, the site of some natural wonder or another culture of interest. Travel can be an incentive, or a consolation for the present moment. Flights of fantasy are dreamt and booked. We bring objects and insights back with us, and often leave something behind, too.

With an inquisitive mind and open attitude, we become travellers of some sophistication. Of course, most of our day-to-day travels are brief and seem better described as a chore, the protagonist merely a commuter. Repetition primes us to become weary and jaded, yet familiarity can also be comforting, and being alive to the smallest changes in our surrounds, the seasons, a plant in bloom, a startled animal, even a rock out of place, can offer a similar kind of stimulant for the spirit if we let it — as in the work of English ‘walking artist’ Hamish Fulton, or Takahashi Hiroaki of modern Japan’s shin-hanga movement.

Takahashi Hiroaki ‘Figure with snow falling’

Takahashi Hiroaki, Japan 1871-1945 / Figure with snow falling (Sangaku no bosetsu) date unknown / Colour woodblock print on paper / Gift of Emeritus Professor Joyce Ackroyd, OBE 1990 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

Not all passages take place under such tolerable (or should that be tolerant?) conditions, and a traveller from somewhere else might not be seen as a traveller at all. Instead, they are considered an outsider, a stranger, bohemian, drifter, foreigner or alien. More and more, people crossing borders in search of safety are being referred to as illegal, recast as fugitives instead of casualties, and their movement is treated with fear and suspicion.

JMW Turner ‘The Temple of the Sibyl, Tivoli’

JMW Turner, England 1775-1851 / (The Temple of the Sibyl, Tivoli) c.1794-97 / Grey and brown watercolour washes over pencil on laid paper / Purchased 1977 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

Tivoli was a favoured destination for wealthy European ‘grand tourists’, who often spent years, and fortunes, engaging in the latest fashions and culture of Europe for reasons of self-improvement. When JMW Turner visited Tivoli on his first journey to Italy in 1819, he was so struck by the area that he devoted an entire sketchbook and several watercolours to it. An early watercolour by Turner — The Temple of the Sibyl, Tivoli c.1794–97, however, predates his visit, it was most probably copied from another artist’s work as an exercise. Turner’s watercolour is a curious invocation of a place not yet visited, and likely a tribute to its reputation as a worthy destination.

RELATED: The life and art of Jeffrey Smart

The work is rigid and upright, painted before his swirling storms of colour, and corresponds neatly with Australian painter Jeffrey Smart’s The reservoir, Centennial Park 1988 and The traveller 1973. Known for his meditative arrangements of modern construction, Smart’s vision aligned with the serene order of early Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, in particular, and in The reservoir, Centennial Park he evokes a similar humanistic appeal. In this painting, however, the ‘tours’ of its figures seem rather less grand, navigating the everyday surrounds of asphalt and concrete with their swift strides and laboured steps.

Jeffrey Smart ‘The reservoir, Centennial Park’

Jeffrey Smart, Australia/Italy 1921-2013 / The reservoir, Centennial Park 1988 / Oil on canvas / 72 x 91.6cm / Purchased 1989 with funds from Coles-Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Jeffrey Smart

Jeffrey Smart ‘The traveller’

Jeffrey Smart, Australia/Italy 1921-2013 / The traveller 1973 / Synthetic polymer paint and oil on canvas / Purchased 1975 with the assistance of an Australian Government Grant through the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Ancient Chinese water vessels point to the long historical importance of transporting water; what was once an errand is now infrastructure. In the large-scale ‘still life’ Travellers no.3 2001, Australian potter Gwyn Hanssen Pigott also refers to this history, but operates in another symbolic realm. Her ‘families’ of cups, bottles and bowls appear to stand together in groups, while others drift apart — as do people throughout their lives. Here, Hanssen Pigott finely orchestrates a combination of contours and spacing, alluding to the push and pull of human experience.

Gwyn Hanssen Pigott ‘Travellers no. 3’

Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Australia 1935-2013 / Travellers no. 3 2001 / Limoges porcelain, wheelthrown / 26 parts / Purchased 2001. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Gwyn Hanssen Pigott

Palestinian artist Emily Jacir uses her freedom to travel to respond to a complex political situation. Much of Jacir’s work is predicated on the relative ease with which she can travel between her studio in New York and her family home in the West Bank city of Ramallah — a region the United Nations describes as an Israeli-occupied territory — owing to her United States citizenship. For the series ‘Where we come from’ 2001–03, Jacir asked Palestinians living in exile: ‘If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?’ Documentation of the artist’s attempts reveals something of the poignant ways in which such restrictions have influenced individual lives. President Trump’s recent travel bans and the ‘extreme vetting’ being implemented in the US might soon generate alternative readings of this series.

Emily Jacir ‘Where we come from (Habib)’

Emily Jacir, Palestine/United States b.1970 / Where we come from (Habib) 2001-03 / Laser print on paper; Type C photograph on paper mounted on cintra / Purchased 2006 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Emily Jacir

Aboriginal artist Danie Mellor echoes Jacir in the drawing Whether you like it or not 2005. The image of an antique travelling trunk signifies an Aboriginal diaspora and the involuntary circumstances under which they were made to travel. Under the trunk, a sketch of a mountain range shows Mellor’s traditional lands around the Atherton Tableland. Next to this, the words ‘paradise’ and ‘liberation’ appear multiple times. These are, in fact, the names of deluxe models of campervan — from a latenight television advertisement that resonated with Mellor — being promoted to consumers for the purpose of unhindered travel; contrasting with the movements of the country’s original inhabitants, who were forced from their country onto reserves and settlements.

RELATED: Danie Mellor

Danie Mellor ‘Whether you like it or not’

Danie Mellor, Australia b.1971 / Whether you like it or not 2005 / Pencil on Magnani paper / Purchased 2005 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Danie Mellor

Taking a wider lens still, Dadang Christanto draws on his Indonesian heritage, specifically the rich coexistence of Hindu and Muslim religious cultures. His Manusia tanah (The earth human) 1996 makes reference to the half-female, half-male Hindu deity Ardhanarishvara — the composite form of the Hindu god Shiva and his consort, Parvarti — traditionally depicted as a positive balance of feminine and masculine forms and energies.

Dadang Christanto ‘Manusia tanah (The earth human)’

Dadang Christanto, Indonesia b.1957 / Manusia tanah (The earth human) 1996 / Oil, lead pencil, ink and oilstick on canvas / Purchased 1998. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Dadang Christanto

In Christanto’s version, however, the heart is swollen and dulled by suffering, the diminished skull suggests an incapacity for critical thought, and a red arrow points to the empty space on the figure’s forehead where an urna (the symbol of the third eye, signalling divinity) would normally appear. In taking a mortal body, the deity now lacks adequate insight and travels through life in a form that harbours a predilection for violence. These misfortunes are tempered by symbols of procreation and the milk of life, signalling continuity and prosperity. Christanto’s Ardhanarishvara captures the imperfection of our life journey, from birth to death through fear, love and decay.

Peter McKay is Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, QAGOMA


You can(’t) always get what you want


Making reference to the Rolling Stones classic ‘You can’t always get what you want’, from the 1969 album Let It Bleed, the Get What You Want film program (2 September until 2 October 2016) flashes forwards through five decades of music, surveying the lives and experiences of its composers, performers and fans.

Production still from Cobain: Montage of Heck 2015 / Director: Brett Morgen / Image courtesy: Park Circus

Get What You Want was a selection of documentary and fiction films concerned with different genres of music, from country, disco, folk and hip hop to house, punk, metal, reggae and soul. It offers viewers a unique platform from which to appraise the creative and social dynamics operating across these different musical subcultures, as well as acknowledging the exchange and movement between them. These films underline the idea that music, in all its endless permutations, can enrich our identities and transform both musician and listener into the somebody they want to be.

DELVE DEEPER: Dip into more music blogs

Contemplating what motivates musicians, films such as Don Cheadle’s take on jazz legend Miles Davis (Miles Ahead 2015) are accompanied by Nick Cave’s esoteric 20,000 Days on Earth 2014 and the celebrated posthumous study on Amy Winehouse (Amy 2015). The Carter 2009 offers eye-popping insights into Lil’ Wayne’s success, while Cobain: Montage of Heck 2015 and Anvil: The Story of Anvil 2008 offer divergent tales of struggle and resolve.

The program also explores how the music industry brings audience and performer together, with films such as the disturbing K-Pop documentary 9 Muses of Star Empire 2012, the archetypal rock rivalry of 2004’s Dig!, the restless innovation seen in Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This is Stones Throw Records 2013, and the heart-rending story of Charles Bradley (Charles Bradley: Soul of America 2012), who released his powerful first album at the age of 62. The inimitable Coen brothers also take a look at the life of a musician rejected by the industry, family and friends in their 2013 Cannes Grand Prix winner, Inside Llewyn Davis.

Music’s capacity to promote hope and foster change on both an individual and a community level features heavily in 2012’s Marley (the illuminating documentary on Bob Marley), in the Portuguese-language film Death Metal Angola (an account of the burgeoning metal scene in war-torn Angola) 2012, and in Shake the Dust 2014 (through interviews and performances by breakdancers in Cambodia, Colombia, Uganda and Yemen). Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing 2006, about the boycotts organised against the country group during George W Bush’s Iraq War; and The Punk Singer, a take on the art and life of activist Kathleen Hanna, both recall the obstacles faced by public figures advocating progressive politics. Maestro, a social history of the dance music underground in 1970s New York made in 2003; and the recent reflections from Madonna’s backup dancers on her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour in Strike a Pose 2016, both promote the idea of growth through better living (and dancing).

If you want to revel in accounts of performers striving for great musical experiences, check out the 2006 backstage Wu-Tang drama Rock the Bells, Q Bert’s mind-expanding animated quest Wave Twisters 2001, the Beastie Boy’s innovative concert film Awesome; ‘I … Shot That!’ 2006, the 2013 underground take on LA’s Low End Theory scene titled All Ears: A Glimpse into the Los Angeles Beat Community, and Penelope Spheeris’s beautiful madness in The Decline of Western Civilisation parts I and II (1981/88).

For those loyal to the pop royalty of earlier times, In Bed with Madonna 1991 and Prince’s Purple Rain 1984 will also be screening. So whether you carefully program your playlists to mirror your personality, or can groove to any random radio station, ‘Get What You Want’ should shuffle your sensibilities.

Dip into our Cinema blogs / View the ongoing Australian Cinémathèque program

QAGOMA is the only Australian art gallery with purpose-built facilities dedicated to film and the moving image. The Australian Cinémathèque at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) provides an ongoing program of film and video that you’re unlikely to see elsewhere, offering a rich and diverse experience of the moving image, showcasing the work of influential filmmakers and international cinema, rare 35mm prints, recent restorations and silent films with live musical accompaniment on the Gallery’s Wurlitzer organ originally installed in Brisbane’s Regent Theatre in November 1929.

Featured image detail: Production still from 20,000 Days on Earth 2014 / Directors: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard / Image courtesy: Madman Entertainment


Top 5 music cinema films


After watching 100s of music themed films,  Gallery curator Peter McKay has selected his personal top five films. These are from a selection of documentary and fiction films concerned with different genres of music, from country, disco, folk and hip hop to house, punk, metal, reggae and soul. These films underline the idea that music, in all its endless permutations, can enrich our identities and transform both musician and listener into the somebody they want to be. What would your top 5 look like?

DELVE DEEPER: Dip into more music blogs

#5 ‘Nine Muses of Star Empire’ 2012

Nine Muses of Star Empire 2012 15+ (1Hr 22 Mins)

Ever wondered how teams of dancers construct their routines or stay in perfect time in front of audiences of thousands? Practice, practice and more practice. Practice until every song becomes meaningless and you never want to dance again. Practice until your soul leaves your body to sit and cry in the corner of the change room. Nine Muses of Star Empire divulges a dark and bizarre part of the music-industrial complex known as K-Pop!

#4 ‘Rock the Bells’ 2006

Rock the Bells 2006 MA15+ (1Hr 43Mins)

Rock the Bells is a white-knuckle trip through the world of concert production as an ambitious small time promoter attempts to bring together the full Wu-Tang Clan for his latest festival. Incidentally the film reveals something of the terrible injustice that plagued rap superstar ODB, capturing and contextualising some of the days before his untimely death. Must see!

#3 ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’ 2008

Anvil: The Story of Anvil 2008 M (1Hr 20Min)

Anvil: The Story of Anvil is the first film directed by Sacha Gervasi, a journalist, educator and scriptwriter of The Terminal. Gervasi introduced himself to the Canadian band as ‘England’s number one Anvil fan’ back in 1982 after they performed at a London club – he then acted as their roadie for tours in 1982, 84 and 85. Their unique off-camera relationship infuses the film with a contagious affection for Anvil’s energetic approach to music making. Equally their familiarity takes the camera to instances of profound frustration, exhaustion and confusion at their years of struggle. Quite simply this documentary offers a phenomenal lesson in perseverance and friendship.

#2 ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis 2013 MA15+ (1Hr 44 Mins)

The Coen brothers look at some of the gloomier existential dilemmas that musicians face in pursuing their art as they try to balance their time and resources against the demands made by society. Llewyn Davis is fictional folk singer surviving on the kindness of others in 1960s New York – though the directors admit they were partly inspired by the life of musician Dave Van Ronk as captured in his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. The comparison elicited a little anger from friends of Van Ronk was known to be a particularly nice guy – as the character of Davis certainly isn’t.

It’s a complicated, if not chaotic, life that Davis leads. As obligations close in on the protagonist’s future, Inside Llewyn Davis manages to describe with rich insights the unforgiving existence faced by many an artist. There is also Justin Timberlake and a grumpy cat to satisfy those two particularly prominent fan groups.

#1 ‘Maestro’ 2003

Maestro 2003 M (1Hr 29Min) View Trailer

The legacy of the 1970s New York club scene and its persistent impact on the music of today is hard to overestimate. Private loft parties hosted by some of the first and most innovative and influential DJs to ever spin and mix records also helped breakdown social boundaries and support freedom of expression in uplifting and unexpected ways. And also Keith Haring’s murals can be seen on the walls at the Paradise Garage, as well as scenes of Haring himself dancing during the club’s last weekend.

Full of historical footage and recent interviews, Maestro is essential viewing for anyone interested in electronic dance music. An inspiring lo-fi reflection on hi-fi dreams!

View the Cinémathèque’s ongoing program / Subscribe to QAGOMA YouTube to go behind-the-scenes

What You Want: Music Cinema‘ screened at the Australian Cinémathèque 2 September until 2 October 2016