Now Sydney-based, Noel McKenna was born and raised in Brisbane in the 1960s and recalls a childhood spent in the suburbs in the era before front doors were locked, dogs were muzzled and concerns for OH&S prevented kids from climbing trees and play equipment. He initially undertook studies in architecture at the University of Queensland in 1974 and transferred to the art department of the Queensland College of Art a year later. In 1981 he moved to Sydney to study at the Alexander Mackie College. McKenna has worked for over three decades with a broad range of materials across painting, drawing, printmaking, ceramics and sculpture.
McKenna developed an interest in ‘primitive’ art as a young man after reading the poetry of Sylvia Plath and following the artistic threads of her inspiration back to Paul Klee, Henri Rousseau and Giorgio de Chirico. There are echoes of surrealism within his works, with small moments – a window, an animal, an object – in his sparsely populated landscapes providing clues to an underlying narrative. Looking through the windows of homes, his works can carry the same effect as an Edward Hopper painting, a mode of storytelling through the unity of natural, structural and human elements. The primitive influence extends into his practice, with an intentionally childlike and innocent style and the painterly application of the enamel with exposed sections of canvas beneath the brushstrokes.
The experience of place is a focus within much of McKenna’s art. His recent major solo exhibition, 'Landscape – Mapped' at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, included his 'Map' series, which combines cartographical maps of Australia with native flora, fauna and landmarks in a quest to represent the variegated landscapes that comprise Australia as a nation. On a more intimate scale, place manifests itself in suburban or rural themes, with works depicting everything from street corners to homesteads in the countryside. ‘I have a sort of dream to live in a small dwelling in the country. This is the kind of place I would like.’
In 2016 his work featured in 'Close to Home: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2016' at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. In 2014, he was the subject of a major solo exhibition 'ABSURDIA: Noel McKenna – A Focus' at the Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle. He is a five-time recipient of the Wynne Prize for Watercolour, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and received the 1994 Sulman Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. McKenna is widely represented in public and private collections in Australia and New Zealand.