‘An Open Room’ the recent William McKeown exhibition in the Kerlin gallery (30th August – 30th September) is aptly titled for a series conveying the simple perfection within our environment in a world preoccupied with technology. McKeown (1962-2011) ignites an appreciation for our natural surroundings through his choice of colour, subject matter and style. The curator masterfully communicates the artist’s innate focus on nature through the arrangement of the artworks. The art hung in this otherwise bare white space emulates planets revolving around the sun, with McKeown’s work serving as celestial bodies within a world where nature and art act as one.
A meditation into the mind and work of McKeown begins upon an ascension into this expansive space of alternating differently sized works, with the larger pieces acting as solitary focal points situated on both sides of the room. Following the curator’s intended layout, specific yet subtle numbering system ensures optimal viewing. This simple inclusion, combined with the information on the press release, allows for the viewer’s introspection and heightened appreciation for the artist’s work.
“Beautiful, while an apt description, does not effectively encompass all that McKeown’s work has to offer.”
Beautiful, while an apt description, does not effectively encompass all that McKeown’s work has to offer. The exhibition demands further rhetoric, calling to mind the words intriguing, emotive and hopeful. Following the exhibition, you are taken on a journey through bold blocks of colour, gentle gradients of pastels and naturalistic palettes. This experience feels akin to immersing oneself in McKeown’s vision and art-making process achieved through oils and watercolour.
The exhibition begins on a powerful note with the first Untitled piece, a bold rectangle of twilight tones which conjures a dark, brooding, and complex atmosphere. The material, oil on linen, feels to be an important aesthetic note. McKeown does not attempt to distort or hide the process of art making. Upon close inspection, each individual brushstroke of alternate shades and tone have been carefully layered to create this impactful piece.
As the exhibition moves on to the next piece, Untitled 2008, we are introduced to a signature element of McKeown’s style: subtle gradations of tone. Notably, the artist has achieved a raw irregular border through the thick sweeps of his brush. In this piece, he has tactfully eliminated the bottom edge border to draw the viewer’s eye and emphasise the expansiveness of his thematic concerns. This effect would have been easily lost if McKeown painted a conventional border. This border example is a recurring feature of McKeown’s work, which showcases his meticulous decision making.
“As he gradually introduces colour to his paintings, an intimacy is afforded between artist and viewer.”
The first series of works consisting of three pieces is titled Hope Drawing. This series offers a new facet of McKeown’s artistry and the considered positioning of his work within the space. This series punctuates the darker work on either side with its dreamlike pastel palette and the transition in material from oil on linen to watercolour on paper, framed not by brushstrokes but by a naturalistic wooden frame. As he gradually introduces colour to his paintings, an intimacy is afforded between artist and viewer, which is not fully realised in the starker monochromatic works at the beginning of the exhibition. Hence, the viewer is increasingly invited into McKeown’s personal insight into the world.
Raining (2008) displays McKeown’s true talent and artist’s eye. In reducing rain to its natural colours, this painting explores movement while seamlessly communicating its subject without need for the title. Rain commands our attention and appreciation for the natural form’s qualities, evoking feelings of comfort and calm as if watching rain gently reflecting off one’s window pane.
As the exhibition continues in its clockwise fashion, the paintings with borders undergo an almost imperceptible transition from stark dark tones to oak and varying shades of browns. This subtle flow emphasises an airiness throughout the Gallery, with McKeown’s paintings acting as pockets of alternating colour. Overhanging light fixtures illuminate paintings and contribute to this consistent ‘open room’ concept from floor to ceiling. The floor, an unpolished studio grey, is an effective marriage with the light white reflecting McKeown’s acclaimed gradation of tones.
McKeown’s chief concern in art was to mirror the openness of nature and illuminate the themes of liberty, hope and life. Despite his untimely death, his work is testament to the fulfilment of his aim. As an acute observer of the natural world, the viewer is challenged to rediscover the world and beauty found in simple pleasures. As McKeown declared in 2002, “There are two types of art – open and closed. All closed art is negative and anti-life. Art, which is open and accepts without judgement, is expanding, positive and enhancing”.
“A true celebration of a life dedicated to art’s wild incarnation – not against nature but reconciled with its instinctive beauty.”
‘An Open Room’ exhibition’s launch coincides with the book release ‘William McKeown in an open room’. This apt title is a true celebration of a life dedicated to art’s wild incarnation – not against nature but reconciled with its instinctive beauty.