Klea McKenna: Rainbow Bruise
On ViewEuqinom Gallery
May 21–August 6, 2022
In reaction to what she calls our “soft-apocalypse,” Klea McKenna brings fresh urgency to her techniques of camera-less photography, greatly expanding its range in twenty-two analog prints and twenty NFTs. Her exhibition title, Rainbow Bruise, aptly conveys the photographs’ sensory fusion of bodily and optical experience, achieved with her process of embossing fabrics and other source materials onto photographic fiber paper. Exposing the embossed paper to raking light in the darkroom generates textural effects that embody touch and the labor of women. While early modern photograms depended on effects of luminous transparency, McKenna lends hers weight, emphasizing the physical effect of their production.
Motivated in lockdown by a “strange desperate optimism,” McKenna has been collaborating with her children in a game of collecting “archaeological” debris from the borders of industrial spaces in San Francisco, arranging objects like keys and chains along with plant specimens on her press bed. After being embossed and printed they take on the look of patterned fabrics that she imagines as “fossils,” textured overall fields to be cut up and rearranged in layers.
“Desperate” engagement with the flux of material culture has inspired McKenna to widen her range of sources and intervene more actively in their processing. In her press she now transforms thrift-store paintings into fields of textured marks and—in violation of the elegant economy of the conventional photogram—adds color directly by hand with fabric dyes, much as old master painters used glazes to enhance the illusion of depicted drapery textures.
Of five large prints that stretch the limits of her equipment, Blue Mirror (2021) offers the simplest format, suspending what appears to be a whitish swatch of cloth on a textured, deep blue field. In Fossil Record (1) (2022), the “cloth”—a patterned field of plant materials—has expanded to cover the entire dark background, which is revealed through strategically placed cuts. Dig (1) (2022), on the other hand, accumulates shattered fragments to compose what resembles a reconstructed Mayan relief. In painting, collage emerged from Cubism, based in drawing, but McKenna’s practice has more in common with the approach of Dadaist Hannah Höch and her “kitchen knife.” Unlike Höch, McKenna doesn’t appropriate images (or actually glue anything to the surfaces of her prints) but is wedded always to the tactile, indexical materiality of her sources. By using (apparently) cracked and crumpled surfaces as substrates for boldly incised images, she evokes the work of prehistoric artists on rough stone walls. Cave painting (2021), another large print, transforms a vintage painting into a document of touch as well as an arena for the slashing marks that depict a head. McKenna’s involvement with children and primitive picture-making recalls that of Paul Klee, who cultivated an interest in children’s art in the progressive Bauhaus context that integrated fundamental visual experience with new technology.
McKenna flirts further with painting in a series of smaller prints from 2021 that follow the template of Blue Mirror, with patches of what might be fabric placed in the center of larger shadowy fields. McKenna and her children want to raise questions for archaeologists of the future, so what are these specimens? All we can say for sure is that they are worn and used, fading and fraying, suggestive of bodily contact. Rainbow Bruise (2), according to the artist, bears the texture of a vintage painting. It’s virtually drained of color, while Rainbow Bruise (1) is painted on with messy, impressionistic brush marks. Something abject and poignant resides in the tangibility of these unknowable surfaces, their anonymity in the face of deep time. Inscrutable, they recall the enigmatic objects of Philip Guston or the Black Square (1915) of Kazimir Malevich. Other prints take on lush, Baroque flamboyance. In Rainbow Bruise (19) , the arrangement of irregularly cut scraps becomes more gestural and improvisatory, while the slicing in Rainbow Bruise (17) embodies a wink and suggestions of violence.
A pictorial impulse predominates as McKenna rephotographs and collages these materials digitally as NFTs. In a very hand-made approach to advanced technology, she appropriates the fastenings of deconstructed shipping boxes to depict female anatomy, addressing both prehistoric art and her personal grounding in motherhood and women’s work. Aware of the technological and theoretical leap involved, McKenna uses the NFTs as a lens for her analog works by mounting three iPads running the NFTs as slide shows across from her unique, handmade prints. On the luminous “skin” of the screens, surfaces regularly dissolve and transform, offering a dream of technological transcendence, of the “innocent eye” preserved in a realm of science fiction. Their images reach back into deep time, even as they gesture, in “strange desperate optimism” to a visionary future. Gallery publicity notes that McKenna is the daughter of psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna, but she brings a very down-to-earth feminist perspective to her own visionary poetics.