The artist Katherine McKenna, who in earlier lives owned and curated Uptown Kingston’s Coffey Gallery and helped get both the Arts Society of Kingston and its pioneer First Saturday coordinated openings up and running, has a timeline of her work up in her studio. It starts in the early 1960s with preschool works and punctuates a life of art with a single image for each key year.
The results show a clear sense of progression to her art, which will be the focus of McKenna’s first solo show at New York City’s Chelsea-based Prince Street Gallery, opening this week with a reception on Thursday set to draw quite the crowd from Ulster County. Evident from the start is her love of color, as an organizing tool and key to making the emotional resonance of a landscape, still life or whatever she’s painting sing to the soul, as well as her penchant for a deep form of patience that, like the best in all fields, has allowed McKenna to rework creative veins so that they gain in maturity of vision and immediate effectiveness.
“I want you to look at my paintings, any of them, and not be able to forget them,” she says, standing amidst walls full of large, medium and smaller works being readied for shipment from her Saugerties studio to the City. “I want to paint indelible images.”
There’s a surface sameness to what McKenna does, in that she paints the same Western landscapes, in Wyoming and Colorado, year after year. But all the great Impressionists and Post-Impressionists did the same thing; what’s Van Gogh without Arles, or Monet without Giverny? What changes are the ways in which the painter uses colors and their combination to capture fleets of emotions and moods, usually in a single work.
There are also near-identical similarities between pairings of works: one large, on canvas, and others smaller, on paper. That’s because in the past year McKenna has been exploring her own duplication processes, creating dual versions of the same works. Partly, she says, it’s a means of controlling her own market (she also creates giclées, to open up a third level for collectors to enter her world). But largely, it’s because she enjoys her processes, from sketchwork out around the ranches that she and her husband visit each summer back to the weeks and months that she takes finishing her pieces in the studio.
Finally, there’s an almost-orange/red base that holds her recent works together. She demonstrates that this comes from a uniform base that she likes using, arrived at after years of experimentation and thought.
McKenna’s art is a series of steps in which she distills, re-feels and explores the landscapes that she loves. “I get the essence of the scene,” she says of her fairly fast sketches. “I used to take an RV out West, but now everything’s packed efficiently so we can fly.”
As they say, necessity is the mother of art methods, from choice of locations to paint to how she develops a work in the studio – learning to listen to her right-brain painter’s reasoning to know when to call a work complete, for example. “They just stop,” she notes as we admire the iconic simplicity of her landscapes. “Later, I can remember emotions, but more likely, I see the changes I’ve made since a work was completed – although I’m always happy they’re out there.”
McKenna describes what she does as a litany of ever-changing questions. “You ask yourself, ‘Is this working?’ or ‘How do I make this work? But of course, you answer yourself, ‘It’s not working because the painting isn’t finished yet.’”
There’s a consistency to McKenna’s painting that has allowed her to show well alongside many of the Hudson Valley’s top artists, all of whom seem to have pulled themselves out of the high-concept brinksmanship of the contemporary art scene, tying it to something more eternal. “I don’t really pay attention to the art world,” she says. “I just like the process more than anything.”
Nevertheless, McKenna faces a quandary where she has gotten pegged by some as a Western painter, while she sees herself as a painter who works with Western landscapes. “I have a huge love for color, and a huge love for Wyoming and Colorado. Out there, they see Western art in terms of Russell and Remington; maybe to them I’m more of a French artist.”
Yet she loves that her works have found places in numerous Western galleries and museums, as well as collections. And she loves it when she’s recognized as a force for change out there – as well as something fresh for its pure painterliness and the equal purity of her process back here.
The new show at Prince Street Gallery, for example, moves on to the Rockwell Museum in Corning and eventually the Byrdcliffe Colony in her hometown of Woodstock over the coming year – all adding to that timeline in her studio.
“I did have a new dream recently,” McKenna says. “It was a really big place with walls like these in my studio, and I was doing another level of what I do: some really, really big paintings.” Of the West, at least on their surfaces; but much more, in the sweet by-and-by.
“Wyoming” by K. L. McKenna, opening reception, Thursday, September 5, 5-8 p.m., open September 3-28, Prince Street Gallery, 530 West 25 Street, Fourth Floor, New York; (646) 230-0246, www.princestreetgallery.com, www.klmckenna.com.