Walk into Boom Gallery and you will be bedazzled by a riot of colour, line and movement. This solo exhibition by Shelley McKenzie, Occupation, comprises thirty paintings on canvas and paper, and resounds with joie de vivre. Her vibrant works, expressed with an assured brushstroke and a bold palette, pulsate with a life of their own – her works really do occupy the space.
McKenzie says her work explores the process of making art, “Each step in the creative process mobilises an aspect of being – kinaesthetic, sensory, perceptual, affective, cognitive and symbolic”. Her work also reflects her interest in the organisation of space through the push and pull of layers of paint and other media. She incorporates fragments of objects, shapes and patterns to convey the physical environment around her as well as her inner emotional landscape.
Exhibiting regularly in Geelong since 1995, McKenzie was one of the artists in Boom Gallery’s inaugural exhibition last year and her work sold out on opening night. She has a string of qualifications to her name including Master of Education, Graduate Diploma in Education, Bachelor of Arts, Diploma of Arts (Visual Arts) and Diploma of Art Therapy,
Beyond Shelley’s celebratory and exhuberant style lies a carefully considered approach. So what makes this artist tick? And why is the exhibition titled Occupation? McKenzie kindly agreed to answer these questions and more in this Q&A, giving us an insight into her artistic practice.
Shelley McKenzie, May the sun be on your back, 46cm x 58cm, gouache, marker pen, shellac ink on cotton paper. Image courtesy Boom Gallery.
How did you come up with the title ‘Occupation’ for your current exhibition?
Occupation seemed to be a useful word because it held several meanings that could apply to my circumstance. I work with Aboriginal men in a prison and the impact of occupying or taking someone’s land is omnipresent. The men often work collaboratively on one piece of work so the notion of ownership or authorship becomes unimportant. Occupation in the sense of doing was another sense to the word – this is what I do, this is how I use some of my time, this is how I am engaged. The paint, the materials, the marks physically occupy the space on the canvas and paper, and the process occupies my mind and body.
What is your background and what led you to becoming a visual artist?
I am a girl from the Mallee who grew up in a large extended family of working class people. Art was in the form of handcrafts – my mother’s knitting, sewing, crocheting, embroidered tablecloths. There were prints of horses on my Nana’s walls and plaster figurines of dogs. I liked to draw from an early age and take small objects and arrange them into designs that were pleasing. I remember the patterns on linoleum, the patterns and textures of my dresses and the wallpaper that lined the wardrobe. I was sensitive to order and the visual in my environment. I drew, and drawing led to painting.
Shelley McKenzie, Eventide. 73cm x 62cm, acrylic, shellac ink on canvas. Image courtesy of Boom Gallery.
Does your work have social, political, cultural or personal messages?
Disentangling personal, cultural, political and social threads is a complex matter. Questions about what is art for and why it persists in human societies; what advantages does art making confer to the group and maker; what spaces it occupies, the ownership of it, the value of it; these become enmeshed in time, culture and politics.
While I would say my work is of a personal nature, of course it is connected to my gender, cultural background, education, history and life experience. For me it is a healthful activity that may afford insight into my mental state and mobilise my being on different levels. It has the capacity to hold many meanings at the one time that goes beyond the scope of words.
What are you currently working on?
Pure line drawings of furniture in my house.
Can you tell us about a highlight in your artistic career?
I do not think of myself as a career artist but making art is an important part of how I live and for my self health; however, if someone connects with or responds to my work in a positive way, that can be an affirming and gratifying experience. The highlights are having the opportunity to share and show work, the luxury of being able to afford materials and time, and bringing something new into the world that has its own separate being.
Shelley McKenzie, Kelly neighbours. 153cm x 122cm, acrylic, shellac ink on canvas. Image courtesy Boom Gallery.
What sort of research and/or reference materials do you use for your work?
Sensitivity to the environment about me – walking up, walking down, thinking time, solitary time, watching gives me outer things that go inside and come out later in my work. Books and magazines are my staples.
Have you ever made an artistic pilgrimage? If so, where did you go and why?
I once saw the Matisse exhibition at the NGV and it was miraculous in its life affirming energy and colour, while Picasso’s wartime works seemed the green, yellow and purple of aging bruises. I like the vitality of graffiti and stencilling – how it is part of the natural light and environment and how it’s there for everyone to see. I always look for the huge face on the wall near the Footscray train station when I take the train to Melbourne.
All artists experience challenges in their practice. Can you tell us about any you have had?
To speak about what is visual, the necessity to explain in words I find an enormous challenge – sometimes it seems you can murder something by dissection and it is always hard for me to frame what I do in acceptable language and establish my separateness from the produced thing.
How would you describe your work?
My work is spontaneous, colourful, exploratory, layered, imprecise, seeking – using a mixture of materials on canvas and paper including acrylic, gouache, ink, marker pens, sand-paper, varnish. The works take shape incrementally and need to rest and then be re-visited. The steps in the process and being physically and mindfully engaged in the process is important.