Kenny McKenna | The Music of the Brush

By Virginia Campbell

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, most people in the United States will be looking back at an event that continues to provoke shock, horror, fear, and anger. Landscape painter Kenny McKenna will be doing that, too. But McKenna also looks back at that time as a personal turning point in his art career.

By 2001, McKenna had been painting professionally for almost two decades, having gradually made a transition away from his first career as a musician. He had become reasonably successful. But the satisfaction McKenna felt at having made a place for himself in the art world was no longer keen. He’d hit a plateau. “I didn’t feel like I was making any improvements,” the artist says.

McKenna needed to take a giant leap and strike out in a bold new direction. He had heard all the old saws about the importance of forgetting about what other people think (and purchase) and letting one’s own vision be the guide. But with a family to support and a hard-won second career at stake, he was hesitant to make a major change. Then came 9/11, and the markets tumbled. “After 9/11,” says McKenna, “the bottom got knocked out of the art market, and that allowed me to stop thinking about the market and just paint.”

Upper Schwabacher, oil, 36 x 48.

This month, McKenna’s first solo show at Legacy Gallery features perhaps the most dramatic evidence of what happened when he decided to “just paint.” His newest landscapes are, largely, about the paint itself. McKenna has loved the feel and smell of pure oil paint, right out of the tube, since the first time he used it back in high school. In these new paintings he celebrates that simple joy of the paint. What seem, at 20 paces away, to be detailed renderings of recognizable western vistas dissolve, as you approach the canvas, into viscous, abstract blips of paint.

In celebrating the beauty of the paint itself, McKenna has also broadened his sense of what is beautiful in the world he paints. While embracing iconic western scenes, his textured surfaces gain staying power in the mind’s eye by paying particular attention to the scruffier aspects of the landscape. The muted blues of giant mountain peaks occupy the otherworldly upper section of a canvas, while down at the human level, the yellows and browns of shrubs and grasses are rendered with interesting detail that anchors the viewer in the real and present world.

Looking at these canvases, you wouldn’t guess that McKenna was, before 9/11, a painter of highly romanticized landscapes full of golden tones, exaggerated monumentality, and soft edges. Inspired by 19th-century Luminist painters such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and Frederic Church, whose landscapes gave visual expression to a glorious vision of an expanding nation, McKenna faced the challenge of keeping his pictures fresh rather than overburdened with nostalgia. He had mastered romantic techniques with the generous help of Texas painter Dalhart Windberg, who let McKenna learn by watching him paint and patiently critiquing the younger artist’s work. It was excellent technical training that allowed McKenna to develop his own style, and it was also the kind of education that allowed McKenna to shift creative gears when the time came—once he realized he had nothing to lose by leaping.

A few years after resolving to expand beyond a romantic style, McKenna emerged into the broader world of western landscape painting, where he was largely unknown. When Bubba Wood, owner of the Dallas gallery Collectors Covey, saw McKenna’s paintings, he looked at McKenna and said, “Why don’t I know who you are?”

The recentness of McKenna’s shift in style is, of course, the major reason Wood didn’t know McKenna. But another reason is that McKenna lives in Oklahoma. There are an enormous number of gifted landscape painters in states like Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and California—but Oklahoma? That’s the state where the wind comes whistling down the plain. It doesn’t whistle down any mountains, or down any other picturesque landscape features, either. McKenna defends his home state dryly: “In the southwest corner of Oklahoma there’s actually a hill that’s technically a mountain.” McKenna knows he’s chosen an unexpected spot from which to emerge in the art world, but he had his reasons for not staying in Arizona or New Mexico, where he lived for periods of time. Ultimately, Oklahoma was key to McKenna’s ability to make a name for himself painting the scenery of just about every other state in the West.

As a boy in Kansas, McKenna was as much inclined toward music as art. A child of the 1960s, he grew up wanting to rock. Even though he showed obvious artistic talent in high school and received an unusually good education in basic art skills, he passed on art school and started his professional life as a musician. He went on to play every kind of rock and rhythm and blues through the ’70s and beyond, becoming a sought-after master of the Hammond B-3 electric organ (which produced the haunting sound of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”).
Out on the road, McKenna spent his free time painting. “The good thing about playing music was that it left me a lot of time during the day to paint,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to paint, though. I did everything—still lifes, florals, abstracts.”

But McKenna had married young and had a daughter, which made life on the road hard to take. After plenty of moving around and lean years, he ended up in Oklahoma because a fellow musician told him that the Tulsa area was about the friendliest place in the country for a musician who wanted to stay in one place. There were plenty of venues and lots of good musicians to play with. Had any of the bands McKenna played with ever suddenly broken out with a hit record, Oklahoma might not have seemed as attractive. But that didn’t happen, and it was just as well, because it turned out that McKenna’s truest passion wasn’t music after all.

In 1979, McKenna decided to open up some mental space for himself that was free of musical concerns. Remembering the pure pleasure of painting, he took a few refresher lessons. “That’s where the addiction started,” he says. “I started painting every day. Painting for me has been a form of addiction.”

It took some time before McKenna realized that he had been driving around in his real subject matter for years without actually seeing it. “I always had a strong sense of the landscape,” he says. “My parents were gypsies at heart, and we were always traveling. And I was out on the road so much.” When the light bulb finally clicked on, it shined very brightly.

“But I still like being in Oklahoma,” McKenna says, despite its lack of striking scenery. “It allows me to paint wonderful places all over the West. I just pack everything up, check the weather, and go where the weather looks like it’s going to be good. I can go anywhere I want and do my sketches to get the colors right.”

The conflict between painting and playing music having been resolved long ago, McKenna often sits down after a long day of painting to play for an hour or two on his overhauled 1920 Steinway. But when he’s painting, he wants silence. “If there’s music on and it’s not great, it’s like fingernails on chalkboard,” he says. “And if it is great, I start writing charts in my head.”

McKenna’s new canvases suggest that even if there’s no music in the air, there’s some in his paintings. It isn’t just the feisty brushwork and naturalism that animate them—they’ve got rhythm. Their compositions are full of movement and energy. Rather than the stillness of idealized vision that characterizes a romantic landscape, these paintings offer harmonies with a pulse and juxtapositions that echo back on one another.

St. Mary's Lake of Glacier, oil, 30 x 30.

The showstopper among his new works may well be ST. MARY’S LAKE OF GLACIER NATIONAL PARK. This location is a well-known spot that McKenna has caught with long shadows that gather in two angled swaths—the sharply inclined slope of land above the lake and the surface of the lake itself. These areas pull in slightly different directions along the horizontal edge of the lake in the middle of the picture. The spot they angle toward is hidden by tall evergreens, leaving your eye to wander up where puffy clouds sail serenely overhead. The composition achieves balance with sweeping movement rather than static structure—just like music.

Having sold out just about all of his shows for the last two or three years, McKenna now, at age 60, enjoys the best position as an artist he’s ever been in. His success seems even to be accelerating. Perhaps the years of playing music that delayed his painting career are now paying off and helping him make up for lost time.

Legacy Gallery, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Collectors Covey, Dallas, TX; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ.

Upcoming Shows
One-man show, Legacy Gallery, Jackson, WY, July 21.
Collectors’ Reserve American Art Exhibition & Sale, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK, October 22-November 6.
Miniatures Show, Collectors Covey, November 11.
Great American West Show, Settlers West Galleries, November 19.

Featured in July 2011.