Dani McKenzie

In her suite of night paintings, Dani McKenzie creates a world of shadows where the mundane of the everyday is infused with mystery.

In 2017, Dani McKenzie’s work was imbued with a strange nostalgic melancholy. She was undertaking a residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris and her paintings, which were based on found photography, were infused with mystery as neither the artist or viewer could know the history or the context of the images. They were depicted with a slightly out-of-focus fuzziness, memories becoming lost in a fog of time past. 

In 2022, the melancholy remains, but the memories are suddenly sharp and concise. Upon returning to Australia, McKenzie changed tactics. Rather than acting as a resurrectionist for other people’s faded memories, she turned to her own photography as a base. However, even here, McKenzie chose a tactic that served to skew our immediate interpretation of her “memories” – for the photographs she has chosen to re-read as paintings are all taken at night. And there can be little doubt that night-time has a profound effect on memory – there are shadows to contend with, zones of pitch blackness and unreliable lighting that make even the home front look alien. She describes the overarching theme of these works as “night” – “work, play, and rest” – but the results, however homely in intention, take on an air of the “unheimlich” – Freud’s term for the unhomely. In Dark Night, Starry Sky. And the Moon, I forgot to mention the Moon, 2022, an average inner-city suburban house, lit by streetlamps, seems to be potentially engulfed by Stygian darkness. Perhaps, you can’t help but think, it would be a lot safer inside.

And while Study of Pencil Pines on Alma Road carries a rather timeless beauty to it, replete with full moon and rather romantic lighting, it is a lonely locale suggestive of wintry chill. The darkness, the central theme here, allows the imagination to run riot. McKenzie’s worlds are sparsely populated and when a stray individual does invade her mis en scenes it is with an air of profound melancholy. A woman attends to the mundane task of washing and drying in the equally, and deliberately, mundanely titled Washing & Drying, 2022 – something anyone of us could witness on a given weeknight.  

Waiting For You, 2022, is the only time McKenzie comes close to inviting us inside. It’s the interior of a snug bar and the lights glow with a warm intimacy. But the sole patron sits by herself, clearly concerned. Has she been stood up? Or has something happened to the other party? McKenzie leaves us – and her subject – guessing.

“I guess the most obvious development with this work is that I am no longer working from found photographs, but from my own images and observations,” McKenzie says. “I know everyone is a bit sick of hearing about the pandemic, but like a lot of artists, my work changed a lot as a result of that time. The unpredictability of going in and out of lockdown, not being able to make plans for the future, and being unable to access my studio at times forced me to make changes to the way I work and think. Ultimately, this became a cathartic process for me. I was forced to slow down, take time, and just be in my environment. I started walking a lot, meditating, taking photos, and making drawings here and there.”

When she finally was able to return to the studio, she realised that she had come to the end of her examination of “the past within the present, and the ready-made photograph.”

“I wanted to make paintings that connected me to my environment, reflected my perspective on the world, and said something about the present,” McKenzie explains. “So, working from my own images felt like a natural direction to take. At first, I had little expectation, but just experimented for a while. The first paintings were based on photographs that I took within five kilometres of home, all in the day. I felt liberated working from my own images, making paintings of places I had come to know really well, and working on a larger scale . . . I do most of my walking at night, so it seemed only fitting to make a show of night paintings. It is interesting to observe the changes in a particular location once the sun goes down. There are places that open up and come alive, and places that go dead quiet. The paintings are based on a combination of staged and candid photographs, but, in each work, I have tried to engage the perspective of the viewer as a passer-by – a ‘flaneur’ – wandering through the city at night, casually glancing through a side-eye.”

Of course, there is an element of voyeurism there too, McKenzie admits, the outsider looking in, observing private moments that occur in public spaces. But then there has always been something of the voyeur in McKenzie’s work, whether it be the voyeur of replicating old, found photographs of people she would never, ever meet, or the voyeur stalking her own neighbourhood for fodder for her studio and paintbrush.    

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 60, 2022. 

Evening’s Empire
31 August – 17 September 2022
MARS Gallery, Melbourne

Olsen Gallery at Sydney Contemporary
8–11 September 2022
Carriageworks, Sydney

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