Declan Sheehan is the Director of Artlink.
Here’s a curious intellectual parlour game: two online sites which generate folk tales based upon the typology of narrative structures and character types within Russian folk tales developed by Russian formalist Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale.1 Such a genealogy of quasi-mythic character types and scenarios is called to mind by several works in McKenna’s show Little Grey Muzzle. There are encounters with Proppian broad character types: a demonic werewolf-like figure approaching the low-lit centre of the gallery may be a Proppian villain or donor or magical helper or dispatcher bringing the butterflies which gather at its horns: in this context it is simple to read the small sculptural work featuring a dejected heroine, surrounded by magpies, sat atop an exaggerated oversize leopard-skin high-heel shoe and cleaning her bloody cut knee as a Proppian princess or a prize or hero within her own mythic tale. In the simplest analyses of signs and figures an absence itself signifies, so it is tempting here to continue with this Proppian conceit, and to especially focus upon the Proppian character types which may be absent from the dramatis personae presented within the show – the father, the false hero.
McKenna’s show has throughout the lure and allure of Propp’s analytical materials, such as these character types and their little narratives which can be generated around them. That allure is such in fact as to generate not only a path towards narrative, the construction of a story around each work presented, but also perhaps ultimately a story around the relation among all the works; it is difficult not to take a certain false path towards a trace of exoticism – the quest for the quixotic, a certain Strindbergian sensibility that all and everything are signs: each rainbow in the collection of twelve images of rainbows photographed above a Belfast skyline is perhaps a glorious spectrum projected with special meaning ‘just for me’; the search for Venus in a night sky, featured in the constructed model in a light box of a landscape of pylons and hilltops, is a search for a sign in the skies; the image of pixellated newsprint-style crossbones is a device in a narrative yet to be decoded.
The craft of the show is exquisite, both in the individual works – from sculptural works to the small prints on show – and in the exhibition design, the transformation of the space by light, colour and tone: this show is an exquisitely executed theatrical event. But in as much as this deserves admiration, in order to move the conversation forward there are critical concerns with having as a source for work a recognition of narrative mythic elements in contemporary urban life: what may be lost is an awareness of any overall structure, as the piquancy of each individual real-world-mythical narrative element or character casts a shadow over any further enquiry, any morphology of such mythos. The creation and recreation of mythic narrative elements or images or characters has already been superseded and deconstructed: Lévi-Strauss compared Propp’s constant model for the fairy-tale with chemical formulae and “in his research Propp separated variable and constant elements in different fairy-tales, seeking a wonderful uniformity in the labyrinth of multiplicity.”2
The exquisite recreation in art of the matter of real-world-mythical narrative elements or images or characters is not a finite task and is far from a fruitless one: but it is uni-directional, and an interest in the matter may obscure the structure of the narrative: and in time it could be prone to induce the queasiness I would associate with much of the novelty value of the world of contemporary magical realism. Behind the sculpture of a crushed dejected heroine, sat upon an oversize leopard-print high-heel, surrounded by magpies, and cleaning her bloody cut knee there is a late-night encounter “with the girl in A&E with the skint knee.”3 There is a tension there, and in this show that tension has not been diluted. It will be interesting to see how the artist further examines such tensions in future work.