Q+Art: Vanessa McKernan’s Watery Dreamscapes Ritualize the Human Condition
As a young girl, Vanessa McKernan studied modern dance and ballet before dipping her toes in painting. Today, the Canadian artist draws inspiration from her background in performance art by packing her work with willowy figures who seem to float on tiptoe through a watery dreamscape.
Though McKernan relies on anatomical observation to give her balletic figures form, the artist stretches both bone and muscle to fit her emotional whims. “The world I am painting references the interiors and landscapes of my reality, but also mixes with the interiors and landscapes of my imagination,” McKernan writes in her artist statement. “I want the viewer to recognize what they see, but then I want to take them a step beyond recognition, to a place that is more about feeling.”
Mckernan’s ghostly figures embrace a shared emotional response to life’s roller coaster, from the heights of pleasure to the most horrific pain. Clustered together in times of celebration and in mourning, her ethereal subjects model their lives on nature and the way its pieces fit together in a unified whole. In McKernan’s woozy fairytales, nature provides a template for deeper understanding of one’s place in the world—only by sharing our most fundamental human emotions with one another can we become part of that interconnected whole.
McKernan uses flowers—long associated with funerals, weddings, and childbirth—to remind us of community-based rituals that strengthen bonds during times of heightened emotion. These rituals also help humans feel spiritually connected: “We inhabit the world in our bodies, but are so much more complex than just our physical selves,”McKernan notes. “When I work with the human form, I am really taking into account all aspects of the self, and often layering an emotional or spiritual ‘body’ on top of or next to a physical one.” Anchoring each painting in the primordial symbolism of water, McKernan suggests that true spiritual awakening lurks beneath the glassy surface of our most personal human experiences, hidden deep within the collective unconscious.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Vanessa McKernan discusses the challenge of painting and parenting, the genius of choreographer Pina Bausch, and making aesthetic sacrifices for the good of your work.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Vanessa McKernan: The Book of Symbols. Reflections on Archetypal Images, Formulas for Painters, Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, blank journal for writing.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
VM: Pina Bausch the German choreographer and dancer. I love talking about the creative process with all artists but especially those who pursue a material or method outside of painting. I think Pina was a crazy, intense genius, and I get the sense that she was intoxicating to be around. Her work also moved me in really profound ways, so just to be in her presence and listen to her talk about her life would be amazing. There is a documentary on her work called Pina. I highly recommend.
What are you trying to express with your art?
VM: The human condition.
What person has most influenced your work?
VM: I think the love from my partner Christian has had the greatest influence on my work. My relationship with him and his faith in me really gave me the confidence to build a career in painting.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
VM: Wine and cheese. But I indulge so frequently I rarely feel guilty about it anymore.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
VM: Painting and parenting at the same time. Not literally painting with a baby on my back, but structuring my life so that I have ample time for both.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
VM: A painting teacher once told me, "Kill what you love." I cherish this advice because in painting breakthroughs often come through destruction. In my experience, the part of the painting that you love is causing you to make all kinds of compositional sacrifices that are not helpful. Every time I paint out that "perfect" figure or face, the painting opens up and new truths are revealed.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
VM: Yes. It was for me. But in Canada the cost is a fraction of what it is in the U.S.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
VM: Less academic writing, more heart in what people write and say about their work.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
VM: Ha! I wish I had a more sophisticated answer here, but I am working my way through all the seasons of Amy Schumer's podcast, 3 Girls 1 Keith.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
VM: Honestly, as a painter I spend a lot of time working alone in my studio, so that hasn't changed much. I also find gallery sales have sustained. This might be related to the fact that Canada really pumped money into various grants and relief funds, so we didn't have a financial collapse. We have been slow with our vaccine rollout, and government here is way too eager to lockdown because of an already strained healthcare system. Currently in Toronto you can't go into a store or eat in a restaurant. And this is our third lockdown.
While my practice has been steady, this has affected me more on a personal level. I miss my friends, I miss socializing with other families and kids. Home can feel like a pressure cooker because, besides taking walks outside, we can’t go anywhere or do anything.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
VM: I am just finishing up work on a show that opens in Ottawa on May 27 at Wallspace Gallery. It is called River Variations, a duo exhibition with a longtime friend and fellow painter, Julie Gladstone. I have been working on these paintings since September, so it feels great to have them go out into the world. The exhibition will also clear out my studio and make room for new work, which is always an exciting phase.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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