About James McKenna

Artist’s Statement
While the form of my practice is strongly material and physical, its essence is experiential. In it the tangible is a vehicle or container for the intangible: history, relationships, experience, memory. Much of the steel I use is scrap and shows scars, wear, and hard use, evocative of endurance and the weight of time. I work it roughly and leave on it the messiness of steel fabrication. My canvas however comes to me from Asia, packaged in the guise of untouched newness, belying its complex past. Tangled in its weave is the history of privilege, oppression, and servitude. Yet also present is the fleeting of carrying, making, packing, and transporting, a history of working hands and moments of lives unknown to me.

This societal and personal awareness flows through all my work, not just the installations. My most important performance is personal encounters with strangers, meditations on the now, that hinge on quiet, touch, and transience. My videos are mementi mori, also reminders that the moment is the only—if brief—reprieve from mortality.

My work draws on many traditions. Old-school land artists, whose materiality moved the earth to form an all-encompassing experience. Contemporary shapers of totalizing, riveting experiences: Yayloi Kusama, Olafur Eliassen, Mike Nelson. Aggressively material artists, such as Ursula von Rydingsvard, Chakaia Booker, Mandy El-Sayegh. Artists who collaborate with the natural and built world: Richard Long, Erin Weirsma, Dala Nasser. Unflinching performance artists: Ana Mendieta, Petr Pavlensky, Cassils. And broadly, Lakota spirituality, with its focus on the material as manifestation of the spiritual. Also the current flood of migrants crossing the sea to Greece and Italy, some of whom are forced to live lives of fragile dignity in frail structures of canvas framed with boards and pipes. All have taught me. Echoes of all ring through my practice.

James McKenna has long seen the world as a tangible manifestation of the intangible. As an undergraduate in metalsmithing, he crafted damaged objects invoking the ritual life of a long-past imaginary culture. As a photographer, he made dark dream tableaux reminiscent of pictorialist visions. When he began working with steel, his practice was built around a belief in a world of forces and archetypes behind the screen of the material world, the “veil” described in the Romantic poetry of Percy Shelley.

As he engaged more deeply with his materials, his focus turned to art as personal experience. Using his entire body as tool, he infused his work with sweat and, occasionally, blood as he traced himself on paper and canvas. These physical remainders enable a personal encounter with each viewer. His practice evolved into installations and performances that elicit from the tangible their intangible human contents. These include histories of past purposes and labor, memories and invested feelings, representations and evocations of the nature of human experience.

A recent MFA graduate of University of Cincinnati School of Art, James now teaches at Northern Kentucky University. Recently he exhibited at Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and PAR Projects, a community-based organization in the Northside neighborhood of Cincinnati. His studio is in Cincinnati.

James McKenna
Instagram: jamesmckennastudio