Embodying all that is joyful, beautiful and visually engaging, Judy Kensley McKie’s studio furniture and objects combine the energy, craft and sensations of magical animism and artistic mysticism from her own very personal perspective. Her work makes us inwardly smile.
Her current show at Gallery NAGA in Boston displays her gifts in basic very accessible forms and sensitive details. And yet, her work, like other great art or design goes beyond the physical, the visual and material craft to an ethereal visceral presence. We not only see her pieces but we literally emotionally feel them. Each is always enhanced by some twist of irony or dignified humor in all of her furniture and funtional objects. This adds to their magic, their wonderful spirituality. artes fine arts magazine
Recognized for decades for her exquisite craftsmanship, McKie’s work is able to reach beyond the functionally beautiful to the spiritually joyous. Here impeccable craft is raised to truly artistic technique. In all of her pieces, function follows form to transcend the physically objective to the aesthetically profound.
Quite wonderful is the fact that each piece that McKie creates is a stand alone formal sculptural object. Mckie’s approach is simultaneously bold and subtle, energetic and graceful. Her broad visual vocabulary is full of wonderful plant and animal images. However, these are not representations of clearly naturalistic flora and fauna, but distinctive plants and creatures with their own animated energy and personality underscored by an affecting abstract quality.
Each of Mckie’s works conveys an extraordinary sense of both hard and soft, simple line and solid shape, seriousness and playfulness while somehow being elegantly simple and yet often complexly enriched. Wit, humor and whimsy are always gracefully intertwined into the form and function of each of her objects.
Over the past couple of decades or so, I have been an art critic Boswell to Judy Mckie’s visually-evocative Samuel Johnson, chronicling her work. Since the mid-1990s, I am continually left in awe, and sometimes even in wonder, by the quality, gracefulness and sheer delight of her furniture and objects. This current exhibition at Gallery NAGA is no exception.
This exhibit is made up of small medium and large furniture and objects. As they are all functional (McKie cannot make anything that is not); the pieces are all human-scaled. Over the years, she has greatly expanded her materials pallet to include not only various one-off pieces in a variety of woods but also in carved stone and in cast bronze that allows for multiple editions. At this exhibit, there are number of larger pieces in editions including the exquisite Grazing Horse Table (above left).
Created in 2012, the Grazing Horse Table is a wonderful example of McKie’s elegant drawing technique. Her gorgeous use of line can be seen throughout her work. With this piece of furniture, she has literally sketched in space creating a sculptural form that is highly functional. The eloquent piece suggests a quiet pastoral motion in its sculpturally drawn form. Mckie’s training as a two dimensional painting major at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is underscored by this piece. This piece of furniture is a spectacularly nuanced physical drawing in air.
As you enter Gallery NAGA, you first see the marvelous Anteater Bench with a fantaciful wall piece behind it. The abstracted and spectacularly graphic detailed Anteater is cast in bronze in an edition of 8 and is 16x66x24 inches. Because of this bench’s wonderful visual personality, this sculpture seems to have an untold but provocative story to it.
A carved basswood piece is actually a wonderfully creative unique headboard for a bed, Gazelle Headboard (2013). Two others, Bird Headboard and Wave Headboard, are placed throughout the gallery on walls over dramatic large furniture pieces. Both demonstrate the elegance of the artist’s line, texture and imagination.
File Cabinet with Squares (2013) is a wonderfully crafted carved basswood and milk paint furniture object. It is a geometrically abstracted piece, 30” high and 52” long. There is a certain quality of welcome to it. It feels not only like a beautiful piece of painted and carved furniture but also like an accessible sculptural form.
Regally set on the opposite wall of the gallery is the grand Dragon Settee (2013). This stunning Asian inspired smoothly flowing sea serpent, large seating piece is created from carved mahogany with an elegant upholstered seat. It is 33x89x24” in size. It is a major piece that was made with an edition of 2. Again Mckie has “drawn” eloquently with materials.
A series of four carved and painted basswood mirrors punctuate the wall in back of the Dragon Settee. These mirrors are themed with animals or plants. The most playful one is Snake Mirror with a frame that seems to hiss, coil and undulate. Flower Mirror is the most seriously patterned with what looks like an elegant imaginary lotus. Each is 27x18x1” and are painted with milk paint.
By the way, milk paint is a surface paint made with a formula used for centuries before the sale of commercially made paints. Made from elements that pre-date petrochemicals and other toxic bases and solvents, it is biodegradable, non-toxic and odor-free when dry.
Blackbird Cabinet (2012) is created from carved basswood and painted with milk paint. This rather magical furniture piece has the birds’ beaks as surprising cabinet door handles. The colors seem just right as well. Again, here McKie uses unexpected elements to add to the unique excitement of the piece while being a part of the function.
Set in the middle of the gallery is the Crane Coffee Table (2012). This cast bronze set is in an edition of 8 and visually projects the dual aspects of elegance and absurdity of large birds. With the wings flapping for balance, there is a wonderful curvilinear sweep to the piece.
Beagle Side Table is a humorous bronze dog in waiting. Fabricated in an edition of 8, it is 21x36x14” in size. Above it is set a superb Umbrella Stand cast in multicolored bronze, also in an edition of 8. Simply beautiful, it is 24x15x15” and is what can happen if you are able to train plants to be elegant abstract functional structures.
Guarding the other side of the Umbrella Stand, is the very determined and feline Cat Chair (above left). Its curling and twitching tail is the backrest of the chair. The cat’s paws cleverly reflect Chippendale style legs often ending in a lion’s paw design.
Taking up most of a wall, is the Eagle Table, a large luxuriantly colored carved mahogany dining or meeting table. By their outstretched wings, two imaginative eagles hold up either end of the table. Their connected extended tails give structure to the piece. It is 30x42x68” and was completed in 2012.
A very earnest Urn with Flowers seems both ancient and contemporary. Cast in bronze in an edition of eight, it is 24x15x15 inches. Its floral/leaf pattern elements seem to be reaching to the sky or somehow praying. Maybe both?
McKie has created six small carved basswood plaques that depict her personal versions of a Bear, Bluebird, Elephant, Dog, Horse and Rabbit. The 10×10” medallions are whimsical and decorative potential wall companions.
One of the smaller pieces in the show may have some of the strongest character, Head to Tail Bowl. It may be a make-believe turtle with its shell upside down or an imaginary snake creature that somehow found sturdy legs. It also has an ancient quality to it in a very contemporary way. Cast in bronze in an edition of eight, it is 6x11x6”. Whatever it is, Head to Tail Bowl is smilingly striking.
Judy Kensley McKie’s personal visual interpretations speak to many of our senses and sensibilities both consciously and somehow unconsciously as well. No matter what material she works with, there is a transcending personal metaphor that flows through all of her artwork. Her signature style is an accessible abstraction that is very recognizable and contemporary yet somehow primeval. On many levels, Mckie’s works vibrantly communicate to us as they compel visual, tactile and emotional marvelously positive reactions. Her vision, art and craft are simply life enhancing.
By Mark Favermann, Contributing Writer
Judy Kensley McKie, at Gallery NAGA
Through December 14, 2013
Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury Street, Boston, MA 02116
There is a beautiful illustrated catalogue available at the gallery.