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Re-imaginings: Nostalgia and cultural memory in the paintings of Dani McKenzie and McLean Edwards April 28, 2020

Andrew McIlroy

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‘The Band Who Knew Too Much’, itself squeezed up against the wall, plays hard driving, blues rich anthems about ‘spending the rent, hard rubbish nights and swilling beer‘. It was the 1990’s, the pub band scene was in full swing across Melbourne and I would rarely miss this intoxicating gig.


As each evening progresses, a warm sense of nostalgia and a dose of mischief sweeps across the room. Projected onto the wall as the band plays are ageing, colour-bled photographs of youthful couples lounging across picnic blankets, toddlers running through makeshift sprinklers, friends embraced in the summer heat at foreshore caravan parks, beatniks proudly alongside their shiny new automobiles, and young women in gusseted swimwear smiling at the Instamatic through clenched teeth as they barrel along on water skis.

And while one can only wonder at the mix of expressions on the face of the person behind the camera, these are familiar, everyday images to us. Flawed perhaps but of the times, full of hope for tomorrow.


I could sense, as the old photos scrolled by to the musical hits of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s playing beneath, there was not one person in the room who was not in that moment gleefully reliving their own memories inspired by thoughts of similarly found photographs, once tucked safely in the bottom of their parents’ wardrobe, linen press or secret place.


And while this attachment to nostalgia traverses generations, it finds ever-changing expression – through music; through photography; through art, in all its forms.


In their exhibitions of paintings opening this coming week at Sydney’s Olsen Gallery, artists Dani McKenzie and McLean Edwards assume the place of the indifferent observer behind the lens, with just as powerful and lasting effect.

Melbourne based artist McKenzie presents 17 oil paintings in ‘Recognising Strangers’, a significant collection of new works - significant not least because so many of these finely resolved works have been created at a time of great disruption.


McKenzie’s paintings imbued with a strong sense of nostalgia and melancholy inevitably spark a conversation on memory wherever they hang. To my mind, her art practice brings to the fore the link between contemporary art practice and cultural memory - where cultural memory is considered central to our understanding of our history and culture, and in turn, being exclusive to contemporary experience.


Memory in this context is understood as the perception of the past, in continuous transformation due to the fact that it is dependent on and is made by the present.


As a tool in art, memory is often associated with the portrayal of troubles and the ills of society, with absence and loss, with decay and ruin.


But “while nostalgia is often defined as a kind of cultural malady”, says art historian and critic Andrew Frost, “it can also have a positive effect when it empowers a new generation to self awareness and realisation”. (The Guardian, 2013)

McKenzie’s depictions of everyday life of an era - only a generation or two now passed - give rise to new reflections and insights, to re-imaginings. They are fundamental aesthetic memory experiences, entailing a degree of artistic detachment that allows one to appreciate the subject for its own sake.


Detachment may seem counterintuitive to the idea of memories, which are after all autobiographical. But this artistic approach enlivens reflection, a nostalgia that wistfully accepts that ‘the past is the past’ and embraces human finitude. A reflective attitude that allows us to appreciate memories for what they are – recreations of past experiences – and to simply take aesthetic pleasure in our present experience of the memory.


Standing before McKenzie’s paintings we are not passive observers of someone else’s memories. Rather, we are triggered to construct our own memories. We summon the raw material of our past to create memories to experience in the present, and stand in relation to our past, in much the same way the artist here stands detached in relation to her canvas.


This is not to say that an aesthetic approach to nostalgia gives us licence to fabricate from thin air memories that have no basis in reality. That would not be nostalgia, but fantasy (a whole different genre). While McKenzie’s familiar portrayals may trigger a multitude of memories, dependent as they are on our own experiences, it is left to the viewer to embrace the memory that produces the greater rush of pleasure.

And this is why McKenzie is so good, on so many levels. I cannot recall an artist’s work that is not only technically highly proficient but universally takes breath away at first sight. Such is the engagement with her audience. Each and every time I view her works my mind fleets from memory to memory and back again to the softened, timeless images. And while these images portray seemingly idyllic, sunlit, carefree times, there remain - with the sparing utilisation of dark pigment and shadow - intervals of unease, adding yet another layer of complexity to these accomplished works.


There is here a sophistication that I am unable to favourably compare to any other contemporary Australian painter of her generation.

Yet the human psyche too is complex. Our lives are full of positive, negative and neutral memories to draw from. Contrary to our subjective experience of these, our memory is constructive in nature. When we retrieve the memory of some episode in the past, it feels as if we have called up a mental video and hit the play button. We relive the moment, but as time goes by perhaps recast, refashion it to our present circumstance.

And while acclaimed Australian artist McLean Edwards similarly takes the place of the artist as the detached observer, he often places himself as the central figure of his painting, of his episodic memory. The artist often portrays himself as weighed down, shadowed or lifted by spectres of his past and of his present.

In this way, McLean embraces nostalgia as restorative – where there lives a painful and unfulfilled longing. He is aware that time runs only in one direction and we can never actually return to the past. By accepting the irrevocability of the past, a reflective attitude allows McLean to appreciate his memories too for what they are – mental recreations of past experiences – and too can take pleasure from these memories in the present.

Despite commentary at times to the contrary, McLean’s pared back painting style beautifully in my view adds to the complexity of his art - the comedic poses and outfits of his real or imagined figures (including himself) disguising its seriousness.


McLean has described his portraiture as “a form of emotional larceny … the paintings play to a European tradition of the three-quarter portrait, which people are used to reading". ‘It’s archaic,’ Edwards says, ‘it draws people in. It sucks them in because it’s familiar and it’s nostalgic, but it’s a trick. The paintings are designed not to engage. The characters know they’re in a painting … like photographs of posed characters fully cognisant they are being photographed. (Artist Profile, 2019)

But McLean’s portraits are engaging. In his exhibition of paintings and drawings, ‘Rebecca’ the artist continues the playful parody of the European masters, laying bare the nude form of his subjects. But look deep into their fixed eyes and you are met with that pain and unfulfilled longing. The vulnerability of their human condition, and their beauty, is on full display.


McLean’s paintings are etched with melancholy and memory, and very much autobiographical. But we are not simply passive observers of McLean’s or others’ memories. McLean’s advancing figures, classically contrasted against austere backgrounds, provide a spark for our own memories and experiences in the present.

Bringing these two accomplished artists together under the one roof, in dual exhibitions is no accident. One is able to journey seamlessly from one gallery to next, from one group of paintings to the other, and back again. And while the gallery will not be packed with emotionally charged cavorting crowds like those that once crammed the Rainbow Hotel (in light of present social distancing restrictions), the memories these exhibitions inspire will be many. And present here, immersed in memory, our understanding of ourselves will be enhanced, re-imagined.

Recognising Strangers’, by Dani McKenzie opens 29 April and runs till 23 May at Olsen Gallery, Sydney


‘Rebecca’ by McLean Edwards opens 29 April and runs till 23 May at Olsen Gallery, Sydney


Main Photo: Dani McKenzie, 'Girls Weekend Away' (2020) Photo: Olsen Gallery



Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia


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