Three Movements through Klea McKenna’s Witness Mark


Three Movements through Klea McKenna’s Witness Mark

By Vanessa Kauffman Zimmerly January 16, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

Klea McKenna’s solo show, Witness Mark, at San Francisco’s EUQINOMprojects this winter, presented a cohesive body of work that ranged through the two-dimensional, sculptural, and cinematic. Using McKenna’s signature alternative photography processes, Witness Mark provides an evocative depiction of ritual, the objects of its acts, and the artifacts of its occurrence. Below are three movements that address the work’s prominent themes.


ALMA (2017), McKenna’s first video and a natural progression from her photographic work, opens with a hum. We know this sound, how it feels as an emission from our own bodies. A hum is a sound often born when the hands are busy and the mind is idle. It can also be a non-sound, so subtle that it is noticed only upon its cessation. The hum in ALMA, titled for the Latin word for “to nourish” and “to foster,” is not easily ignored; the sound is an unseen character unto its own. In its first breaths, it is singular, accompanied by the wind—earth’s own hum—and the rustling of grass. Later, the humming becomes multilayered and melodic, a harmony with a rising intonation that casts a sense of urgency. It is both potent and unremarkable, engulfing viewers and listeners in its intimacy.

The camera zooms out to reveal a vast landscape with a central rock formation. The rock’s shape is both womb- and tomb-like, sharing characteristics with these primordial dwellings that gestate humans to and from life. After a few measures, several women come from the edge of the frame, embarking on the rocks. They approach with purpose, donning monochromatic, monastic attire, and, like a swarm, quickly enter a central crevasse. The camera follows, allowing close-up glimpses of the women’s hands and feet, the rock’s surfaces, and the many visual similarities between them. Lichen-laced; freckled like the cosmos; pocked and grooved from working, or from being worked.

The reason for the women’s work remains esoteric, though the confidence of their movements insists that this is not their first visit. They climb surefootedly through uneven surfaces and begin a choreography of care. They rub their palms along the rock’s curvatures, press their cheeks to its cheeks, and adorn its skin with charcoal in circular swoops. They use charcoal again to cover their hands thoroughly in dark soot—an act that turns slightly smudged fingertips into wrist-length gloves, a vestment for their communion. They huddle together within the rock’s spoon-like belly. They tend the rock, and each other, with a reverence that moves beyond labor and into ceremony.

In his book of text and image pairings, Blind Spot, Teju Cole writes that “photography is shadow work, controlled exposure. There is therefore an irony (if not a paradox) in showing photographs: extending into the public what is birthed in secret.”1 McKenna’s work has long reveled in this shadow work. Her photograms are often made outdoors at night, the entirety of the darkened world around her acting as the blackened interior of a camera. The natural environment—rainfall, spiderwebs, large tropical fronds, and tree stumps, among her subjects—is wrought by her own hands through direct methods such as pressing and rubbing, not unlike the gestures we see the women in ALMA making. In ALMA, McKenna draws viewers into “what is birthed in secret,” illuminating aspects of her own artistic process, as well as the many rites we make of everyday labor, of what we do with ordinary devotion.2 In one of my favorite moments, the shadow of a hand appears, cast against a light gray rock. With fingers splayed, it gives a simple wave. In my mind, it becomes the first hand, symbolizing the humanity of all ritual. We tend. We get dirty. We listen. We press. We recede. We labor.

Klea McKenna. ALMA, 2017; single-channel video installation with sound; 16:9; 9:37 min. Courtesy of EUQINOMprojects and the Artist. Photo: Robert Herrick.


In more than one conversation, I’ve heard McKenna’s photograms described as “abstract,” an impulse that I imagine comes from the work’s stark, geometric compositions and austere palette. In some pieces, subjects appear in isolation, while in others they are layered, repeated, or mirrored—handlings that are certainly common to works of abstraction. Yet McKenna’s works are the opposite of abstract. They are representations and therefore a step removed from actuality, but the works insistently present detailed recordings of objects and organic matter as they exist. Their appearance on paper is derived from direct exposure to their physical forms; their textures and contours cannot hide. While choices are made by McKenna during photographic exposure and in the darkroom, in most ways, she allows her subjects authorship in revealing their likeness, to show up as they are. A tree stump, the subject of McKenna’s Automatic Earth series (2017), does not have the dexterity to massage its appearance or to encase its essence in material or psychological veiling. It can’t even belie its age—each year of its growth is visible as a new core emerges and is chronicled by a new ring. In McKenna’s depictions, these rings appear finer and finer the farther they are from their center, the oldest years frayed like memory.

McKenna’s works are vestiges of moments, of understated, oft-ignored phenomena. Why, when we see something as it truly is, are we inclined to call it abstract? Why is it that when our reality is most lucid, we are quick to reduce, to make elemental what is complex? Too often we resist looking and swallow the antidote of abstraction to ward off a far more nuanced existence. And so, I look closely. In the concentric circles of the stumps, I see not a solid line, but a series of close dots—Braille, or Morse Code? I see scars from where a stump has been split—an aerial depiction of a valley, perhaps similar to the one this tree once grew in. Round holes in one stump’s surface, presumably eaten through by insects, show up here looking like clusters of pollen. In the images’ corners, glistening motes of dust or sediment emerge from the depths of a dark pool like small galaxies—the greatest lingua franca of all.

On other walls, there are large photograms of textiles, Artifact #1, #2, and #3 (2017), which are direct impressions of ornate, well-worn shawls and wraps (themselves artifacts of labor: the labor of their creation, and of their disintegration). In Artifact #2, a u-shaped stole sits atop a rich black background. It is presented like a specimen, one you might expect to find in a museum collection or material archive, though it lacks any catalogic signifiers—no indexical markings, no noted provenance. More vivid than anything else in the image are the textile’s loose threads; they dance like blind-contour drawings with no referent, appearing as white as a full moon against a night sky. And, like the same moon, with such contrast to all that surrounds it, it’s hard to tell if these threads are present or absent. (I know I’m not the only child who wondered if the sky was really a thick paper, the moon a puncture in it.)  

I liken the emotional impact of McKenna’s work—ethereal, haunting, complete—to essayist Annie Dillard’s description of a total solar eclipse in 1979. Dillard finds herself stunned into sublimity as she experiences the world around her becoming unfamiliar to the point of being unrecognizable. And yet this is the world operating at its most predictable.

The grasses were wrong; they were now platinum...This color has never been seen on earth. My hands were silver…Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves, and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them…In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was over.

It is unfamiliarity that allows us the realization that our knowledge keeps us from noticing the world, and its otherworldliness, as it is. Dillard writes, “It is now that the temptation is strongest to leave these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why burn our hands any more than we have to?”3 We may wish to suppress the fact that our touch and attention could produce and observe such depictions, which is what McKenna does again and again with her images that move beyond reality, into revelation.


Fifty photographic rubbings are pieced together, scrawling from one wall to another and spanning forty-four feet, in Witness Mark (2017), the exhibition’s namesake piece. Created in this accumulation are two main fault lines that run parallel to each other and fork but never cross. McKenna made each image of this installation through physically imprinting the textures of cracks from various locations on photographic paper, as one might make gravestone rubbings, and later exposing and developing them. The lines pulse visually, as though they are the room’s arteries, while in some sections the line draws small, like the pursed lips of a slim river. Rich in tone and crude, these lines bear their name well; as the exhibition statement explains, a “witness mark is a term used in cartography, forensics, and machine repair, which refers to an intentional or naturally occurring line, groove, blaze, hole, or other mark used to impart information into an unknown future…that communicates across time.”4

Klea McKenna. Witness Mark, 2017; installation of fifty photographic rubbings, unique gelatin silver photograms, split toned with sepia/selenium; 11.5 x 44 ft. Courtesy of EUQINOMprojects and the Artist. Photo: Robert Herrick.

More or less ubiquitous in appearance and made mythically menacing by school rhymes, cracks abound in the built environment and teach us about how we live and what we construct with expectation and optimism, despite knowing that the structures we build will topple. A crack can be both a fissure or a division, or it can be thought of as a manifestation, a line traced for us to follow. With an understated eloquence, McKenna has taken the absence of material—an interval, a crack—and turned it into what appears most substantial, a mark. On the one hand, McKenna has elevated and amplified the mark’s legibility and grandeur in her transposition, and on the other, by piecing non-sequitur segments together, she has disordered things, making something wholly new out of the uniformity and interchangeability of brokenness.

In the field of material culture, the physical condition of an object at any time of study—its erosion, its char, its remnant—is as much a source of information, if not a greater one, as the known data about its construction, makers, era, and intended utility. Through this method, we take into account the effects of time’s passing, and especially the proclivities of the humans who spent this time and used these objects. Gustaf Sobin’s book Luminous Debris, which is part poetics and part archaeological field log, speaks to the sense of awe that often accompanies this kind of inquiry. “Ours? we might ask ourselves. Really ours, these vestiges? ...we look on, amazed by the fat pebbles in this archaeological resuscitation, struck by the enormity of so much scant evidence.”5 McKenna’s Witness Mark leaves us similarly awestruck, showing us that meaning can materialize out of instability, that reality is irreducible, and that our labor can be a ritual if we allow it. Her work teaches us that a desire for divination and a willingness to be whispered to are of great worth—evidence of our complexity.

Klea McKenna: Witness Mark was on view through January 2, 2017, at EUQINOMprojects in San Francisco. McKenna is represented by Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles and EUQINOMprojects in San Francisco. 


  1. Teju Cole, Blind Spot (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), 58.
  2. Maggie Nelson discusses pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s thoughts on “ordinary devotion” in her book The Argonauts: “We do owe ourselves ‘an intellectual recognition of the fact that at first we were (psychologically) absolutely dependent, and that absolutely means absolutely. Luckily we were met by ordinary devotion.’ By ordinary devotion, Winnicott means ordinary devotion. ‘It is a trite remark when I say that by devoted I simply mean devoted.’ Winnicott is a writer for whom ordinary words are good enough.”
  3. Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse,” in The Abundance (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 11–12.
  4. Exhibition statement, courtesy of EUQINOMprojects.
  5. Gustaf Sobin, Luminous Debris, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 9-10.

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