If I narrated a scene of a group of women heading into the outdoors at night, carrying strange objects and performing odd rituals, you'd justifiably anticipate the unfurling of a classic witch's tale. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that the results of Klea McKenna's nocturnal communion with nature—a series of photograms titled Automatic Earth—are downright magical. Rather than trying to conjure supernatural forces, however, McKenna captures the transcendent beauty of what's plainly within reach, and reminds us that the mysteries of the natural world are already boundless. Her "photographic rubbings" of soil, concrete, and trees yield textured images that hint at the story of their making, but leave plenty unsaid.
Occasionally, McKenna's source material is portable enough to be brought into her studio, where she can work more slowly. When working directly in the landscape, however, she goes out into the woods or to another, previously scouted location: "There are a lot of variables that affect where and when I can work: weather, safety, light pollution, and the phase of the moon, because even moonlight will expose the paper," explains the artist in an email to Creators. "I have the help of a couple of wonderful, fellow women artists who assist me, so we go out and hand-emboss the photographic paper into these textures in the landscape—cracks in the earth, crumbling architecture, and cross-sections of trees. We work in darkness and we put the paper in a light-safe box when each one is finished. This process involves a good deal of physical labor—hours of kneeling and bending. If an onlooker were to witness it, they would surely be perplexed."
The following day, McKenna exposes the paper and processes it in a darkroom. "When the paper gets saturated with chemistry the actual texture almost entirely flattens out, but the image of the texture remains," she explains. Some images are presented as final; others are combined into fictional forms, or collaged into larger installations with more of a narrative arc, such as the 42 rubbings that make up The Weeping Rocks. In both its form and chosen title, the installation manifests McKenna's intention to draw connections between the broken patterns found in nature and the experience of being human. "It is where the pattern breaks that we are told something: a draught, a trauma, an interaction, the slash of a chainsaw…a crack in the earth," she writes on her website.
McKenna has been making photograms for years—of rain, leaves, and spider webs—but this latest series feels like a sharp turn towards new horizons. "Historically, the subject matter for photograms has been limited and I took it as a challenge to find a way to make a photogram of subjects that are large, solid, and immovable. These truly are imprints and they are made through touch, through the force of the body, rather than through sight, which is so primary to photography."
The fact that McKenna's work feels palpably alive seems to be, in part, a reflection of her upbringing. She was raised by two botanical explorers, or "renegade ethnobotanists," as she calls them on her site, adding in her email that "it's hard to find an accurate term for them." Her late father was Terence McKenna, and her mother, Kathleen Harrison, continues her research to this day. "As a kid we lived very rurally, at times even 'off the grid,' and I was exposed to indigenous worldviews, so the idea of an animate landscape was utterly normal to me," the artist tells us. "I'm watching my daughter now and realizing that it may be normal to all children, but we lose that sense of everything being alive as we grow up. I never lost it."
She concludes: "For me the landscape is psychologically complex, like a crowded room—there's nothing pastoral about it. It's full of the drama of birth and death and agendas of all these organisms and beings striving to survive."