Tracy McMenemy’s work continues to voice the geography, environment, and history of a specific locale through her responsive engagement with it. A recent move brought a variety of new stimuli to the artist’s studio, and it was just outside her door that a specific aspect of the city’s culture presented itself: the street poster.
Public posters announcing and celebrating local events are of course not unique to our time. Paris’s Belle Epoque saw the flowering of posters across the city following late nineteenth century advancements in lithographic printing, with other European centres distinguishing both their own styles and the unique cultural scenes they reflected. Art movements themselves such as the Viennese Secession, the Arts and Crafts movement, and Art Nouveau are inextricable from their poster history, while extending across galleries, theatres, opera houses, architecture, and interior design. These movements shared their influence everywhere, and, through the street-level poster, with everyone. The poster world that McMenemy investigates finds such cultural reach and democratic resonance very much alive.
Tracy McMenemy’s body of work shows her consistently attuned to details of her environment that give its wider characteristics voice. She takes in her surroundings both specifically and as a whole, from allowing Grand Cayman’s Silver Thatch Palm and the Hibiscus flower to shape her compositions in her Hibiscus Thatch series, to her in situ digital interaction with her forest,field, mountain, and seaside surroundings in Folded Earth, to her site-specific interpretive documenting in Ghost Passages of the McKenzie Shipyard.
The posters on street poles throughout her downtown location speak to a vibrant, multi-level, interconnected arts scene. To a receptive observer, their colourful graphics and varied styles offer an ever-changing reading of the wider city’s colours. As with street posters throughout the world and throughout history, this public, ground-level advertising platform is anyone’s to engage, and offers to reach everyone. The posters also belong very much to the present. The events they speak to play out within a local time frame, while the paper itself gets overlaid, weathered, and peeled through passing weeks and months. The pole’s history - and the city culture’s - becomes layered like a tree’s bark does, and, in McMenemy’s case, a location point for time and place.
Her initial response was to collect poster imagery, via photograph and falling pieces of poster, into a small bank of materials in her studio. The relatively small size of these posters and their fragments contrasted with a sense of physical interaction on the scale of a full-bodied engagement with the street and city. Without a preconceived plan around her collection, McMenemy grew compelled to bridge these elements of scale, inviting large canvases, broad brush painting, striking colour, and an expansion of the collage aesthetic suggested by the posters’ layers and pieces, to determine the main elements of this series’ visual language.
Her resulting series, aptly titled Post No Bills, captures the essence of the public space posters occupy, and their fleeting presence in time. The paintings’ size amplifies the open space - the street - where posters live. In naming each work for the date on which McMenemy encountered the poster, she holds their transience in time against the archivist’s - and artist’s - creation of a lasting reflection of history.
In 15.03.23, we see parts of a street address and event date between fragments of other poster pieces, all re-created with hand-painted acrylic to mimic and enlarge the torn edges, folds, and wear of her original subject. As with the other paintings in this series, the overall composition is that of a collage, with the distinction that the textures, colours, and shapes of her collected poster references are all re-created with large scope brushstrokes on a single plane of canvas. 06.03.23 suggests a stack of aged posters, with a wrinkled Monster Energy logo still visible below the suggestion of a downtown street address. The painter’s full body movement across these bright, full-sized compositions alternates with specific recreated details of QR codes, dates, artist and venue info, and other visual specifics original to the material of posters laid upon upon posters, themselves interlaced with stickers, tags, and the other street markings. The paintings’ emotive power plays out both in the moving boldness of McMenemy’s large strokes and bold colours, and in the immediate familiarity of the details she caringly recreates. The importance of time is not only reflected in the titles, but in the juxtaposition between the single frame image that any painting is, and the wider passage of time, history, and change that a street poster enters, and is soon engulfed by. Thus McMenemy works here to archive an aesthetic that is both current and, as her paintings remain through passing years, historic, ultimately transcending boundaries, cultures, and time.
Through her process, McMenemy also became drawn to masks as a reflection of the poster’s human interactivity. In keeping with the sense of collage developed in the paintings, she uses the poster fragments themselves to build onto mannequin heads via acrylic medium. These fragments, like this series, remain abundant, overlapping, and energetic, as McMenemy works their ephemeral presence into a lasting reflection of their time. While their incorporation of actual collage reflects pop art’s found materials and advertising references a la Rushca, Warhol and Rauschenberg, to which McMenemy is no stranger, her own organic response to the immediate materials is precedent. The faces she builds are covered in, split against, and shaped by the images around us.
These images, like this series, remain abundant, overlapping, and energetic. McMenemy works their ephemeral presence into a lasting reflection of their time, which she encourages us to recognize with the same open invitation the posters themselves hold.