Haptic Encounters in Painting


Martin Herbert: Perhaps we could start with a simple question: Why did you choose the title ‘Strange Attractors’ for this exhibition?

Ronnie Hughes: As some people might know, it’s a term from Chaos Theory. I’ve had a layman’s interest in science and science fiction for years. Attractors are determinants within a given system that cause it to take a certain kind of form, while a strange attractor is one that has a fractal dimension. It’s a sequential or mathematical relationship, in part, that I like to use as an analogue for what happens in the paintings. For years, chaos was something that people didn’t understand. It was mystical, immeasurable and awesome in a fearful way. The natural entropy that builds in a swinging pendulum was largely ignored by Newtonian physics until someone recognised that there is a pattern that goes behind things. That sense of a pattern running throughout existence is something that I have always been fascinated by.  It’s something that’s central, not just to art, but to all branches of human activity: to try to make sense of the mystical. But then there’s also this implied pun, that I see the paintings themselves as strange attractors because they are quite colourful and optically interesting, as well as there being a strangeness about why they exist.

MH: Something that is relatively consistent is that you work with geometry, but it’s a very humanised geometry: your grids are off and things that look very regular to start with have this humanised quality. Is that an autobiographical impulse?

RH: It may be. I had a very particular early life in terms of where I grew up. There’s no question that for anyone being creative, there are always forces that are trying to express themselves. I do feel that, even though I make abstract paintings, they are very definitely expressive. When I create a painting that I momentarily feel is successful, it’s usually because there’s a moment of tension in it. I’m always aware of the onset of a system falling apart, or of a sense of entropy or violence suspended, and that’s a recurring note in my work.

MH: Why circles, for example?

RH: There are a number of motif type things that happen in my work, such as geometrical lines, grids, triangles, circles, spheres and occasionally ellipses. To create an agency in people’s minds, you have to create a figurative situation. I used to make these lozenge or ovoid type shapes, which I think came from the west of Ireland landscape. I see circles as primary shapes that are very nonreferential, but they start off as a kind of pulse point. When you paint a particular colour, it’s there as a kind of energy. Colour is a very important aspect of my work and colour is always very relational; it doesn’t exist by itself. Certain hues become notes that you can’t deal with. You have to make things more subtle or nuanced, shift them sideways or make them come alive in some way.

MH: Your works have the feel of diagrams that don’t explain anything and that unravel as you look. There’s quite a lot of doubt in these works. Is this personal or universal?

RH: I was born in 1965 and there was this sense, in the books I read as a kid, of a futuristic utopia. I used to fantasise about Disneyland, where you could find hover-rail trains, automated robots and so on. I was also an avid Star Trek fan. I take pleasure in diagrams and graphic designs from the 1960s, which manifest in the work, but are counterbalanced. I often create structures and expectations but then undermine them. I paint something that looks like a grid, then you realise it’s not a grid at all – it’s been knocked sideways in some way. I think painting, compared to many other artforms, is very slow, in terms of how it’s made, but also in terms of its reception. Ideally, you’d like to be in front of a painting time after time and let it unfold in different ways. That’s the way I make paintings, hoping that they will unfold in that way, but accepting that people don’t always have the chance to experience them like that.

MH: How do you start a new painting?

RH: When I was younger, I would start with an idea or an intention, but that doesn’t really happen too much anymore. It’s quite random in some ways. I usually work with wood now, and there may be little glitches on the wood, so that’s enough for me to see if there’s a pattern between the notches. I’ll mark them and draw lines between them or separate them and that’s how it starts. In my paintings, there could be all sorts of layers happening underneath the finished surface. I work in a certain way that means I can pour paint over the surfaces so I can suppress things completely. I’m always fishing around, waiting to find something. If it doesn’t work out, you can sometimes turn it in another direction and find interest elsewhere.

MH: Do you have a consistent process?

The thing about the process is that you can’t decide to make a specific painting, because you can’t even imagine it at that stage – it hasn’t previously existed in any way, even as an idea. I have a painting wall in my studio and I work on multiple paintings at once. What looks like a random bunch of colours, I’ll often fret over for months, trying to get certain shades that appear in a balanced sequence. Painting is very much about material. The main thing that’s special for me about painting is the haptic experience and the touch quality of someone making something. I very much feel that a painting is a handmade object. It’s very different from seeing a reproduction of an image on a screen. I’m interested in play when I’m painting. There are not really tremendous rewards from being an artist a lot of the time, but one of the greatest rewards is when you can be involved in your own work – that’s a fantastic and important aspect: to spend time doing what you enjoy.

MH: The classic question: how do you know when a painting is finished?

RH: Very few paintings are safe forever. If they come back to the studio, they can often be changed. These days, I typically stop working on a painting for six months before I let it out of the studio. If I’m in the studio and I feel that I’m doing something habitual then I’ll try and knock it sideways, spoil it or add something, to try and give me a different set of obstacles to work with. The problem is that after a certain length of time you can’t but help end up making things that look like your work, no matter how hard you try to avoid it! But that’s a paradox that most artists have to deal with.

MH: You live in rural Sligo, yet the colours in your recent paintings are very synthetic and almost deliberately artificial. When and how did this element enter your work?

RH: When I moved to Sligo first, all these forms, shapes and colours from the landscape came into my work. I didn’t really recognise it at the time, but I can see it very clearly now. Over the last eight years, the work is just getting more artificial in terms of the colours and the colour relationships. When I made the switch from working with oil paints to using acrylics, my main focus for a while was making them look like they were oil paintings, which I realised one day was quite ridiculous. I’m interested in this idea of plasticity and using a plastic medium, so at one point I just decided to be a bit braver about the colour that I would use.

MH: Are you interested in acknowledging known paradigms in abstract painting?

RH: Sometimes you make things and they look like other people’s work. This is often problematic within abstract painting. Sometimes you pitch things and then subvert them, and other times you do it completely subconsciously. Occasionally, you see other people’s work scream out at you; it’s a question of whether you can deal with that and you just have to make the choice on an individual basis.

MH: Am I right in saying that the most recent works in the show are all drawings?

RH: I typically can’t work on two things at one time. If I’m painting, I’m painting. I’ve been working quite intensely for a long time, so I took a break and decided to do some drawing. Drawing is interesting because you generate things in a different way. The drawings in this show are small scale and were made quite quickly. Some of the drawings may have taken up to a week to make, which is nothing compared to the five years it can take to bring certain paintings to fruition. For me, drawing and painting are separate, but drawing is implicit in painting anyway. It’s very difficult to get away from the idea of drawing.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic living in Berlin. He is associate editor of ArtReview and a regular contributor to Artforum, Frieze and Art Monthly. Ronnie Hughes is an internationally-renowned Irish artist who lives in County Sligo where he is a lecturer in Fine Art at Sligo Institute of Technology.


This interview is an edited version of a public conversation that took place between Ronnie Hughes and Martin Herbert on 15 April 2017 at The Model, Sligo. ‘Strange Attractors’ is curated and toured by The Model in partnership with Limerick City Gallery of Art and the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin. The project has been supported through the Arts Council’s Touring and Dissemination of Work Scheme. The exhibition was previously presented at The Model (16 April – 22 June) and Limerick City Gallery of Art (29 June – 27 August) and will show at the RHA, Dublin, from 7 September to 22 October 2017.

Images used: Ronnie Hughes, Badass, 2016, acrylic co-polymer on canvas, 119 x 112 cm. Ronnie Hughes, ‘Strange Attractors’ installation view, The Model, Sligo (left to right): The Space Between,  Detonate,  Propus I-III.

Biographical Landscapes


Joanne Laws: Can you describe your studio setting and your painting routine?

Elizabeth Magill: My studio is in a complex with other artists run by the organisation ACME in East London. It’s a 700-square-foot white cube with light coming in from the south and looking onto Mill Row, a narrow one-way street shadowed by a four-storey brown brick and grey concrete block of council flats, built in the 1970s. I’ve been here for a long time, so I’m used to this view. I like its low-level visual interference. I also have a smaller workspace on the Antrim coast, but when I’m there, I just seem to stare at the beautiful views overlooking the sea. My routine is intermittent, as I am often running around doing other things. I’ve had more condensed studio periods in the past, when I’d work for at least six days a week, sometimes working all day and into the night, but this isn’t me anymore. Continue reading “Biographical Landscapes”

The Living and the Dead

Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, Dublin, 15 April – 17 June 2017

The American street photographer Gary Winogrand said of his work: “I photograph to see what the world looks like in a photograph”. I thought of Winogrand and of this quote when visiting Mark Swords’s exhibition, ‘The Living and the Dead’, at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios (TBG + S), as it could be said that Swords paints pictures to see what his world looks like through painting. Swords uses his everyday life as his inspiration for the show. The paintings are about things that surround him, “things that are consciously or unconsciously always present”.  Drawing on daily observations, he collects images of bric-a-brac from charity shops, his young daughter’s toys and drawings, as well as the objects and paraphernalia that surround him in the studio. All these elements are utilised in a playful manner and are presented as two large wall pieces that contain myriad visual ideas and painting approaches. These wall pieces are held together through his use of a wallpaper-style striped background on one wall and large black painted sheets on the other.

Continue reading “The Living and the Dead”

International Ireland

Ulster Museum, Belfast, 10 February – 3 September 2017

There’s an implicit understanding of the museum’s finite resources and loaded remit when viewing a permanent collection show. The limited pool from which these exhibitions are curated often leads to a loose circle being drawn around the works, its content used to simultaneously demonstrate and educate. It becomes a balance of signposting and illustrating, where singular artworks are laden with significance, denoting the development of an artist’s full career or even those of their peers. When seen repeatedly in different configurations, pieces can easily be experienced as historical artefacts rather than artworks.

The spectrum of contact an audience will have with a permanent collection is huge, yet heightened exposure to works does no favours for broad exhibition making. The influence of international art and modernism on Irish work is such an all-encompassing premise that I struggled to experience this exhibition distinctly from past and even surrounding shows. If previously unseen by a viewer, it would still be difficult for 31 works to ‘fulfil’ the vast reach of the exhibition’s title. Instead they become like stills representative of an unknown, feature-length film: not demonstrative but signalling something that could be more thoroughly explored, should you be so inclined. Continue reading “International Ireland”

Painting NOW

Green on Red Gallery, Dublin, 25 April – 22 July 2017

Painting, despite the implied immediacy of the title, doesn’t happen all at once. Between them, the nine gallery artists here – not all primarily painters – have been doing it for about 150 years. For the viewer, it can be a slow game too, that exclamatory ‘NOW’ perhaps better phrased as ‘now and then and again’. Currency aside, the more specific thing shared by this eclectic grouping is the room itself – a very large, overtly raw gallery space overlooking the rapidly changing landscape of Dublin’s Docklands. Ramon Kassam’s Gallery (2015) is a predominantly white acrylic painting on two unequally-sized linen panels. In black vinyl lettering near the top of the right-hand panel, the word ‘gallery’ appears. Below it, the artist’s name wraps around onto the left panel, in the distinctive style of the gallery logo. As the subject of the painting becomes the wall it hangs upon (so to speak), we’re reminded of how paintings can obscure reality, while feigning to show us things as they really are. Continue reading “Painting NOW”

Memory Needs a Landscape

Taylor Galleries, Dublin, 5 –  27 May 2017

The relationship between rural Irish communities and the land is both pragmatic and poetic, played out through intimacy with its anatomy: fields, hedgerows, rights of way and historical provenance. Bernadette Kiely’s approach to landscape painting mines these psychological and physiological relationships as a site of labour, ownership and heritage. Traditional landscape painting tends to depict scenic views at the beginning or the end of the day, when people are absent and it is transformed into a form of poetry. For Kiely, daily labour provides inspiration in paintings that chronicle the cycle of farming life. In her recent exhibition, ‘Memory Needs a Landscape’, her subject is challenged by the most uncompromising grey shroud of a damp winter, which has encouraged an expansion in her stylistic range, evident in the inclusion of more abstracted and conceptually-based monotypes and more folkish and mystical paintings. Continue reading “Memory Needs a Landscape”

Faith After Saenredam and Other Paintings

Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, 20 May – 1 July 2017

Writing a review of an exhibition means finding an angle, a perspective, a particular point of view from which to approach the work. In the case of ‘Faith After Saenredam and Other Paintings’ this is particularly challenging, as Paul Winstanley’s recent work here is almost all about angles, perspectives and points of view, in the physical, rather than metaphorical, sense. The main gallery contains 10 paintings, while two preparatory drawings are located in the gallery office. Both their inclusion and location seem puzzling at first, but as with so many aspects of this exhibition, clarification only comes with further investigation. Continue reading “Faith After Saenredam and Other Paintings”

What We Do in the Shadows

Almine Rech Gallery, Brussels , 3 June – 29 July

When J.K. Huysmans’s Á Rebours (Against Nature) was published in 1884, it was embraced immediately as epitomising the decadent movement in art and literature. The protagonist of this literary gem is the Duc des Esseintes, an aristocratic aesthete who withdraws from society into a self-made sanctuary of aesthetic beauty. Finding daylight unbearably shrill, the jaded, misanthropic Duc lives by night, staving off crushing ennui by spending all his time and money on obscure, extreme and perverted pursuits. The crepuscular world of Á Rebours came to mind repeatedly as I viewed ‘What We Do in the Shadows’, an exhibition at Almine Rech by the Irish artist Genieve Figgis. Several of the characters inhabiting Figgis’s paintings resembled the image I’d developed of Esseintes over the years: frail, sickly and effeminate, face pitted and pocked by absinthe consumption or syphilis. Moreover, several of the characters depicted in Figgis’s paintings share his penchant for transgressive sexual pleasure. Continue reading “What We Do in the Shadows”

Crooked Orbit

Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Dublin, 1 June – 1 July 2017

Let me begin by confessing something: over the course of the last two years, I have interviewed Diana Copperwhite twice on camera. During those conversations, we barely touched upon the formalist ‘whats?’ of her paintings in an effort to avoid muddy dialogue. The filmed conversations were more centred around the general ‘whys?’ of painting and the painter, the nature and nurture of it all; painting as a verb rather than a noun. 

When I was asked to write a review of Copperwhite’s solo show, ‘Crooked Orbit’, at Kevin Kavanagh Gallery – which meant confronting the ‘whats?’ head on – I tossed and turned before accepting the invitation. What I discovered was that knowing the ‘whys?’ can colour your vision. But before we go there, first a description. (Note: I will not be doing an obligatory round-robin description of each and every painting in the gallery because when you describe one of Copperwhite’s paintings, you describe them all. Sounds harsh – a premature critique before the window dressing – but this is the case for most solo presentations of painting that lean on the side of abstraction. Painting like this defeats description). Continue reading “Crooked Orbit”

Existential Observers


Early portraiture can be viewed as an historical instrument of class identification, patriarchal gaze and institutional hegemony. It could also be argued that, over the years, important significations of portraiture have been exploited and aesthetically challenged through the deconstructive approaches of key historical and contemporary Irish artists. This complex field has huge public appeal and carries immense prestige for artist and subject at the level of national identity, recognition and status.

The historical context for contemporary Irish portraiture and the breadth of current practice have been highlighted in a range of recent events: the Freud Project at IMMA; the reopening of the National Portrait Collection; and numerous high-profile portrait commissions by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), the National Gallery and the Hennessy Portrait Prize. The specific genre of portrait painting in Ireland has been largely sustained through the work of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). Such ongoing efforts to collect, exhibit and commission portraiture attest to the importance of the genre within many of this country’s most important institutions. Continue reading “Existential Observers”