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.

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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

MARK O’KELLY DISCUSSES ASPECTS OF PORTRAIT PAINTING IN IRELAND.

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”

Texture of a Medium

ALISON PILKINGTON LOOKS AT CURRENT PRACTICES IN IRISH ABSTRACT PAINTING.

“We are all at present, far more divided, less empowered and certainly far less connected to the effects of our world than we should be. It is for this reason that I am deeply involved in the texture of a medium capable of universalizing so much lost intimacy.” 1

The term ‘abstract painting’ is historical and, over time, the parameters of the genre seem to have collapsed. It could be argued that to write about abstract painting as if it were a genre that has some significant position within contemporary art, might be a somewhat redundant inquiry. The term itself has been debated and contested throughout the history of twentieth century art, with the traditional meaning of abstraction shifting considerably. To say that ‘abstract painting is alive and well’ in current Irish painting practices also seems an outmoded way of summarising what painters do with their material and medium. As described by Briony Fer in her book, On Abstract Art: “As a label, abstract art is on the one hand too all inclusive: it covers a diversity of art and different historical movements that really hold nothing in common except a refusal to figure objects.”2

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Landscape and the Built Environment

RAMON KASSAM PRESENTS A SURVEY OF CONTEMPORARY LANDSCAPE PAINTING IN IRELAND.

The 1920s and 30s saw an extraordinary increase in the popularity and production of landscape paintings in Ireland. Paul Henry and Jack B. Yeats, who are currently being exhibited side by side in Limerick’s Hunt Museum, were two of the major protagonists of that era. In contrast, European painting at that time was in the throes of Modernism, producing aesthetic innovation after innovation, which was largely self-analytical and retreating into its own flatness. Such concerns seemed secondary for many Irish artists, which would suggest that motivations were being shaped by different factors. These artists did engage in self-reflexive processes, but did so with the aim of exploring identity politics, with landscape painting becoming an important vehicle. The case is usually made that the prevailing subjects and sensibilities in Irish painting emerged as a result of post-independence Ireland’s distrust of Modernism, as well as the conservative social values asserted by the church and state. However, the precedence placed on landscape as a subject can also be perceived as the result of the newly-formed, post-colonial position of Irish artists. In this way, painting the landscape can be understood as an act of repossession, a reclaiming of territory and culture.

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