Texture of a Medium


“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

In tracing the lineage of Irish twentieth century art through the lens of abstraction, it is clear that formalism has been a central artistic concern. Manine Jellet, Patrick Scott, and more recently Sean Scully and Richard Gorman, offer good examples. The ROSC series of exhibitions also had a significant influence on abstract painting in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. Whilst appearing to have roots in the formal abstraction of the late 1950s, the practice of the late William McKeown continues to adopt a range of positions in modern painting, utilising elements of installation, abstraction and figuration. McKeown’s work invites the viewer to consider boundaries, both physical and non-physical. Implicit in his work was the artist’s attention to the apparatus of the medium of painting. Suggesting that material supports are integral to viewer engagement with his paintings, McKeown stated that “I want the sense that the oil is in the linen, rather than on the surface”.3

Within the current generation of Irish painters, formal abstraction still has a place, but it is blended with other ideas – beyond pure form and colour – coming from diverse fields such as philosophy, mathematical theory, science and music. Such interdisciplinary influence is evident in the work of numerous contemporary Irish abstract painters such as Ronnie Hughes, Helen Blake and Mark Joyce. These artists have embraced a kind of ‘soft formalism’, where personal interests converge with formal concerns around composition, colour and pattern-making. Helen Blake’s paintings focus on how colour and texture can literally weave a pattern, drawing the viewer into the surface of the painting. The handmade quality of Blake’s paintings leaves space for both accident and design. Pattern-making and structure are similarly evident in the work of Ronnie Hughes, as are his concerns for human and scientific systems. Among other things, Mark Joyce’s paintings make connections between music and colour theory, testing how colour interacts with composition and form.

The intersection of formal concerns with the physical act of mark-making can be further observed in the paintings of Diana Copperwhite and Damien Flood. Though their work could not be considered purely abstract, it “supports the position of the human hand”, to paraphrase American painter John Lasker’s descriptions of his own work.4 For Copperwhite and Flood, the gesture of the brush as it moves across the surface and the chance elements that emerge through this action, seem paramount. Furthermore, their work points to the waning importance of a clear division between abstract and figurative painting. The idea that ‘figuration’ and ‘abstraction’ hold conflicting positions within painting appears to be outmoded. It seems that the contemporary painter is no longer restricted either by the formal concerns of abstraction, or the narrative implications of figurative painting.

A more explicit form of deconstruction in painting is evident in the practices of Irish artists Helen O’Leary and Fergus Feehily. In expanding the definition of what makes something a ‘painting’, a blurring of boundaries between ‘object’ and ‘image’ is central to their work. Such ‘bricolage’ approaches to painting can be traced back to the montage works of Kurt Schwitters and other Dada artists.5 Attentive to the apparatus of the medium, Helen O’Leary explicitly investigates how paintings are built and the materials involved in their making. She recently stated that her new work “delves into my own history as a painter, rooting in the ruins and failures of my own studio for both subject matter and raw material.” O’Leary frequently disassembles the “wooden structures of previous paintings – the stretchers, panels, and frames”, cutting them back to “rudimentary hand-built slabs of wood, glued and patched together” making “their history of being stapled, splashed with bits of paint, and stapled again to linen clearly evident.”6 In contrast to the recycling of older paintings, Fergus Feehily assembles works from found objects and materials. As described by Martin Herbert in his review of Feehily’s 2011 exhibition at Modern Art, London: “Deliberation vs. accident; hard vs. soft; fixity vs. impermanence … There are many paths to the painterly.”7

Among recent Irish art graduates, notions of abstraction and figuration appear to be less prominent than engagements with the virtual world. There is a growing sophistication in understandings and navigations of virtual platforms for art making and how these can relate to painting. Such inquiries are evident in the work of emerging artists like Jane Rainey, Kian Benson Bailes and Bassam Al-Sabbah whose imaginary landscapes allude to the digital realm, comprising gliches, screen savers and software imagery. It strikes me that such work could not have been made before the internet. However, it’s not just the aesthetics of digital imagery that have influenced recent painting; the impact of digital tools on the construction of painting has also become increasingly evident. A recent exhibition at The Hole Gallery, New York, titled ‘Post Analog Painting II’ examined how “digital tools have affected our way of thinking” and explored the ways in which the “logic of Photoshop or structure of pixelation shapes a painter’s approach to color, form, light or texture, even when away from their laptops.”8

In the early twentieth century, British art historian Clive Bell proposed form and colour as the two principles of formal abstraction, stating that “to appreciate a work of art, we need bring with us nothing but a sense of form and colour and a knowledge of three-dimensional space”.9 Writing candidly about the tensions between representation and abstraction, New York-based painter Amy Sillman asserted that “the real, like the body, is embarrassing: your hand is too moist, your fly is open, there turns out to be something on your nostril, somebody blurts out something that I wasn’t supposed to know, your ex-partner shows up with their new lover (and your work is uncool). But you’re stuck there. That tension is what abstraction is partly about: the subject no longer entirely in control of the plot, representation peeled away from realness”.10

For me, these paired statements create a spectrum of ideas that circulate within the complex sphere of abstraction. On one hand, Bell’s description prompts the reader to imagine cool and elegant abstract shapes that are vaguely familiar and comforting, while on the other, Sillmans’s words conjure a kind of brash, dirty abstraction with images that are risky and aesthetically challenging. Perhaps there is something between these two statements that highlights what is so compelling about abstract painting: it communicates something that is so intrinsically known to us, yet is almost impossible to fully articulate. 

Alison Pilkington is an artist who lives and works in Dublin.


1. Jonathan Lasker interview in Suzanne Hudson, Painting Now, Thames & Hudson, 2015.

2. Briony Fer, On Abstract Art, New Haven and London: Yale University, 1997, p.5.

3. Corinna Lotz, ‘Accepting the Blur’ in, William Mc Keown, IMMA Catalogue, 2008. p. 61.

4. Jonathan Lasker interview in Suzanne Hudson, Painting Now, Thames & Hudson, 2015.

5. Bricolage is a French term which translates roughly as ‘do-it-yourself’.  In an art context, it is applied to artists who use a diverse range of non-traditional art materials. The bricolage approach became popular in the early twentieth century when resources were scarce, with many Surrealist, Dadaist and Cubist works having a bricolage character. However, it was not until the early 1960s, with the formation of the Italian movement Arte Povera, that bricolage took on a political aspect. Arte Povera artists constructed sculptures out of rubbish, in an attempt to bypass the commercialism of the art world, effectively devaluing the art object and asserting the value of ordinary, everyday objects and materials.

6. Sharon Butler, ‘Ideas and Influences: Helen O’Leary’, twocoatsofpaint.com. October 2014.

7. Martin Herbert, ‘Fergus Feehily’, Frieze, October 2011.

8. Raymond Bulman, Post Analog Painting II, exhibition text, The Hole Gallery, New York, 2017. theholenyc.com.

9. Clive Bell, Art, London: Chatto and Windus, 1914, p.115.

10. Amy Sillman ‘Shit Happens: Notes on Awkwardness’, Frieze, November 2015.

Images used: William McKeown, Untitled, (2009 – 2011), oil on linen, 40.5 x 40.5 cm; Image courtesy The William McKeown Foundation and Kerlin Gallery. Fergus Feehily, Country, 2008 (left); North Star, 2008; courtesy the artist, Misako and Rosen,Tokyo and Galerie Christian Lethert, Cologne.

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