In 2016, when I was invited to curate the Mayo Collaborative’s exhibition to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising – specifically the life and work of a rebel Mayo doctor, Kathleen Lynn – I knew one thing immediately, and that was that whatever about either 1916 or Kathleen Lynn, one thing had to be in it: Patrick Graham’s diptych, The Ark of Dreaming (1990). It had to be there because it seemed to sum up the history of that place for millennia, before Kathleen Lynn was born. Patrick generously agreed and with that lynchpin in place, we could go about the work of commissioning other artists to respond to more specific moments of historic and contemporary relevance. Asking this artist, above all others, to represent this history is laden with irony, since Paddy Graham has always resolutely rejected the history of his own discipline, the history of art. He had to do that to escape the straight jacket of academic success, which his precocious talents and failures of imagination in the National College of Art in the 1950s and 60s were forcing on him.
Rather like Malevich wiping the historic canvas clean and covering it instead with white, an invitation to artists to imagine a meaningful future, Graham, initially inspired by Nolde, tore his canvases apart, reversed and upended them, pulled their innards out onto the floor, smashed their supports, added found material and generally said “a curse on all your houses”. But he did it in the colours of the Irish landscape, of a real, if unspecified, place. Even as he was obscuring the landscape with lines, nets, grids or scrawling words across it, what sang out of it all was a kind of dis-remembered history – something he himself referred to as “the keening in the boreens”. This is especially resonant in his use of titles and fragments of folk songs, quietly anti-heroic but enduring. It spoke for everything that had gone before, from the earliest inhabitants to the famine and on to contemporary, defining events.
This important survey exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery, curated by Michael Dempsey, puts all that on show. It takes us through work from the 1970s, through the years of depression, of internal as well as external conflict, when critical recognition was simply a spur to rail even louder against his demons. Ultimately Patrick Graham’s work is rooted in an existentialist crisis that is both personal and universal. It’s hard to use the word ‘universal’, since so many claims were made in the past about the universality of artworks, when what the claimants meant was that it reflected establishment values. Here, however, it is the drive behind the artwork that is universal.
Following philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and the writer Primo Levi’s harrowing account of Auschwitz in If This Is a Man (De Silva, 1947), it is no longer possible to dwell on those old, confident questions about how mankind might control and shape the world. Like them, Patrick Graham turns the question onto mankind itself. What does existence actually mean? What is the nature and role of the individual? How should we make art in the age of anxiety and what does it mean to be human? Only a handful of artists have truly grasped the implications of these enquiries, and Graham is one of them.
As the paintings in this exhibition clearly show, nothing in life is static. To live is to be in a state of change; nothing is resolved, and who we are changes from minute to minute, always in a process of becoming. The Life and Death of Hopalong Cassidy (1988), shatters old certainties once and for all. The hero is dead; the painting spills its guts onto the gallery floor. But no matter how murky or obscured our vision of reality is, paintings like Half Light I (2013) manage to offer enough seductive light to keep us going, so that when we get to Half Light II (2013) we are almost ready for the sudden radiance of yellow, even if it, too, carries the textures of unresolved references. ‘Fail again, fail better,’ they say; a positive thing since for Graham, it is important to embrace failure – to reject the promise dangled in front of him as a student. It takes courage to grasp that, but he believes it is the only honest position. For some, that knowledge might let them off the hook; not so here. These paintings struggle to deal with pain, death, the decay of beauty, the weight of history, even as the artist knows that whatever he can do will fall short of what he wants.
The artist’s unresolved struggle and the viewers’ experience are both visceral and intellectual. As Dermot Healy once said about this work, “the ribcage watches”. The tension in the ribcage derives from the need to find unreachable solutions, but in this exhibition, it offers a supreme reward. Graham said, “the greatest art in the world is just the stuff that just fails – but that reveals its humanity – its wonderful, awe-inspiring humanity.”1 In this, Graham and Samuel Beckett share a world view, and it is worth noting that Graham sees Beckett’s writing as ultimately optimistic. It is, also, entirely appropriate that this exhibition takes place on the other side of the wall from the detritus that makes up Francis Bacon’s studio. The bible claims that out of chaos, God made the world. Paddy Graham made the transcendent, heart-lurching image of Cowslips (2016), part of the ‘Lacken Series’, not out of the great tradition of art history, but out of human need. Their fragile beauty and tenacity give us a glimpse of our vulnerability and therefore of our humanity. This show is essential and rewards many viewings, especially when human feeling and intimacy are under threat from social media, new technologies and lifestyles.
Catherine Marshall is a curator and art writer, former head of collections at IMMA, and co-editor of Art and Architecture of Ireland, Twentieth Century (2014).
1 Catherine Marshall, Connected/Disconnected/Re-connected – The art of Patrick Graham and John Philip Murray, (Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, 2010) p 16.