Critique | Patrick MacAllister, ‘Peering Out’

Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray; 1 July – 13 August 2022

Pat MacAllister, ‘Peering Out’, installation view, Mermaid Arts Centre, July 2022; photograph by Gillian Buckley, courtesy the artist and Mermaid Arts Centre. Pat MacAllister, ‘Peering Out’, installation view, Mermaid Arts Centre, July 2022; photograph by Gillian Buckley, courtesy the artist and Mermaid Arts Centre.

The exhibition of 31 oil and mixed-media paintings in Patrick MacAllister’s show ‘Peering Out’ orchestrates a range of tonal contrasts and rippling variations in scale that draw the visitor in for closer exploration. Projecting a strong material presence within the gallery space, the presented works conjure an immersive art experience that affirms the capacity of paint to surprise. 

The order of display departs from the accompanying list, enlivening the viewing process. The chronology of making is also jumbled; recent paintings are interspersed with others dating back as far as 2017. This scatters evidence of the transition MacAllister is making from figurative themes into abstraction.1 

A similar restless unpredictability is found among the paintings. Intriguingly, the edges of many – already conventionally framed – are further bolstered in paint, so that the action within plays out in constrained spaces. This may be a reference point for the exhibition title,2 and, intentionally or not, encapsulates the recent impacts on movement with COVID-19.  

The first encounter is with The Leavetaking (2017), a small work in oil on paper with a light surface texture that evokes a hot, sunlit scene. Fluid red-earth tones, playing off umber and crimson, drizzle into rivulets to suggest a dissipating heat haze in which figures shimmer and shift between possible forms. Although the paint is thinly worked, depth is achieved through layering; the fiery hues are applied over a chalk-coloured ground, which in turn obscures dark undertones. The interplay between strata lends mood and substance, while on top are deposited crusty nodes of cadmium orange. 

Impasto mark-making, dry or juicy, is a recurring yet versatile element of MacAllister’s visual language. Across the works, it punctuates and emphasises negative spaces – sometimes landing as ‘big soft buffetings’3 – and, in later examples, probes abstract relations. Adding animation, contrast and complement, it often catches ambient light, appearing, as the viewer moves around, to change colour. Improvising with a range of implements, the artist also gouges and scores in places, excavating surfaces and countering the force of their more audacious protrusions.

In Bird on a Wire (2018), chunky daubs of white paint, with distinct ridges, stand proud from the surface. Although lending a sculptural dimension they have little anatomical import, coming across, instead, as an exercise in pure painting. The work is a maelstrom of activity in which the eponymous bird appears to land face down, its splayed legs trapped in ominous barbed wire. This movement in Bird on a Wire 2 can be read in either direction, with similar ambiguity found in Dog 2 (2018): right-left scanning reveals a canine subject, left-right manifests a charging bull, head down, kicking up the dirt.

More strongly figurative paintings suggest an interest in socio-political history. Group Portrait (2018), constructed from a patchwork of large square marks, has a mid-twentieth-century feel, and a hint of the backlit luminosity found in the oeuvre of Jack B Yeats. Dominated by angular figures arranged in tiers between teetering buildings, the composition, formality and chaotic elements suggest some landmark event. The historical referencing in Lockout 2 (2018) is more explicit. Drawing on monochrome photographs of police baton charges in O’Connell Street in 1913, its austere, simply rendered figures stand out starkly against a ‘woven’ white background, with hints of umber the warmest element in a cool palette. 

While sweeping tram tracks are deployed here to dissolve the general rigidity, dynamism and intimations of detail abound in the loosely rendered The Battle of Cable Street (2017) and in the inky, yet luminous Footfall (2019). MacAllister’s range extends also to taut linear markings in Building Site Memories (2020), Skyscrape and Scaffolder’s Load (2021), suggestive of grid-like structures.

Urban gives way to landscape in the atmospheric Inland Sea (2018) and Headland 1 (2019), while the move towards abstraction yields cosmic, spiritual and mythological references. Flanking the entrance to the second gallery are the delectable Light and Weight, Suture and Boneyard, all from 2019, while among the small works within is the jewel-encrusted, Daoism-inspired Watchful, like Men crossing a Stream (2021). From the same year, Painting Collage and Memory Wall (perhaps using elements of past paintings) appear to show progression in the use of collage. Among others, these chart new avenues of exploration for an inventive artist with more to give. 

Susan Campbell is a visual arts writer, art historian, and artist.


1 As mentioned in the artist’s exhibition statement (see

2 The title is also given to a featured work, Peering Out (2021), mixed media on card.

3 Quote from Seamus Heaney’s poem, Postscript, first published in his collection, The Spirit Level: Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996).