Critique | Richard Gorman, ‘Living Through Paint(ing)’

Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin; 9 March – 20 August 2023

‘Richard Gorman: Living Through Paint(ing)’, installation view, Hugh Lane Gallery; photograph by Denis Mortell, courtesy of the artist and Hugh Lane Gallery. ‘Richard Gorman: Living Through Paint(ing)’, installation view, Hugh Lane Gallery; photograph by Denis Mortell, courtesy of the artist and Hugh Lane Gallery.

Richard Gorman is well known for his colourful and abstract geometric paintings, prints and works on paper. He is firmly established on the international art scene, with exhibitions all over the world, from Dublin and Milan to London and Tokyo. Gorman’s current exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery features his signature graphic paintings in square format, spread over three gallery spaces, with a fourth space containing Japanese paper works. All presented works were completed between 2018 and 2022.

The first room contains 12 paintings. Sheelin (2022), perched high up on the wall, presents a vertiginous tension; a calm grey shadow fails to prevent the central jagged pink form from engulfing the neon green. Best viewed from a distance, other paintings are placed on the longest wall, creating an overall sense of unity and motility. Throughout the space, motifs are repeated that activate adjacent works, achieving what the artist describes as a “precarious balance”.1 Works such as Tilt Magenta (2018) and Squeeze Orange (2018) have a playful dynamism; the eye is drawn to the outer edges of forms that appear to wheel around one another. Blam (2021) echoes Wrack (2021) in terms of shapes and colour palette; their interacting motifs seem to frolic and slide back and forth, contrasting angular industrial shapes with organic or botanic forms. 

Derravarragh (2022) – a large painting at 170 x 170 cm – contains geometric shapes with an overall illusion of three-dimensionality. The eye is drawn to the centre of the painting where neon green diagonal forms balance on top of blue and purple quadrilaterals, reminiscent of the gable ends of houses. The second space contains four large paintings, all named after Irish lakes or islands. The incantatory titles – Rathlin, Sherkin, Corrib, Erne – have a pleasing rhythm. The high contrast and bright colours lend a hypnotic vibrancy to the generous paintings. The star of this room is Rathlin (2022) whose palette of bright pinks and negative shapes in a luminous deep blue vibrates with energy.

Encountered first in the next space is Oscar Delta Bravo (2019), containing a humorous fidget-spinner of blue, white and black pill forms. In the diptych, Charlie Charlie (2020), the painting process is evidenced in the buildup of layers at the edges. The duo, Hum (2019) and Victor X-Ray (2020), contain purple/black central motifs with brightly coloured shapes, suggestive of overlapping coloured filters which appear to twirl around the larger central form in a clockwise direction. 

The works on paper in the final gallery space have more muted colours and a calm sensibility. The dimmed lighting lends the installation a meditative atmosphere. The title, 12 dye on handmade echizen kozo washi paper (2023) signifies the importance of physical materiality and process. For the last 20 years, Gorman has had an ongoing collaboration and productive partnership with a Washi making factory in rural Japan. The technique involves dyeing paper pulp by pressing it into molds containing areas of coloured ink.

It is hard to counteract the urge to read meaning into Gorman’s paintings and their titles, which he insists are ‘found’, apparently at random. In the introductory wall text, Gorman is quoted as saying: “A painting is a conflict with disorder … it may not tell a story, it may not even represent an idea.” He resists any imposition of meaning on his work, preferring to say that a painting “means only that it signifies what I spend my time doing.”2 Elsewhere, he quotes Susan Sontag’s comment that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”3 The title of the exhibition, ‘Living through paint(ing)’, is a clue to his immersive artistic approach, having lived and worked in his Milan studio since the 1980s. Gorman mentions that he is “playing a game that has been going on for a long time.”4

Gorman refers to the Renaissance paintings of Giovanni Bellini, which also finds parallels in the Japanese concept of Ma, in which the spaces between objects take on greater significance than the forms themselves. Gorman notices that in Bellini’s paintings, the negative shapes between forms draw his attention, containing heavier layers of paint than the forms themselves. Gorman’s contemplative practice therefore seems comfortable within both the Japanese and European traditions, while his legacy is a sense of complete absorption in the exuberant process of painting. 

Beatrice O’Connell is a multidisciplinary artist from Dublin.

1 Judith Du Pasquier (director), KIN, 2013, film interview with Richard Gorman at his studio in Milan for his exhibition at The MAC, Belfast, in 2014. 

2 Ibid.

3 Jennifer Goff, ‘Casa: Invitation to a Journey’, in Casa: Richard Gorman (Dublin: OPW, 2016), published to coincide with an exhibition at Castletown House, Kildare, in 2016, p. 10.

4 Judith Du Pasquier, KIN, 2013.