Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Edge: Abstraction vs. Realism in Two Irish Painters

I love abstract art; it turns out that I also love art that rests on the edge between abstraction and representation.  The two approaches are often defined pictorially, because they are, after all, pictures, but I think it might also help to find that edge between the two if we look at examples of prose from a master of each style.

Here is Henry James, in a passage from The Golden Bowl:

He saw the sleeves of her jacket drawn to her wrists, but he again made out the free arms within them to be of the completely rounded, the polished slimness that Florentine sculptors, in the great time, had loved, and of which the apparent firmness is expressed in their old silver and old bronze …. He knew above all the extraordinary fineness of her flexible waist, the stem of an expanded flower, which gave her a likeness also to some long, loose silk purse, well filled with gold pieces, but having been passed, empty, through a finger-ring that held it together. It was as if, before she turned to him, he had weighed the whole thing in his open palm and even heard a little the chink of the metal. When she did turn to him it was to recognise with her eyes what he might have been doing.                  (from the novel, first published in 1904)                 

And here is Gertrude Stein, writing about the increasing dangers of World War II, in Mrs. Reynolds:

It was getting pretty serious, nobody saw anybody they used to see and it was getting pretty serious, oh dear me said Mrs. Reynolds and when she said oh dear me she wanted to say to Mr. Reynolds that it was getting pretty serious but she did not say that it was getting pretty serious she did not say it just then she only said that she was not seeing any one she used to see no not any one, and Mr. Reynolds said and what then but what he really meant to say was that he still saw her and she still saw him, so what then.  (published posthumously, 1952)

James appears, as a realist, to be giving us more details of the moment he describes, but when we look again at this passage of his, we see that the only actual details are:

--the Prince sees that “the sleeves of her jacket [are] drawn to her wrists”
--he notices that “[her] arms [are] rounded”
--he observes her waist

All the rest is metaphorically described. Charlotte is compared to three things: an “old” bronze or silver Florentine sculpture, an “expanded flower” and a “long, loose silk purse.”  These sound like lovely terms, and no doubt we are meant to think that the Prince sees them as desirable and sensuous objects, objects that he thinks may describe perfectly his need for her, and yet… we are, as readers, also supposed to pick up on the fact that these are incredibly vague ways of describing true feeling. Kenneth Burke wrote, in A Grammar of Motives, that "Metaphor is a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this."  But it isn’t, importantly, the “thisness of a this.”

Stein’s writing may, in contrast, intially strike us as … simple. But perhaps it would be too easy to say just that. Simple, stark, repetitive thinking is a very human response to tragedy, when words seem wholly inadequate and silence, horribly, seems easier.  We do not say what we are thinking. And this passage from Stein ends with a statement, “so what then,” that stops the motion of all the previous thoughts; we are stilled by those words. She has exposed us for our said and unsaid words of fear and love. We stop and think, held in the moment, dreadful… or seemingly inconsequential… as it is.  

And I think that, finally, this is the difference between realistic and abstract artists: that representative painters form reference points that outline recognizable things, but these realists can not produce the things themselves; instead, they have perfected linear description.  Abstract artists produce something that, in itself, stops our usual referring back to an “other” object or state of feeling. Abstraction is meant to arrest our attention in the moment, as our attention would be held as we fall into extreme joy or sorrow. Painting at this moment in our history often seems confused, torn between the two approaches, neither of which is wholly adequate. It may be that the best of current art must bridge these two methods of perceiving and creating: the outline of the familiar combined with a more abstract grasp of feeling.

To enter into this struggle, to create something that is, itself, arresting, a painter needs to be able to pull together aspects of a place or a sensibility that will still be accessible and enthralling to a potential viewer. It is an incredibly difficult task, this kind of painting.  Robert Motherwell talked about recognizing the many “internal relations” in painting:

I always looked at just the total over-all effect. And apart from the obvious sensuality and color… there's something in Matisse that is as remorselessly, relentlessly adjusted in terms of internal relations as somebody like Piero della Francesca…. That's why all painters really love him - well, not the only reason, but a reason. He's as strong as Piero, and it was that double aspect that I liked- the sensuality, and the color and the so-and-so plus this thing that is almost - well, Georges Duthuit wrote … "Matisse is as strong as the mosaics of Ravenna" - I've never seem them -- and whatever he's trying to say by that, in my own way, I also saw.    (Oral history interview with Robert Motherwell, 1971 Nov. 24-1974 May 1, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).

The Ravenna images, while realistic for their time, have a kind of simple direct nature that does freeze us in our tracks:

Rather like this Matisse, “Open Window at Collioure,” a view into another space:

We can see “the sensuality, and the color” and the sheer strength of these works; they come from the same intense scrutiny and sense of space. Two painters here in Ireland have landed in that terrain between Piero della Francesca and Matisse, the kind of “relentlessly adjusted” work that pulls the viewer in: Keith Wilson and Donald Teskey.

Keith Wilson’s work, “A Change in the Air,” is showing through October 25th at the Oliver Sears Gallery in Dublin.  In the catalogue, Oliver Sears writes That Keith Wilson, who lives in North County Mayo, has given us “changing time, light and place …  in [his] finely honed mark making.”  But the works are not pure recording, or metaphorical references. As Sears says, they are “part real, part imagined” in what then becomes, for the viewer, “a distinctly contemporary construction.”  Let’s take a look at Wilson’s painting, “A Change in the Air, 8,” (oil on panel, 21.5 x 19.5 cm):

Wilson lived for a time not far from Assisi, where he could hear the bells from two churches as he painted, and “Doves here too that sing one extra note than the ones at home.”  We can see the influence of Italian arches and loggias in this painting, which opens through to a garden.  And yet, while we could, potentially, “see” the outlines of trees and branches and bushes and blossoms, we don’t actually see them… we see the traces they have left behind, traces offered by an artist who has lived with them for a long time. They become familiar to us – even though we don’t yet “know” them.  When I see a photograph or a very realistic painting of a place (for example, Canalettos’ Venice) I can feel regret that I am not there. With Wilson’s paintings, I am there. No need for regret. I am looking through that archway. I am, in short, involved.

Wilson says that he discovered that “I might study places in order to figure out where I am” (from his catalogue essay).  We all try to figure out where we are, but Wilson has achieved his “place” to a spectacular degree. His work is of Ireland and Italy, but it is also of the mind. With some perspectival landscapes, we feel rooted to one spot. With Wilson’s work, on the other hand, we feel as if we could continue to walk through. Here is “Across the Field,” (conté crayon on gessoed paper, 56 x 76 cm) in full and then in a detail:

Yes, it’s descriptive. But it’s what he leaves out that allows this drawing to give us the feeling of the air around the grasses, the trace of weight under the tractor-wheel imprints… painters since Vermeer have contested with ways to re-introduce breathing into their art.  It’s happening here. The viewer is invited in.  Here is one more painting, “Days Ahead, 5,” (oil on panel, 36.5 x 40 cm):

This has the quality of a beautiful morning after a fresh rain. We all can “see” what’s here, and imagine what isn’t. We have a job to do, to look, imagine, and be in the moment.  This is Wilson’s gift.

The second artist I would like to discuss here -- an artist working on these very same connections to “place” and fine evocation of feeling-- is Donald Teskey. His show of paintings, “Nature Reserve,” has been at the Town Hall in Macroom, curated by John P. Quinlan.  Teskey spent several weeks as an artist in residence in the Gearagh. The name comes from An Gaorthadh, meaning the wooded river. This is a valley just west of Cork City, on a bed of limestone, the oak trees having formed in the basin of the Lee River in the last Ice Age. This is the “only significant alluvial forest in Ireland” (information from the plaque on site).  Here are two photographs I took, in early morning:

Close to, the wooden oak remnants appeal to you in an almost human way -- faces, expressive shapes -- but from a distance, through the filter of the light, you can see the mystery and the majesty of place here.  Donald Teskey wrote that he worked “amongst the tangle of trees and grasses, on the mudflats and from the higher vantage points on the surrounding hillsides and side roads. The light on the Gearagh can, at times, be extraordinary … It is an inscrutable and fascinating place for a painter” (, 2008).  Or a printer. We can see the lines here that cross over between printmaking and painting (both areas of expertise for Teskey), and see the space between the lines for what it is, an entryway. Here is “The High Road 8” (30 x 30, acrylic on paper -- images courtesy of John P. Quinlan):

This is that crossover between the familiar and the imagined: we see rooflines, the vertical presence of trees, but we don’t really attend to these, past the initial glance: we become lost in the wild markings of the painting’s lower half, fabulous things. This is not a nostalgic view. This is an explosion of feeling and mood, directed at us, inviting a response. Teskey has noted that “keeping the spontaneity and urgency in the mark is vital” (interview with Mike Fitzpatrick, 31 January, 2005,  Done.

My particular favorite from Teskey are the paintings that reach a little bit further into abstraction, almost daring us to “see” as he does. Here is “The Gearagh Study VI”:

Yes, we can see the reeds, the oaks, the water, a little. But what is that scattering of pale blue? And the underlying scraped white? Part reflection, part “urgency.” I know, from my own painting experience, how much of a risk he takes here. One foul scrape or too broad a gesture with the brush and the work could easily be ruined.  This is painting on the edge, indeed.  One more, called “The Gearagh IV,” gives us both earth and water and yet…

Both Donald Teskey and Keith Wilson explore this territory between the two warring forms of the twentieth century, abstraction and representation, a place “between” that is unresolved for so many painters. These two have come to terms with their inheritance, and have achieved their own “way” onto the edge.  One of Ernest Hemingway’s characters in Across the River and Into the Trees said that “terrain is what remains in the dreaming part of your mind.”  Both Wilson and Teskey merge the terrain, and the mind, in paintings that stay with the viewer. Seek out their work. 

Thanks to both Oliver Sears and John P. Quinlan for their generosity.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Murmuration of Starlings: The "Whitewashing the Moon" Exhibiton in Dublin

This is a still photograph of starlings moving in unison, something called a murmuration, (see my source website, with video and explanatory text:; the film was taken over the River Shannon by Liberty Smith and Sophie Windsor-Clive).  Last week, we were visiting County Clare, along the beautiful, rugged Atlantic coast, and our hosts mentioned the murmuration, a word I’d never heard; we had all been discussing swallows and starlings and jackdaws, all of them flying by the window at one point or another, looking as if they were trying to beat the thunderstorm that came a few minutes later.  If you watch the film of the starlings, or have seen them fly in these rapidly-changing patterns yourself, you can then re-imagine all sorts of ways of seeing them: architectural blueprints, graphs, elements of physics and biology, an arc of paint thrown by Jackson Pollock, waves breaking over rocks, and the trust and belief inherent in moving together in a project that has no obvious pattern or end.

The beauty of the murmuration came back to me as I was thinking about having seen “Whitewashing the Moon” at the Project Arts Centre. Taken as a single moment of delight, we know that the murmuration of starlings is beautiful; the art in this show, taken both individually and as a group, similarly compels us to respond and reminds us what art is for.

Five artists, from Ireland, France and Mexico, have created art in "Whitewashing the Moon" that works. The curators, Tessa Giblin and Kate Strain, selected the pieces for this show. I think the art has been chosen because it speaks to our desire to believe in the "impossible," a desire that is central to a short story that is also part of this exhibition, "The Brick Moon," by Edward Everett Hale (originally published in serial form in the Atlantic Monthly in 1870, now published in its entirety at ).   In this story, a group of students imagine “the poor little fishermen … the bones of whose ships lie white on so many cliffs” and think …. what if the students could launch an object over Greenwich that would then pass by “the axis of the world” and would then “forever revolve, in its obedient orbit” as “the blessing” of these sailors (and anyone else, for that matter, who wanted grounding).  In order to survive the power of its launch, the object could not be “lathe and plaster,” but would need to be brick, which, sliced through at any angle, would resemble “an immense rose-window, of six circles grouped around a seventh,” all kinds of arches for internal support, but enclosing, mostly, air.  Two gigantic fly-wheels would propel it into orbit.

Eventually, after seventeen years, the students grow up, funding is found and the Brick Moon is begun.  The last months of work is undertaken by a group of some of the original friends and their families; they live in the cavernous center of the completed part of the moon. The fly-wheels are finished.  The hope is that the moon can be bleached white after it is completed so that it will resemble a moon more fully.  But this never happens; the Brick Moon is launched prematurely, with the workers and their families still inside.  The narrator and those who remain on land are in despair.  They cannot see anything in the skies for over a year; but some time later the Brick Moon appears to the narrator as he looks through the lenses of a deserted observatory.  The Brick Moon was “Red no longer, but green as a meadow in the spring” with “hemlocks” visible and his friends were visible, “going and coming on the surface of their own little world.” 

They are able to communicate with the narrator by a series of signals, and he can signal to them.  He hears of weddings, births, Shakespearean productions, and readings of Austen and Thackeray. Much relieved, and sounding rather envious, the narrator says, “The truth is, that silence is very satisfactory intercourse, if we only know all is well.”  Silence -- to the earth-bound people -- had meant only dread of what might have happened; silence from the Brick Moon, it turns out, had meant only contentment.  The narrator says that, having helped launch the creation, he can only say that it now “is there in ether. I cannot keep it. I cannot get it down.”  And, most of all, he cannot visit, something he really seems to regret at the end, as the world of the moon seems nearly perfect.

The art show is simply titled, “Whitewashing the Moon.”  While this final artistic gesture never actually happened in the story, artistic transformation certainly does happen in the gallery, which the brochure calls a “twilit garden.”  And it is.  Walking through this room, we feel that same energy and flow as we would beneath that starling “murmuration.”  Each work of art offers a way of continuing and connecting to the themes begun in "The Brick Moon." There is no “ending” here, in the “twilit garden,” only multiple continuities of the themes (dreaming, scientific discovery, the "negotiation" between artist and material, and reaching -- perhaps too far?) that are also introduced in the story.

One of the pieces I really liked is by Caroline Achaintre, a ceramic, titled “Looney”: 

The piece suggests a mask (both feudal and futuristic) or a rock covered gently with cloth; it offers the fissures of brick, but the shape also brings to mind the green world of the orbiting Brick Moon.  Another work, “Wadder,” seems to spill over, growing outside of its form:

Are we seeing one moment in a rush of water, transparent over limestone? -- this form has stilled movement, is silent, needing us to work through its layers.

In one corner of the “garden” is a spotlit sculpture, cast in obsidian, by Eleanor Duffin, who lives and works in Dublin. Duffin’s website says that she “focuses on the way in which ideas are conceived” and from that she creates a visual “hypothesis.” Here is “Tephra,” both spotlit from above and from an angle close-to:

The five forms seem to lie on the surface of a moon and sparkle like glass. Duffin’s art also appears across the room, in a video installation of a revolving rock, called “Which do you believe, your eyes or my words?”  The rock is oval, smooth-edged, and appears to be both revolving in place and moving towards us and away from us, a perfect parallel to the story’s idea of locating ourselves by virtue of another object.

Barbara Knezevic seems to have taken the idea of Daedalus and Icarus (that also glimmers inside Hale’s story) and created her own cautionary tale, called “An Exercise in Self-Destruction,” below, in a photo from across the gallery, and then in a close-up:

When I first saw this piece, I thought it was a pink-patterned marble, but it is wax, changing shape daily under the heat lamp, dying quietly, in place.  It seems conceptually far away from the sudden Brick Moon launch that we read about in the story. But, as I think about it, the work does call to mind the narrator’s disquiet when he cannot see the Moon or his friends, that quiet moment that we all know happens after a disaster, the moment when no-one can reach out to do anything, because the damage has been done.  This is a poignant piece.

On one wall, a video plays; “Rhombus Sectus,” by Raphael Zarka. The brochure tells us it is a 16 mm film transferred into HD. It portrays the National Library of Belarus at Minsk, a building shaped like a Rhombicuboctahedron, which is close to the shape described for the original Brick Moon. Zarka says that “the real subject of my work” is “the migration of certain forms through space and time” ( which is an apt description of the video, which I won’t try and reproduce here – it needs to be seen in its space. The video has the weight of a documentary, until we see it revolve around that central shape from many angles.

The fifth artist, Jorge De la Garza has created an installation called “Untitled (Missing Links)” – it is both a nineteenth-century “desk” and a twenty-first century objet d’art, quite beautiful:

Each object is placed and lit as if it were a shard of mosaic from Pompeii, or a rare Chinese vase, and these objects are just as elegiac, calling out to us from another time; they wait for us to come and complete them, as a group, and fill them with the narratives we re-construct.

If you are anywhere near Dublin, or can be, the show runs through the 27th of October.  This is art that reverberates, stays with you, demands your attention, rewards thought and participation. A truly remarkable show.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

“A Sequentiality of Improbable Possibles”: Liam Ó Broin’s Inferno Suite

Homer wrote The Odyssey in Greek. Virgil wrote the Aeneid in Latin.  Dante Alighieri wrote about the death of Ulysses in the Inferno, part of his Divine Comedy, written in the Italian dialect of Florence. James Joyce wrote Ulysses in … dozens of English languages.  The reverberations, even in this broad list, are astonishing. They fall together like the clicking of great dominoes. All of these writers are tampering with the lives of heroes and gods, making decisions, in effect, instead of gods, and playing with our collective imagination in the process. Reaching for too much, perhaps? “Man’s reach must not exceed his grasp,” wrote Robert Browning; Joyce will later come along to say that he simply wrote “a sequentiality of improbable possibles” (Finnegan’s Wake).

It is impossible to escape Joyce while walking through Dublin: Dawson Street, Davy Byrne’s, a statue, a plaque, a bookstore’s display window, a busker. 

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned
                  --Introvibo ad altare Dei.

This is the beginning of Ulysses, where Joyce has Mulligan call out to Stephen Daedalus:

--Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful Jesuit….
--The mockery of it, he said gaily. Your absurd name, an ancient Greek.

So Joyce brings together priests, fathers, ancient Greek myth, religious orders, bodies and morning ablutions, and the “mild morning air” surrounding the tower…. spilling over onto just… two pages.

It’s a beautiful kind of Modernist pulling-together, an equating of all things, to say that anything we notice becomes, then, notice-able.  Samuel Beckett had worked for Joyce as a secretary. He told the interviewer James Knowlson that “I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away.” Two Irish writers, finding and clinging to extremes.

Joycean excess may stem, at least in part, not only from the Modernist air the author inhaled (Pound, Stein, Eliot…) but from his reading: everything, including the Inferno (in the original Italian, in all likelihood).  Dante’s journey with Virgil into Hell allows the poet to create sublime cataracts and deep sorrows, to expose sins and “fitting” punishment (think of the two lovers, Paolo and Francesca, attached through eternity: “there is no greater sorrow/ than thinking back upon a happy time in misery”) and, perhaps most importantly, re-imaginings, as in a new version of the death of Ulysses. Instead of returning home to Ithaca, Ulysses and a small band of his followers continue on their voyage, leaving behind families and lovers, travelling

…. where Hercules ordained
The boundaries not be overstepped by man.
[They sail on, then ] ….  from afar
Appeared a mountain dim, loftiest methought
Of all I ever beheld. Joy seized us straight;
But soon to mourning changed. From the new land
A whirlwind sprung …. so fate decreed
And over us the booming billow closed.  (Canto XXVI)

Just in sight of an earthly paradise – drowned, down to the bottom of a funnel of water, instead of arriving at the peak of a mountain.

This is one of the 34 images that have inspired the artist Liam Ó Broin. Here is his Canto XXVI print, “The death of Ulysses” (my photograph):

Many of the other lithographs offer stark black and white contrasts, so this print is unusual for its colors. It struck me as stunningly beautiful because the lithograph seems to offer us both the mountain and the whirlpool in a few layered strokes, the greens and blues here simultaneously offering hope and despair.  

Ó Broin’s series of lithographs respond to each canto in Dante’s Inferno, part of a projected series on the full Divine Comedy.  These lithographs (singly, or in a full limited-edition book) take the inclusive nature of the works of Dante and Joyce and pare that abundance down to a spare, astonishingly stark and beautiful scene, worthy of Beckett (whose Waiting for Godot begins with the stage setting: “A country road. A tree. Evening”).

Ó Broin has selected quotations from each canto, or has interpreted for himself the essence of the vision. Here are two sample titles: from Canto X, “Heretics are people with whom we simply disagree,” and from Canto XXX, “Truth – hidden by lies, is even deeper, beneath silence.”  The artist says that this series is “not intended to be an illustrative chronology,” but it certainly feels, to me, to be a thorough, and profound, re-interpretation, pulling from the original a moment that “shimmers with ambiguity” or another that “is scathing in its condemnation” or another that is, simply, “deeply personal” to the artist (all quotes are from the artist, from the brochure called “Inferno, A Journey”). Ó Broin notes that the concerns of the 14th-century Dante “people’s aspirations, hopes, concerns, the battle against injustice, poverty, ill fortune, and an evolving process of morality” and “the human pursuit of peace, contentment, love and fellowship” resonate with us now and “that continuity makes Inferno so real” (brochure).  Dr. Riann Coulter notes that this is really a “collaboration” between Dante and Ó Broin. The images from each canto that Ó Broin has created pull Dante’s concerns into sharp focus, nowhere more so than in the final image, from Canto XXXIV, of Lucifer (my photograph):

This portrait comes from Dante’s difficult description of the three faces of Lucifer:

….words would fail to tell thee of my state….
                                    I did spy
Upon his head three faces….
At every mouth his teeth a sinner clamped [Judas, Cassius and Brutus]….
[and slowly, Virgil and Dante exit until]
Thus issuing we again beheld the stars.

The three-part print here seems both ghastly and gorgeous; in its very ambiguity it hints that, in seeing the vicious fate spelled out for Lucifer, Dante will be able to climb back to tell the story -- the story he has imagined for all of us – so that we can see in these three faces the stars beyond.

If you are anywhere near the Graphic Studio Gallery in Dublin, see these works, and talk with Ian Bewick at the gallery. He has much to say about the work.... See these prints if you can.....They are lovely "improbable possibles" that will stay with you.