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.


  1. Thank you to Brett Baker for the link at Painters' Table!

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