Traditional subject matter still pervades the commercial art sector, but with some stimulating modern twists. Amanda Croft of Queen’s University Art Department takes a look at aspects of contemporary Northern Irish art that should not be over looked by the cautious collector.
In recent years, there has been a series of seminal exhibitions, seen nationally and internationally, that have sought to showcase the work of a number of contemporary Irish artists currently working in the fields of painting, sculpture, lens-based media, video and time-based installation.
Although these exhibitions, Irish Art Now: from the Poetic to the Political, (1999); When Time Began to Rant and Rage: Figurative Painting from Twentieth Century Ireland, (1998-1999) and 0044 – Irish Artists in Britain, (1999), “had different themes and different purposes” as noted by Paula Murphy in her introduction to the most recent of these shows, Artists’ Century. Irish Self Portraits and Selected Works, (2000), nearly all of the artists represented were concerned with exploring the issue-based themes they considered pertinent to being an artist in Ireland today.
Rita Duffy, Alice Maher and Kathy Prendergast investigate gender-based issues, re-examining “the political, social, educational and religious influences on their upbringing and current situation in society and the art world”. Jack Pakenham, Dermot Seymour and Micky Donnelly tackle the intricacies of the social and political issues and events that have affected everyday life in Northern Ireland. Siobhan Hapaska and Mark Francis push the boundaries of aesthetics and abstraction in their investigations in sculpture and painting whilst others such as Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright and Mary McIntyre have introduced their lens-based interpretations of location, ritual and space to a wider international audience.
Such exhibitions have certainly brought critical acclaim to their participants and are vital in bringing contemporary practice to the attention of the general public but the purchase and dissemination of these works into collections and the public domain may be problematic. By dint of their issue-based subject matter, large scale and, in some cases, the use of technological media, many of these works will be more easily accommodated in the specialised private or corporate collection or the dedicated spaces provided by major galleries or museums of art, than in the homes of the average collector.
Also, they appeal to a restricted, generally informed, audience as they represent only a very small percentage of the artists actively working in the art sector in Ireland today. As Paula Murphy has commented, “there will always be a certain conservatism among the viewing public and the practitioners....” – a truism that is particularly relevant to the average collector in the North of Ireland for whom caution remains the watchword.
Despite all the advances evidenced in the exhibitions cited above, traditional subject matter and traditional techniques still count most highly in the commercial art sector. Straightforward interpretations of landscape, still life and the figure are the favoured subjects with the preferred medium still being painting – whether in oils, watercolour or acrylic. Whilst drawing is popular, fine art prints are generally misunderstood and confused with the ubiquitous reproduction; photographs are rarely exhibited (although they are popular with the young professional) and good quality sculpture by artists such as John Behan, F.E.McWilliam and Sandra Bell is generally out of reach of most collector’s domestic budget.
The challenge then, for the discerning and ambitious artist who wants to make a living, is how to meet the demands of the conservative buyer who requires something traditional with a ‘modern twist’ whilst retaining their integrity and satisfying their artistic and intellectual need to reassess, redefine and extend the parameters of the traditional.
Landscape has proved to be the most difficult area to redefine largely due to the pervasive influence of Paul Henry. His Whistlerian inspired tonal essays of Western Ireland have helped to create an idealised vision of a countryside devoid of people and the harsh realities of rural life that is still popular with artists and the public today. Works like “Country Beauty” and “Beyond the Waters” by David Gordon Hughes reflect Henry’s visual iconic myth of the West – blue mountains, white-washed cottages, huge skies.
For others the “shift away from anodyne, picturesque subject matter to a grittier concern with the techniques of picture making” has been paramount. Whilst artists like Paul Walls explore texture and tone in his heavily impastoed canvases, others like Lisa Ballard and Gary Devon exploit colour. The vigorous and expressive brushwork that animates Ballard’s richly hued “Orange Sea” is handled with a maturity that belies her youth (she is only in her early twenties) and reveals her artistic lineage as daughter of one of Ireland’s most respected painters, Brian Ballard. Emerging as an individual from parental shadow is a difficult task, but Lisa has established herself already as a successful, individual artist with obvious potential.
Although Gary Devon’s landscape and figurative works such as “Autumn Pool” and “Pool Girls” invite comparison with Roderic O’Conor, his use of hot vivid colour combinations and loose, almost abstract brushwork that tends to flatten space, recalls the Fauvist works of Matthew Smith and Maurice Vlaminck and even the expressive seascapes of Emile Nolde. His palette of pinks and purples, oranges and yellows, is a welcome foil to the usual swathe of subtle greens and muddy browns normally associated with Irish landscape painting.
For Jonny McEwen, the catalyst for his finely balanced, peat coloured, abstracted landscapes, is more local in origin. In his reassessment of the Irish terrain, McEwen’s use of earthy tones and softly edged rectangular motifs that evoke field patterns and dry stone walls that appear to float above the damp surface of the canvas ground, demonstrates an affinity with the 1950s’ abstracted landscape and still life compositions of William Scott and the strongly gestural, tonal works of T.P.Flanagan’s “Gortahork” and “Bogland” series of the 1960s.
Figurative painting in Northern Ireland has long been associated with the work of William Conor. Kenneth Jamison once referred to him as “a kind of Irish Daumier, but without the satirical edge”, acknowledging that his rapidly executed drawings in pastel, crayon and watercolour, captured moments of rural and urban life soon to disappear. Riveters and welders walking to work on the Island, children playing in the back streets of Belfast while shawlies gossip at the local shop. Today Conor would use a camera and his work would be dubbed ‘social documentation’. Few artists have followed directly in his footsteps, no doubt due to the aesthetic pressures to embrace the abstraction, expressionism and conceptualism of the twentieth century, but for the viewing public there remains a need for the familiar and the nostalgic.
Whilst Hector McDonnell’s darkly lit, atmospheric interiors of Bewley’s cafe, Parisian restaurants and New York diners pay homage to Conor’s observations, it is Rowland Davidson who has taken on his mantle most successfully. Taught by a formidable trio of Ulster artists at the Art College in Belfast, Davidson’s compositions of men at horse fairs, musicians playing in parochial houses, cafe interiors and children playing on beaches avoid being overtly sentimental by reflecting their influence. The draughtsmanship of John Luke, the compositional eye of Tom Carr and the gestural confidence of Neil Shawcross all inform the construction of his compositions as seen in “St. George’s Market 2” – a weekly event in Belfast, familiar to many. Here the tension set up by the raking diagonal of the table and the photographic quality of the strong tonal contrast thrown up by the figures silhouetted against the reflective light is dramatic, reminiscent of the work of Degas. Davidson’s interest in French painting can be seen throughout his work – many of his intimate, almost voyeuristic scenes of people engaged in conversation in darkly lit rooms are redolent of the Intimiste paintings of Vuillard and Bonnard.
If Davidson’s appeal is universal, that of Audrey Smyth is more personal. Describing herself as a multi-media artist, Audrey Smyth produces ceramics and sculpture, paintings and exquisite charcoal drawings – all of which are exploited by her desire to explore “the human spirit through the representational use of metamorphic image”. She is interested in the human condition, so her “Lily White Nude”, in which her sensual use of charcoal recalls that of Seurat, is no mere nude study. It refers back to her earlier ceramic casts of female torsos that investigated the dual concerns of the perfection and disfigurement of the female body. It also refers to her fascination with the body as a vessel – a concept that she explores in her elegant charcoal drawings of softly rounded cups and beakers (stylistically reminiscent of William Scott and Victor Pasmore) and her smoke fired ceramic forms. Many of her recent works evoke a poignant sense of loss. They deal with clothing – little dresses, coats, hats, bags – empty vessels that hold memories of physical and emotional ownership.
One of the most traditional genre to survive in Northern Ireland is animal painting, largely due to the reputation of Basil Blackshaw as the consummate painter of horses and dogs. Blackshaw sees horses “both as subjects in their own right and as extensions of the human condition” – a sentiment shared by the painter and sculptor Michael Smyth. Like Blackshaw, Michael Smyth paints his essentially rural subject matter in “an intuitively expressive manner that is both challenging and rewarding”, but although Smyth shares his mentor’s interests and stylistic concerns his work is developing an intensely personal individuality - his paintings are vigorous and spontaneous in execution.
Smyth’s affectionate, yet perceptive depictions of terriers, lurchers, goats and horses such as “Greyhound Number 5” and “Essence of Horse” marry the energy of the animal with his emotional response to its presence via the textured surfaces and rapid, gestural brushwork. As Blackshaw himself has commented, “This is paint describing emotion. What is left out is as important as what is painted in.”
Horses have also been integral to the work of Ross Wilson. A well known portraitist (his commissions include Nobel Laureates Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott) and occasional sculptor, Wilson began his career painting large scale canvases of horses. Since the 1980s these paintings have been based on studies of Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential still photographs of horses in motion. First published as Animal Locomotion in 1887, Muybridge’s photographs have influenced numerous artists from Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec to Francis Bacon. The trotting horse and sulky in “Morning Blue Run” is based on such source material. The painted image looks old, the central silhouetted image a little indistinct, the paint surface deliberately scratched and textured to reflect the age and distressed condition of the original photograph. In his use of photography, Wilson’s response to the horse differs to that of Michael Smyth. Whereas Smyth’s is personal, intuitive and from first hand experience, Wilson’s is filtered, considered and intellectual – a constant seen throughout his work.
Although very few of these artists would be considered ‘progressive’ enough to be included in the ‘showcase’ exhibitions that have promoted the ‘cutting edge’ of current Irish art, none can be dismissed as retrograde. Each has pushed the boundaries of their personal experience and mode of expression, met the demands of the market and may even have challenged the perceptions and expectations of the conservative collector. That they are successful is a testament to their vision and acumen.
Amanda Croft is a teaching fellow and acting head of the History of Art Department at Queen’s University Belfast.
© Amanda Croft