It is tempting to view the arc of Caroline Ward’s development as meteoric, as she took to painting relatively late. Something in spate was lurking: the lava of her imagination was waiting for an eruption, as Byron might have said.
What was the catalyst? A gift as pressing and as defined and as articulate as hers’ cannot be suppressed indefinitely. Each still life in her first solo show at Kelly’s Resort Hotel will never elicit the same response. A Caroline Ward still life is a state of poise which runs deep. For, in this collection, these are paintings that you study.
Why is that?
The mackerel on the plate, evidently gutted, are at the end of their line. Memento mori perhaps? Yet we don’t inhale the stench of death. The sensation, at first, is purely visual.
Perhaps we marvel at the unobtrusiveness of their existence, irrespective of their condition. The egg is an open invitation to a response that is visceral: something so fragile, and yet so tactile.
The assembled bottles are a theatre of visual relationships, with the intensity of perfect harmony. Her interiors might appear as a distinct genre in this show, but the invitation by Caroline is the same: each work is the synthesis of her inner experience.
I think curiosity and questioning explains Caroline’s love of abstract art, for example, but still life is her calling. It is her duchas and her duende.
I believe it is a folly to define an appreciation of her work as solely clinically detached or calculatingly forensic, like planets with their own orbits.
Her paintings are rooted in her inner experience. Which is what, precisely?
Like Ed Hopper and Vilhelm Hammershoi, Caroline is a fellow traveller of how their subjects are harmonised with feeling.
There is naturally an obsession with the engagement of realism, but what is emphasised is separateness, not common ground.
The single mackerel on the plate offers two narratives: is Caroline stablizing the impression, or recording its transience? Be warned. To own a Caroline Ward is to engage in an eternal conversation about the meaning of still life. However, the means will always justify the end.
Ironically, what we can find in her depiction of the ordinary is how the discontinuities of everyday life must be matched by the consistencies of the artist. Often drawn to the unremarkable, Caroline inhabits the space between tranquillity and the tautness of a moment: within and without each painting is a continuance of an ancient tradition, the artist beckoning us to question our assumptions about the work.
It is curious that when I bracket Caroline with other artists, they are not Irish: there is the Dane, Hammershoi, the Italian Morandi and the Americans Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. Still life is a discipline that is unforgiving, where every stroke of the brush is a gamble. Your eye will not permit a mistake.
There is in a still life the momentum of tension: the fruit and the mackerel are in a state of repose, but nature is always about conquest.
If you can avoid the temptation to view her work as images of visible fact, then you can enter the atmosphere of the artist, and grasp her capacity to perceive.
Caroline is equally interested in what is not immediately visible, or discerning: the profound depth of the unknown outside and beyond the two windows in the bathroom interior. Providing a portal to what is not visible is an enduring strength of Caroline’s interiors, where light has more than a walk-on role. It defines space.
How refreshing that in the age of the confessional, Caroline is an anomaly. Her collection as a whole is the poetry of silence. The restrained elegance of her movement does not dampen its quiet power. Her work is the flotilla of a storm passing on the horizon.
Her emotional range is broad, from the poetic suggestiveness of what is beyond the interior, to the smouldering lightness of being of the objet trouve, such as the study of a bowl, or the bottles, or the tonal subtlety in depicting the domestic flotsam of everyday life: familiar, yet stripped of identity.
Her subjects are therefore not intended to be remarkable – not dressed to impress – but they are a reminder that the definition of still life is always rooted in the Italian, natura morta: the sound phonetically mirrors the meaning.
Whether it is fallen fruit or dead fish or a lemon suspended in water, the handling of the paint has as much contemplative importance as the inspiration. We can only imagine the long gestation of the synthesis of her inner experience, before the brush is summoned, and the easel fixed.
A falconer’s skill depends on their dexterity with the thin leather jesses: we see the bird, but the trick of the falconer is pretending not to be there. So too with Caroline Ward: we are surrounded by her presence, when the artist has long since left the room.
The quality of her natura morta, therefore, is ageless.