Walton at Greenacres

conor x

Walton at Greenacres Art Gallery

 

 ‘I wanted to learn the skills that I felt I needed to learn and the avant garde simply were not offering it,’ reflects Conor Walton on his time at the National College of Art and Design, from which he emerged, defiantly, with a Joint Honours Degree in History of Art and Fine Art, in 1993. ‘So I thought, give me the skills and I will decide what to do with them.’

Between graduating from NCAD, gaining an MA in Art History and Theory from the University of Essex in 1995 and his first solo exhibition at Jorgensen Fine Art in 1999, Walton received a rigorous training in the practice and tradition of drawing and painting from life at the Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence: sight-size as a portrait technique has its origins in the practice of Titian, Van Dyck and Velazquez.

In the celebrated Las Meninas, Velazquez documents himself at his canvas, the orchestrator of a conceptual profundity of mise-en-scene and several people – the artist, the subject, the viewer – and in doing so initiated a multiplicity of relationships which will be emulated by artists through the ages. Walton’s self-portraits similarly invite you to draw your own conclusions regarding substance and intention. ‘There is a concern for me to get, at some level, significance or meaning,’ he explains. Velazquez broke with the traditions of his time to allow the outside world in, to give a ‘behind the scenes’ view of the painter at work.

This light-heartedness and openness is often replicated by Walton: you can watch a time-lapse video on Facebook of the evolution of his self-portrait, Push Over, which will be on show at his solo exhibition at The Greenacres Gallery. Equally compelling is the footage of Rest, in which the artist’s handling is direct and fresh, and the viewer is privy to a private symbiosis in which artist and subject are fused.

Walton – born in 1970 – is a figurative painter in the European tradition, pursuing his craft at the highest level, pushing the envelope in his desire to answer the three questions in Gauguin’s famous painting: ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’ Walton concedes that some of his work is ‘very big and complicated’ – An Ape’s Limbs Compared to Man’s – with a mesh of narrative, philosophy and references to current affairs. This in turn is balanced by a need to ‘be simple and matter of fact, if I can be. It has developed into a yin yang thing, my work as a whole. The complicated pictures to some extent leave me very dissatisfied and it is hard to make them work. On the other side I will try to do something as simple and as basic as I can, which allows for a small achievement.’

His oeuvre, therefore, is breath-taking in its reach: portrait, self-portrait, landscape, still life and allegory, a fluid accentuation of the questions posed by Gaugin. ‘A work of art should tell something of who we are,’ adds Walton. ‘The function of art should give us some insight into what we are.’ It has been said of him that he can be politically conscious without being sanctimonious, but beneath the surface of the larger work is a confrontation of the human and the mythical: The Barbarians At the Gates is a wry multi-layered observation of a mistrustful Europe under siege. But this is Walton standing on his own two feet, creating a world as distinctly his at those of his contemporaries.

His attention to detail has a clinical purity, and in his epic allegories you will encounter the consistencies and discontinuities of life, because each single painting, irrespective of size or ambition, is the spawn of a multitude of perceptions. The exhibition at Greenacres is the work of an artist determined to be faithful to his vision, pursued in the secluded independence of his studio overlooking Wicklow town, where he lives with his wife, Jane, a mountaineering instructor, and three children.

Advertisements

Sean Hillen exhibition, Kamera 8, Wexford

pyramids

There hasn’t been a photography exhibition of the ilk of Sean Hillen at Kamera 8 in Wexford before, for one reason. Nobody captures his sense of history in reverse, or the cultural filter he deploys to segue pictorial elements from diametrically opposed sources, and deliver a composition.

Consider The Great Pyramids of Carlingford Lough: pure montage, but with a distinctive Hillen trope. I use ‘trope’ deliberately, because the metaphor is more figurative than narrative. So Hillen requires you to look beyond or, better still, look beneath.

Light is a keyhole rusting gently after rain, wrote Derek Mahon in A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford, and time is the undiscovered country in this work. Elsewhere, peruse Trouble With Glacier in Henry Street, Dublin, or The Lia Fail of Wexford, and perhaps Hillen is suggesting that photographic clichés exist to enable us to reconsider reality.

The news photographs rooted in Northern Ireland should have one function: arouse conflicting emotions, and they do, but our empathy is framed by detachment, and perhaps war fatigue. This is no fault of Hillen. With Ecstatic Nuns Outside the Casino at Powerscourt, the montage has the joie de vivre of collage, as if Truffaut is directing from the wings.

Neil Shawcross

SHAWCROSS

 

 

In 1935 Allen Lane stood on a platform at Exeter railway station, looking for a good book for the long trip back to London. He had met with Agatha Christie, and must have left empty handed. The stalls overflowed with fiction, but too lurid and low brow for the eclectically well-read Lane, who was an enthusiastic admirer of James Joyce’s Ulysses, an enthusiasm not shared at Bodley Head, where he was managing director.

He hopped onto his train, and set out on his 200 mile return journey in disappointment. But a seed had been planted.

The birth of Penguin Books was Lane’s solution to his conundrum that day in Exeter and a riposte to the anti-Joyceans: proven and quality literature, such as Ulysses, cheap enough to be sold from a vending machine. He wanted his books to look distinctive, to stand out from the crowd, and he was adamant that innovative and good cover design should be no more expensive than bad.

On a July morning in 2017, the light is filling the Belfast studio of William Shawcross, a resident of the city since 1962. He is sitting at a round table close to the window, where he can survey works in progress, walls festooned by art – by him, by others – and a life time’s curating of spectacularly colourful bric-a-brac and ephemera. The effect, irrespective of where you look, is phantasmagorical.

However, what has peaked the artist’s interest is a large canvas behind him, and not in his line of sight. Shawcross describes it forensically, as if his picture memory has its own braille. It is The Fox in the Attic, Richard Hughes’ 1961 novel, yet it is not the content between the paperback covers which occupies Shawcross’s thoughts, but the bold monochromatic design by Ceri Richards.

Richards has plundered from the vaults of German Expressionism to create a book cover which is bold and Freudian. His fox, emerging from a cellar, is a fantastic element, rigidly captured within stark contrasts. Anyone acquainted with the novel’s subject – the rise of Nazism – will recognize the deliberate nightmarish mise en scene by Richards.

Shawcross has reimagined the Ceri Richards cover: his touch is precise and clearly identifiable. He pays homage to the original by deftness and subtlety, yet the technique of Shawcross is his own. He reconfigures the original design by liberating the typeface from the parallel lines.

The Fox in the Attic is by no means a representative of the classic Penguin cover – rectangles of bold colour and line drawing – with which Shawcross would have been familiar growing up in Lancashire, nor is it similar to the original Penguin cover designs. Lane’s concept, which was later perfected by the Bauhaus-influenced Jan Tschichold, was the personification of simplicity itself:  three simple horizontal bands, with the title and the author’s name dead centre. There was no image, except for a Penguin or Pelican, at the bottom.

The design, in a sense, became a slave to the marketing strategy by Lane: high quality writing (and not lurid fiction) for a low price – sixpence for a book, no more expensive than a packet of Sweet Afton. Because he was disinclined to use an image, Lane needed to distinguish fact from fiction, poetry from prose, and his solution was both ingenious and revolutionary: the top and bottom bands were colour coded.

Orange for fiction, cerise for travel (Flying Dutchman by Anthony Fokker), red for plays, yellow for miscellaneous (The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton), violet for essays (Civilisation by Clive Bell), grey for world affairs (The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism by Bernard Shaw), green for crime fiction and dark blue for biographies. Woolworths ordered 63,000 books, sold them, and Lane and his new publishing house never looked back.

Indeed forward thinking and the utilizing of new ideas – modernist design principles – allowed Penguin to keep in step with the times which were, as we know, a changing: peruse some of Tschicold’s fabulous covers in the aftermath of World War II (Caesar The Conquest of Gaul by S.A. Handford, Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet by Tschaikovsky) and the bridge spanning the cool pragmatism of Lane and the dramatic expressionism of Ceri Richards, is ripened by a European vernacular.

Tschicold was succeeded by his German compatriot Hans Schmoller, one of the last species of typographers with a profound background in the history of types, and the evolution in design is almost immediate: the cover of Mary MaCaulay’s The Arts of Marriage by Schmoller, continues Tschicold’s  experimentation, and abolishes completely the strict adherence to bold colour and line, and prefigures the cinematic inventiveness of the Polish artist, Romek Marber.

Marber, who survived both the Plaszow and Auschwitz concentration camps, transformed the Penguin crime series – still colour coded green – with an avant garde, German Expressionism bent. He had three colours to work with: green, black and white, and achieved more with less, thus adhering to the original design philosophy of Penguin. This is part of the background to Shawcross’s imaging of the Penguin book titles, which gild the walls of the National Opera House: decades in the making, the Penguin iconography was an important and seminal visual statement for the young artist growing up in England (he was born in Bolton in 1940), and his love for the rational, functional and yet radical design, has never wavered.

There are very few artists or writers whose career bookends both the beginning and the end of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but that of Neil Shawcross does: he came to Belfast in 1962 to teach at the Belfast College of Art, and never left, even during the decades of mayhem and bloodshed on the streets of Belfast. The city, its cultural and social life, slowly subsumed him, and the love affair between both has never been breached. “I have had a great life here,’ he explains. ‘The Troubles did not impact on my lifestyle. The department I worked in was bombed, but we were not bombed. It was an abandoned car bomb. Our building went up in flames but fortunately we all got out in time. Over the years, some of the students were injured, but nothing stopped what I wanted to be doing, or to be going.’

Weaned on Fauvism – ‘I love primary colours, black, white, red, red and green together,’ – and inspired by the portraiture of Graham Sutherland, Shawcross came of age as an artist at a time of immense international flux in art, as one movement, born overnight, seemed to overtake another. ‘Sutherland’s portrait of Somerset Maugham would have been a big influence. It has the excitement of drama. It’s theatre. I like his Helena Rubenstein. I find the female portrait quite difficult. Out of my 70 or 80 portraits, there might be six or seven females, which are among the best, and I put it down that they are so striking, that there was something extra special that got my attention.’

Disinclined to be categorized – ‘I sometimes think I am a bit of a butterfly’ – Belfast provided the ideal social milieu for an artist whose eye was forever drawn to the theatrical and even the extraordinary among the randomness of everyday life, as fodder for his portraits, such as a moustouche, or fiery red lips, or a fluorescent coat worn by a pedestrian patrol man outside his granddaughter’s school. ‘I have got to be interested in the character of course, and I hope that comes through, but I need to keep my interest from head to toe.’ As a consequence, Shawcross chooses his subjects rather than accept commissions, and paints from real life. As a portraitist, he doesn’t bother with background, and can complete the cycle of a work, from start to finish, quickly.

‘The very best ones were in one session because there was something going on there. I don’t want to analyse it too much because you could screw the whole thing up. But I am in a certain mood and so is the sitter, and you cannot recreate that again. I can do it quickly but there has been a lot of preparation. I think there is something going on that I am not aware of, but it’s there. It’s an intense, emotional experience.’

Kumu

tallin.jpg

The Eesti Kunstimuuseum, or Kumu to you and me, in Tallin in Estonia, is hosting The Savages of Germany,  a typically poor translation into English of Der Blaue Reiter, which is worth seeing if you are knocking around the Baltics, with some interesting asides by Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Wassily Kandinsky and a few locals, Konrad Magi and Ado Vabbe. In the permanent exhibition space there is too much propaganda dross, but an exception is this room (see pic) by Mare Vint and Jaanus Samma.

Ward at Kelly’s

19458 - Caroline Ward - A3-001 (1)

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.

Bayntun’s

cal

In the age of the kindle, bibliophiles must constitute a dying breed, and yet their favourite haunts are, in some cases, easily a century or two old, and still flourishing. I have spent cherished afternoons hunting in O’Gara and Wilson in Chicago, in Hatchards in London, in College Street Boi Para in Calcutta and, most recently, Bayntun’s in Bath, one of the world’s leading antiquarian bookshops. It is in the labyrinthine basement where I have found poetic jewels in the past, and this time was no exception: first editions of Cal Lowlell’s The Dolphin and Theodore Roethke’s The Far Field, for just £5 and £10 a piece. And, because it is Bayntun’s, in excellent condition

Improbable Renditions

serpentine

American photographer Ming Smith is better known for her portraits of Nina Simone and Alvin Ailey – black cultural figures in American at a time of widespread social unrest  (what has changed?) – and a snippet of her forty year career, with the subjects captured in a state between distortion and definition, can be seen at The Serpentine Gallery in London. If you make it, why not saunter after to the nearby Frank Hurley exhibition in The Royal Geographical Society.

And creatures dream

serena

Segueing several decades of visual art in Wexford are veteran Gillian Deeney (left), now decamped to Tinahely in the wilds of South Wicklow, and Serena Caulfield, decamped from Rosslare to the wilds of Ballyhealy. They are pictured examining three original Caulfields in Wexford Co. Council at the excellent two venue show, comprising 13 artists, curated by Catherine Bowe and Helen Gaynor.

Conor Cafe

 

conor

A war artist who seems somewhat to have been sidelined by recent centenial commemorations of the Great War is William Conor, although the Ulster Museum has the single biggest collection of his work. That’s good news if you happen to be in Belfast, and peckish. Opposite the Ulster Museum is the actual studio Conor worked in for almost 15 years, and it is now a café, illuminated by the light from the lantern roof. Conor survived the Great War and indeed lived until 1968, but it is the work of another Belfast institution, Neil Shawcross, which currently adorns the walls of Conor Café.

Joe Neal

 

Tom & Joe Neal at his launch of his book The Next Blue Note in The Book Shop Wexford (Copy)

I know of few poets who are as prolific as Joe Neal. The conclusion of one volume is the stepping stone to another. He moves between different worlds so fluidly, so seamlessly.

He is deeply knowledgeable, and neither his observation nor his curiosity has been diminished by the passage of time.

Joe doesn’t forget easily, and so when this current run of books began some years ago, and this is volume number five, Joe had a treasure trove of content.

And if this trove had chapter headings, I would suggest music, nature, the past and above all, love. It is curious why a writer as gifted as Joe, with a voluminous command of the language, should choose poetry and not prose.

The answer might be in his Welsh roots, where the cadence is unlike anywhere else: swagger, pulsation, Biblical, metaphorical. I think this caution or caveat by Dylan Thomas to the first cast of Under Milk Wood in New York, ‘to love the words’, is imprinted on Joe.

Why poetry and not prose for this seducer of words? Readers demand of prose that a subject is developed completely and logically, from A to B etc. It moves like a hot air balloon.

But from poetry we demand leaping from A to Z, implying everything. No walking, but flying. No hot air balloons, but a shooting star. Explosive, and brief. And as fog leaves no scar on the landscape it invades, so too poetry.

While metre and form and rhythm are the building blocks of a poem, the blueprint, without which there would be no beginning or end, is truth. If a poem is alive and is true, it connects with the touchstone of the life within us.

That is the only tuning fork you need. Acute vision, acute memory, acute use of words.