Published 12 years ago in the 2004 autumn edition of Circa, was critic Aidan Dunne’s article Painting in Ireland now. It is the last overview of the state of play in Irish painting I am aware of. The article swiftly catalogues the activities of 51 active painters connected to Ireland at the time. Most are still very much active, and continue to be recognised as important figures within the contemporary field in Ireland. In fact, it could read as if written today save replacing a few names while keeping the same contexts. The scene it seems hasn’t changed a whole lot, despite the fact hundreds of painters have graduated out of the painting departments and art colleges around the country since. Not long after, the economy crashed and platforms for emerging practices diminished, which would partly explain the slow turnaround. Apart from the listed personnel, what makes it feel of today, is in it’s introduction. Before cataloging Irish painting activities, Dunne begins by writing about the emergence of flat screen technology at the time. He makes reference to this and a host of other emerging image technologies, as having the potential to undermine the position of painting.
This is a familiar narrative and still holds strong today, and again replacing a few terms from the text like flat-screen televisions, portable DVD players, digital cameras and camcorders, digital printers, with words like social media, smart phones and tablets, would give it an up to date feel. This narrative is nothing new, just the antagonists changes over time. And, like so many texts making reference to painting’s vulnerability in light of new image technologies, he later concludes that painting is still alive and kicking, before going on to catalogue the scope of Irish activities in the field.
Dunne groups the Irish painters in themed paragraphs in his text, categorising them relating to formalism, process, subjective engagements with the world, Tuymans followers, fleeting and ambiguous languages, narrational and cinematic interests, critical approaches to language constructs and realism. However, what is missing in his cataloging of Irish painterly activities, is a reading of any of the 51 artist’s work through the points he proposed in the introductory parts of the essay, relating to emerging image technologies.
Reading painting practices in relation to the context of new image technology, particularly the impact of the digital screen has been widespread in in recent years. A number of high profile painting survey exhibitions at major institutions around the world, have made reference to the subject, MoMA’s The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, a Tate Modern display titled Painting after Technology, and Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age, staged at the Museum Brandhorst in Munich, and later at MUMOK in Vienna. These shows are saturated with works that are large in scale, loud and visually loaded. As if to suggest, the overbearing and incomprehensible nature of today’s virtual world, is being addressed by painting under the same terms aesthetically. Artworks in the exhibitions compete directly with the spectacle of the screen world, or even incorporate its technologies. For others, the virtual world of the screen and analogue world of painting, are presented as symbiotic forces of expression. Laura Owens work, epitomises that particular form of painting. She is featured in all of the aforementioned exhibitions. Her large scale paintings address our relationship to screen head on by blending painterly abstract languages with the newly emerging lexicon of the screen. A 21st century abstract hybridism emerges as a result.
Abstract painting has its roots in addressing overwhelming perplexities, like that of virtual and media sphere today. Jackson Pollock might have you believe that his motives and those of his fellow Abstract Expressionists, had little to do with Greenberg’s call for painting to retreat into its own flatness, and more to do with trying to come to terms with the complexities of their times.
“New needs need new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements… the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.” (Jackson Pollock, 1950)
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Pollock, the Abstract Expressionists, and their influences most of whom had arrived from Europe during the war, attempted to come up with a more ambitious scale of language. This came about as a result of having to deal with a different comprehension of a different kind of space. War like spaces, Hiroshima, cities being exploded etc, or the collapsing and renegotiation of space, as in how information or personal traveled through it via the airplane and the radio. Abstraction as a means to be responsive to new forms of phenomena and complexity, was and still is pertinent it seems.
It is less likely for artists to identify themselves as abstract painters today than it was then. To do so can imply an acceptance of outmoded modernist ideologies. It is more appropriate perhaps, to consider an artist’s work in terms of their relationship to the use of abstract languages, as opposed to their alignment to the principles of abstraction. Abstract languages are the most explicit gestural denotation of what our concept of a painting is today. Abstract languages represent the genes of painting, which may explain why they are so often enlisted in painterly exchanges with new media or ideas. In Ireland, painters like the late Patrick Scott, Charles Tyrell, and Mark Francis have all worked in the ‘Abstraction as a means to be responsive to complex phenomena model’. Mark Francis’s practice points to the profound changes in today’s visual landscape through technology, he could of been in any of the exhibitions listed earlier. Patrick Scott and Charles Tyrell explore the profound realms of spiritual, mystic or material forces, which as subjects are equally perplexing. All three deploy the familiar strategies of ‘reaction abstraction’. Grand scale, materials or visual languages for grand subjects. Like Laura Owens and Jackson Pollock, their work embodies the traits of their subjects.
Some recent Irish painting practices incorporating abstract languages invert those processes. Three of the artists included in Aidan Dunne’s survey text, and still very much active today are Paul Doran, Mark Swords and Fergus Feehily. Regularly mentioned together in the same breath, these three artists share many of the same painterly approaches and methodologies. Although you wouldn’t call anyone of them an abstract painter specifically, they all employ abstract languages to varying degrees in their paintings. Where they would be viewed to differ from the earlier mentioned artists, is in terms of the modesty of their work, which is often small in scale and tactile. The modesty of their engagements may also be perceived to differ, less to large external complexities like the development of digital image culture, and more to intimate and arbitrary curiosities. But I think there is an engagement there, that has a more profound relationship with screen culture than it would appear on the surface of their approaches.
Screen culture has contorted our sense of flesh through our increasing exposure to the human body, in porn, celebrity, fashion, marketing etc. available online and on TV. This is a virtual engagement with flesh that is unprecedented in terms of its extensive presence. It is everywhere we look. Paul Doran’s paintings present the flesh of the medium with the same inflated agenda. His dense oil impastoed earlier works do this explicitly. The congealed fluid nature of their handling, materials, and supple composition of the surfaces, evokes our own physical and chemical watery make up, and our relationship to impulses for sex, food and excretion. This is exactly what the term paint-porn was invented for. But Doran is giving us the real deal, not a reproduction. His work has shifted in recent years in terms of its materiality. More of the structural elements of the paintings are on show, and are incorporated onto the surfaces of his works, screws, wood, staples etc. The paintings are exposing more of their bits now.
In less crude fashion, Mark Swords is drawing our attention to quite literally the fabric of painting. He does incorporate far more imagery than Doran and Feelihy, but the imagery is percolated through abstract filters, to always abbreviate definition, and remind us what we are looking at, marks and cloths. To further enforce the tailored nature of the work, recent paintings incorporate buttons and threads, but there is a subtlety to his painterly tailoring, they don’t dress to show off. A more extroverted dresser was Chris Martin’s untitled 2015, which was exhibited at the Douglas Hyde last year. It’s whole surface was covered in bands of blue, green and red glitter. Perhaps an unintentional act by the artist, but these are the primary colours of projected light not painting, and thus the painting has a relationship to the screen. Perhaps the painting is dressed that way, to compete with it (the screen), or even get on it. Swords’ pallet is generally open and vivid, and uses the range of painterly primary and secondary colours, a nod to his allegiance, paintings comfortable in their own clothes.
By way of aesthetics, scale and installation, Fergus Feehily’s approach is about turning down the noise. Like Doran and Swords, Feehily presents displays of materiality, in his often small, quiet, and yet funky paintings. Whereas the two other artists have works that seem delicate, in that they appear to be just about held together, Feehily’s delicacy is performed in the more poetic terms of language. Minimalist language is described in terms of a striping back of elements. But Feehily’s language is more to do with layering ‘the basics’. He does this in such a way, that each basic element, whether it be paintwork, material, structural, or, luminous, plain or shiny, has its own autonomy within the picture frame. These elements, and the resulting works, don’t turn down their own volume, just that of everything else around them. The manner in which he installs his paintings echoes the same processes by which he builds them. The exhibition form emerges out of distraction controls. The hum of his objects and their displays of materiality, are the beneficiaries of an unseen, unheard, ad-blocking painterly equivalent, coded into every aspect of his process.
What of these artists and their relationship to the concept of abstraction, given their indulgent use it’s the language? I get the feeling that the discourse of abstraction may not be a concern for them. Instead, I think abstraction is a possible consequence, to an unconscious desire to offer an alternative experience to our ever-increasing bond with screen time. The proliferation of screen and image technology that Aidan Dunne referenced, has accelerated far beyond what he may have imagined in 2004, to the point where we have screens in our pockets now. And sure! the screen in our lives isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Television was first received in Ireland in 1949.
I would argue that the major effect that growing screen culture has on painting, is not in it’s potential to undermine it, but change how we look at it. Painting has never been so widely available as a result of screen culture, much like any classification of image. It is probably safe to assume we see more paintings now than ever before, and more virtually than we do in reality. It appears most painterly abstract languages now compete for visual dominance in that new and increasingly competitive reality. The global painting market is dominated by exuberance, size and spectacle. Maybe Ireland’s place outside the great commercial and critical waterways of the art world, and the domestic nature of it’s market tastes, create the conditions that encourage and support more discrete painterly responses to screen culture through abstract languages. One’s that don’t embody the traits of that culture, but offer alternative experiences. An appetite for alternative experience to the screen and digital image seems to be growing and is evident. In 2015 two of the top selling 15 books on amazon were adult colouring books. Perhaps what Doran, Swords and Feehily are proposing through the flesh, fabric and ambience of their often tablet sized work, is a model of painting as an alternative screen.