Painting is not dead - it's just hard
Reports of the imminent death of painting as an art form in Ireland have been greatly exaggerated, as GEMMA TIPTONfound when she spoke to five of this country’s leading young painters
STICK AROUND the art world for long enough, and someone will tell you that painting is dead. People have been saying this since the 1830s, when photography first appeared, and chances are they’ll be saying it for hundreds of years to come. American painter Julian Schnabel, who more recently turned to filmmaking, once remarked: “People have been talking about the death of painting for so many years that most of the people are dead now. Painting is alive; Andy [Warhol]’s paintings are still alive. Painters will paint.”
Nevertheless, a trip to Limerick’s major biennial art event EVA, which closed last weekend, might have convinced you otherwise. The only paintings in EVA were by Irish artist Mark O’Kelly, with the greater part of art on show being video and installation. This balance is also reflected at major international art events, such as the Venice Biennale and Documenta.
The question of whether painting might be dead in Ireland came up when I was one of the judges selecting the longlist for RTÉ’s Masterpiece: Ireland’s Favourite Painting. Choosing 100 paintings from the wealth of those put forward by the country’s leading museums and galleries of art involved viewing wonderful works by Irish Impressionists Roderic O’Connor and Walter Osborne, the paintings of Jack B Yeats, Vermeer, Caravaggio, and the ultimate winner, Frederick William Burton’s The Meeting on the Turret Stairs. Contemporary painting was, however, in short supply.
The Dublin City Gallery has a room dedicated to the work of Sean Scully, but in general it seems that other media and art forms are better represented in our contemporary collections than painting. The boom has a lot to answer for in terms of the balance of our collections, as corporate buyers were able to price public institutions out of the market. AIB’s recent presentation of its collection to Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery has done something to redress this, but there are many exceptional Irish artists, such as Nick Miller and Eithne Jordan, whose work is not in our national collections.
So if curators aren’t selecting it, and museums aren’t collecting it, what is happening with painting, and is anyone doing anything worthwhile on canvas?
Mike Fitzpatrick, head of Limerick School of Art and Design, says the answer is a resounding yes. “There have never been so many young painters in Ireland. They have a total sense of freedom in the ideas, imagery and subject matter they select. They use a cacophony of imagery – there isn’t a particular or defined style to link them. But there is such an energy there now that we have the best chance of something cohesive coming through – although this may take a decade to fully emerge. We have a history of producing great individual painters, and I think there is a wave of confident Irish-based artists coming.”
Trish Brennan, acting head of Crawford/CIT in Cork, agrees. “Students of fine art are still engaged with painting; whether taking their subject matter from socio-political references, rethinking approaches to landscape and still life, and/or using lens-based media as a reference and a tool to inform their practice. Students are drawn to the stillness of the painted image on a physical surface that allows for audience contemplation of the object of the painting.”
A visit to the Royal Hibernian Academy’s Annual Exhibition, which closes today, also provides a strong sense of the quality of contemporary painting, with works by artists including Una Sealy, Colin Martin, Peter Burns, Ann Quinn, Neil Carroll and Stephanie Rowe on show.
Painting is also a preferred choice of those who buy art to have in their homes, so why is there such a disconnect between what is being made and what is shown on the international circuit? According to RHA director Patrick Murphy: “There is a fashion in international exhibitions that does not favour painting, and maybe that’s because the selectors opt for a kind of aesthetic Esperanto, work that is trans-national. Painting, on the other hand, tends to be culturally specific.”
Another way of looking at it would be to say that it is easier to create a pseudo-intellectual apparatus of argument around conceptual works and media, whereas painting, being more self-contained, resists this. Murphy adds: “It’s like Robert Storr, the American curator, said, ‘It’s not that painting is dead, it’s just that it’s hard’. And I think that goes for the viewer as well; you have to put some work into learning the language of painting, and hence gain the reward.”
If this is the case, then who is putting the hard work in? Is there a “school” of Irish painting, a clearly identifiable style? And which of the next generation of Irish painters will be gaining the rewards? A closer look at the work of these five artists shows that painting is not only not dead, it’s alive and kicking in Ireland today.