A tale of four cities

 

First Look at the RHA Gallagher Gallery is just that: director Patrick Murphy's first look around at the work of young artists. He concentrated on four cities, Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Limerick. The result is a good, diverse show, encompassing work by eleven artists, some with established track records, some recently out of college. It's interesting that Murphy has taken the opportunity to select individuals whose work actively challenges the areas they work in.

In their different ways Billy Foley and Megan Eustace use drawing very ambitiously, for example. Clare Langan and John Halpin both push photography in different ways. Alan Lambert, who has shown with Kevin Kavanagh, recalls Sean Shanahan in his reassessment of painting's basic vocabulary. Mary Keown makes very good paintings with fractured, discontinuous surfaces that perhaps owe something to David Crone. One of the best things in last year's Dun Laoghaire graduation show, David Timmons's bland, impassive, wall mounted sculptures resemble hand-driers or dispensers but do nothing. All of the artists justify their inclusion.

Also at the Gallagher, Evin Nolan, Works 1984 to 1999 is something of a surprise, because during these years Nolan has shown very little, though he has obviously been working quite steadily. His lack of visibility may have to do with the fact that, as Cyril Barrett mentions in his illuminating catalogue essay, his kind of hard-edged abstraction is out of fashion, so much so that visiting the exhibition is like stepping back in time. Recent big international shows, like the Rothko and the Ellsworth Kelly, suggest that late modernist art is receiving a calmer reappraisal, as post-modernist zealotry dies down somewhat. Perhaps Nolan might benefit from this new climate of openness.

While it is good to see him exhibiting again, it is disappointing that, by comparison with what I can recall of his work in the early 1980s, he seems to have tightened up considerably, and to have eschewed the subtleties of colour and texture that he was developing. Rather than opening out the argument, like Sam Walsh or Roy Johnston, he has closed it down, producing very rigid compositional structures in harsh colour schemes, their acrylic surfaces burnished to a leatherette sheen - though it is all meticulously done.

Appropriately for an artist who recently completed a major maritime project, The Ghost Ship, the sea and water loom large in Dorothy Cross's exhibition at the Kerlin Gallery. Nothing is as it seems in her work. She thrives on ambiguity and anthropomorphism. Big black-and-white photographs of Sea Caves read as metaphors for the body, something underlined rather morbidly in the largest work in the show, Slab. An antique ceramic mortuary slab stands in the middle of the gallery. Projected onto it from above are images of water, running through what looks like the same caves, converging very convincingly on the open plughole: life draining away. It's a characteristically austere work, bleak but remarkable, and brilliantly done.

Elsewhere there are a number of functional forms whose function is thwarted, like the set of "wounded" Pipes, their bronze skin cut and scarred like human flesh, or the panelled wooden Door through which - a cartoon-like image - dozens of holes have been neatly bored, rendering it useless. Through a circular hole cut in the wall, you can peer in at a video image of something shadowy working its way towards you down a cylinder. It turns out to be a snake, and a snake that doesn't seem to be altogether happy.

In 1958 Jasper Johns made paintings of the American flag. He painted it as though it were conventional subject matter, in beautifully textured encaustic. You could say that Clea Van der Grijn has reworked Jasper Johns for the chemical generation in her show at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery. It consists entirely of images of pills, one kind of pill to each painting, each one given its pharmaceutical designation, from Solpadeine to Prozac.

The uniform pills and capsules are depicted larger than life against plain backgrounds, but there is a lot of painterly business going on in those backgrounds, and in the pills themselves: a build-up of textures, some playing around with tonal effects. There are also notions of normality and uniformity involved in the choice of subject and, pardon the pun, treatment. It's an interesting premise, but Van der Grijn doesn't seem entirely at ease in this work. It is perhaps too programmatic to allow her instinctive, improvisatory instinct room for manoeuvre. She's always worked well with strong overall schemes within which she can respond spontaneously. Here she's cut down on her options.

In some notes accompanying his exhibition at the Hallward Gallery, Coilin Murray mentions that the "experience of looking and walking the landscape . . . is still the kick-off point" for his paintings. Given that he lives in West Cork, and that each of his paintings is a pyro-technical explosion of brilliant colour, this may seem surprising, but in at least one respect it is certainly true: these are paintings made by someone trying to get somewhere. Rather as a piece of music modulates from one key to another, the pictures are developmental.

Sometimes references in the landscape are self-evident - notably the shape and colour of fields - but often the images seem to take off into a world of their own. This is not to say that rich colours are not to be found in the landscape, particularly given Murray's way of looking, which is a restless probing through layers and scales, but the pictures do achieve their own dynamic. He has long used the device of sliding arcs of colour through the body of the painting like monochrome rainbows. Together with his appetite for pure colour, it's something that suggests the influence of Howard Hodgkin. Previously he's tended to use encaustic, which resulted in thick, dry surface textures that pulled the colour down a little. Now, the colour soars free. It's an upbeat show with some lovely work.

A group show at the Bridge Gallery marshals five painters of City- scape. Peter Pearson shows panoramic views of the Liffey in a series of studies that capture the atmosphere of the city in a moody grey light. David Browne moves in closer in a group of small watercolours that offer crisp depictions of corners of alleyways, shuttered shops and rooftops. They are all typical, accidental urban spaces, not at all conventionally picturesque, but with their own appeal, and brought brilliantly to life by Browne's virtuoso handling of light and texture.

Leonard Sexton is also a good painter with a distinctive take on the city. Layers of grey pigment virtually obliterate vestigial images of buildings, yet in an almost sculptural way - like Giacometti's paintings, say - the pictures evoke a sense of space in the city. Gerard Thomas Ryan's bold, garishly bright images of street scenes and Ken Clarken's topographical watercolours complete a pleasant, well balanced show.

First Look and Evin Nolan are at the RHA Gallagher Gallery until April 1st. Dorothy Cross is at the Kerlin Gallery until March 22nd. Clea Van der Grijn is at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery until March 13th. Coilin Murray is at the Hallward Gallery until March 11th. Cityscape is at The Bridge Gallery until March 15th.