Familiarity can breed surprise and delight


VISUAL ARTS:ALTHOUGH HE was born in Newtownards in Co Down, Mark Francis studied art in London, at St Martins and at Chelsea, and went on to settle in England. He has built up a solid reputation and on occasion has been associated with the Young British Artists, but temperamentally he stands apart from such celebrities as Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin.

His current show at the Kerlin Gallery is indicative of his formidable abilities and also marks a significant stage of development.

From the first his paintings and prints plunged us into a microscopic realm beyond the reach of conventional vision. He favoured slick, thin surfaces that had more in common with mechanical, photographic processes than with the human touch.

Sometimes particular micro-organisms and processes were pretty much recognisable: spermatozoa and eggs, or clustered microbial forms, for example. Often there was a distanced, slightly murky quality to the images which tended to give them an ominous, pathological air in an era increasingly concerned with epidemics and malign, invisible, infectious agents.

It’s also true that it has always been possible to interpret Francis’s work in a more general way, as addressing aspects of structures, organising principles and processes in both natural and technological contexts, on scales from the microscopic to the cosmic.

This is more than ever true of what we see in his current exhibition. The grid, often an implicit or explicit element in his compositions, is here prominent.

Not only that, but most of the paintings are quite densely layered, with successive grid patterns overlying each other, so that, rather than his characteristically flat, slick surface, there is much greater depth implied in the picture plane.

All the established elements of his visual language are present, it’s just that they are elaborated, extended and amplified, resulting in more complex pictorial structures. Rather then isolating individual components and examining them in a forensic way, he evokes heterogeneous entities subject to a multiplicity of processes. The results are impressive, as an overall installation in terms of the individual pictures.

SEÁN McSWEENEY’S exhibition at the Taylor Galleries is also exceptional, which is saying a lot given that he’s one of the most highly regarded, and dependable, landscape painters in Ireland.

Cézanne had Mont Ste Victoire in Provence, and McSweeney has a stretch of shoreline and bogland in Co Sligo. It’s a familiar terrain to which he returns again and again in his work, tracking the light, the weather, the colour and the vegetation through the hours and the seasons. Places and motifs recur, but McSweeney has never been tempted to repeat himself.

Particularly in this body of work, which consists of gouaches and oil paintings, there is the feeling that he is scraping things back, erasing habitual traces, trying to move the argument along. The argument has to do with the age old business of making a painting that accepts a representational task.

Each time McSweeney sets out to do that, it is as if he asks himself how he can best be truthful to his immediate and his informed experience of the landscape without falling into the trap of merely rehearsing a pictorial formula. As a result, there is always an edginess and momentum to his paintings – more so than ever this time.

The show includes a number of what might be described as classic McSweeney works, in that they take familiar places and motifs, notably the shoreline and a rectangular bog pool and, while accepting their given compositional armatures, radically revise their treatment in paint to tremendous, often exhilarating effect.

He works oil pigment particularly hard, not allowing it to indulge its vast repertoire of sumptuous effects, always looking for the most direct, straightforward gesture. He’s easier, in a way, on gouache, at least in a piece such as April Bog, which is pretty sumptuous in the richness of its colour combinations.

He’s also able to pare down gouache to a minimal statement, however, as in the superb August Shoreline. Even aficionados of his work will find much to surprise and delight them in this exhibition.

NEW YORK CONTEMPORARY at the Hillsboro features a clutch of big names from the US art scene together with one that is perhaps less familiar but very much in the same league in terms of technical and intellectual abilities.

The less familiar name is Jeff Schneider, and most of the paintings he shows are lively explorations of the mythology of the cowboy-gunslinger, treated humorously and with deftness of touch. He juxtaposes and layers images with great flair and wit.

The most familiar name is surely Julian Schnabel, who first achieved art stardom in the 1980s with huge, bombastic compositions (much derided by Robert Hughes, to the artist’s intense annoyance) and more recently known as a film director of some distinction.

He shows hand-coloured screenprints from the 1990s. They are beautifully made in a nicely casual, offhand manner, chromatically rich and full of optical incident.

They don’t have any of the heaviness that makes some of his large-scale paintings just as oppressively overstated as Hughes found them. If you’re curious about Schnabel, it’s well worth seeing this work.

It’s fair to say that, as a painter per se, Ross Bleckner is a more significant figure than Schnabel, an enormously influential and consistently inventive artist.

His reflective, elegiac treatment of themes of loss and memory is well represented in the floral pieces on view at the Hillsboro.

Another important and influential painter internationally, Donald Baechler, is known for his boldly graphic paintings featuring greatly simplified motifs enmeshed in multiple layers of imagery, all delivered with great tactile qualities.

His paintings at the Hillsboro are even simpler than usual in a sense: silhouettes of flowers. They certainly have that distinctive tactile quality though.

Mark Francis, Kerlin Gallery until October 17th

Seán McSweeney, Taylor Gallery until October 10th

New York Contemporary, Hillsboro Fine Art until October 10