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.
Lisa O’Donnell is currently midway though a Masters in fine art at the prestigious Central Saint Martins college in London, an experience she describes as “brilliant”, and one which is giving her the “push I needed to try new things and get out of my comfort zone in my work”.
O’Donnell, originally from Galway, works with newspaper clippings, and images from the media, bringing a nostalgic feel to the work with her use of colour and line.
“Painting has always been the medium that I am instinctively drawn to, and for me it is the easiest, most direct way to literally make my mark, be it on the canvas or on the world. I find it easy to think through painting.
“Painting is steeped in history and I always find myself drawn to things from the past that have a certain nostalgia and history intertwined. But perhaps that is just a happy coincidence.
“People often talk about how the flatness and 2D-ness of painting is its weakness, but I think that painting, although it is still, can often have immense presence, and has the power to stop someone in their tracks and knock them out of reality, even just for a few seconds.”
Bartosz Kolata is the winner of this year’s Manifest Prize at the Kinsale Arts Festival, and the Polish-born artist will have solo exhibitions in Cork and Limerick next year. Manifest’s curator, Mike Fitzpatrick of Limerick School of Art and Design, describes his large-scale paintings as “flirting with Americana and film noir . . . It could be the west of Ireland or the American Midwest.”
At art college in Poland, Kolata says, painting “was more my duty than a choice at that time, as I had to pass my practical exams. But really, nobody can teach you how to be an artist. You just need to start, work hard and be open to everything that is around you. You need to paint a lot and stay positive.
“Everything can be stimulating and inspiring, but I believe that if you want to be good in something you have to concentrate on it, and painting is the most fulfilling artistic medium for me.”
Influenced equally by artists of the past, and by his peers, Kolata also points out that the internet means that “without leaving your home you can discover what is going on in New York or Paris. And you can exchange ideas and opinions with other artists around the world.”
At the RHA Annual this year, Stephanie Rowe and Neil Carroll shared the Hennessy Craig Scholarship Award, which is worth €10,000. Previous winners include Michael Canning, Sonia Shiel, Colin Martin, Comhghall Casey, Gabhann Dunne and Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh. Canadian-born Rowe works in oil to create images based on film stills: bright, intimate, fleeting moments, caught and held by the artist’s eye.
“I don’t believe that all the possibilities for paint as a medium have been exhausted,” she says. “If I didn’t use paint, it would be a different kind of project, and one I’m not interested in right now.”
Rowe believes that painting’s presence in our national collections and international exhibitions “is a fair reflection. Painting is only a segment under the umbrella of contemporary art, and there are, and have been, a lot of interesting things going on in different media, things that obviously couldn’t be done with paint.”
Rowe will be part of the Futures show at the RHA, that will also include Peter Burns and Ed Milano. It runs from September 6th to October 28th.
Gabhann Dunne was one of the artists at Visual Carlow’s The Fold painting exhibition last year, and he has just had a solo show at Dublin’s Rubicon Gallery.
Passionate about painting, Dunne describes it as “the most visually stimulating medium there is. When I’m working, and it’s going well, there’s no feeling in the world like it – a sensation of the rightness, the same feeling you get from making the right moral choice.”
His small-scale paintings are full of elusive ideas, distilled thought and feeling, and they are compelling and seductive. “For me, the action of painting is something that happens in the subconscious mind. It’s physical, and while it is a learned skill, it is produced by the unconscious. We were painting long before civilisation, and we’ll always do it. That means it’s one of the oldest forms of expression, but it’s also completely contemporary – because we’re doing it today, we can’t help but be contemporary.”
Dunne believes that there is a large and vibrant painting scene in Ireland today, but whether there is a particular “school” of painting is something that won’t be revealed until “people look back, in maybe 30 years’ time, and identify it then. It’s a myth that artists work in isolation. I would be mostly informed by my peers, so while we do work on our own ideas, there are similarities that emerge or only become evident years later.”
Ciarán Murphy, this year’s recipient of the Tony O’Malley Studio Residency, lives and works in Dublin, has had a solo show at the Douglas Hyde Gallery (2010), and is represented by the Grimm Gallery, Amsterdam.
“I guess the reason I paint is because I still find it challenging,” says Murphy. “It still holds out lots of possibilities for me. Although it is definitely the traditional medium in art I don’t see it as an inherently reactionary medium.
“Far from it becoming irrelevant, there is something interesting about painting in such an image-saturated and heavily mediated world. Perhaps this has something to do with the slowness of the medium, both in its execution and in its viewing.”
Murphy works in oil and his paintings are difficult to categorise, ranging from subtle studies of animals – such as Hare, below, from 2005 – to scenes of scientific apparatus, to the natural world.
“The problem,” he says, is “being faced with a blank page and what to put on it, how to represent a thing, the separation that opens between language and what it represents, between representation and what is represented . . . The gap between intentions and outcomes consists of problems that are, in a sense, timeless, and will continually be explored.”