Surface where inside and outside meet


VISUAL ART:JOHN GIBBONS, born in Ennis in 1949, studied art in Limerick and Cork, and then at St Martin’s College of Art in London, graduating in the mid-1970s. He settled in London and went on to become a teacher himself. It’s worth outlining his academic history because as it happens his time at the Crawford College in Cork and at St Martins brought him into contact with two artist-teachers who were decisive influences on the direction his work has taken. The sculptor John Burke was in Cork and Anthony Caro, since knighted, was at St Martins.

The Clonmel-born Burke had actually studied with Caro. Both are significant as fine exponents of constructed metal sculpture in the mode developed by the great Catalan artist Julio Gonzales – himself a major influence on Picasso – and the American David Smith.

Like Burke, Gibbons has tremendous natural facility with shaped and constructed metal, as his current show at Hillsboro Fine Art, Light/Listen, vividly demonstrates. He seems to engage with intractable materials with conversational ease, as though he is speaking rather than welding, hammering and shaping metal. Nothing ever seems forced in his work, it all seems to flow into being. This would not be so if he didn’t have a good sense of form as well as manual skill.

His own mention of his interest in “Surface where the inner and outer worlds meet” provides a good line of approach to his work. Many of his pieces can be read as metaphorical treatments of the human being as simultaneously a physical and non-physical subject. That is, the physical boundaries of the head and the body also demarcate between an inner, intangible world of emotional and imaginative experience and the outer, material world. Gibbons treats this in an abstract way, but there is a real nervous vitality to the bundles of form that he makes in polished steel and, hinting at an inner dimension, copper. In larger, constructed pieces employing preformed metal objects there is the same tension between the notion of a sentient inside and an outside.

Gibbons is highly regarded as an artist but probably doesn’t quite receive the credit he is due in Ireland. That is partly a question of fashion. The attention of the contemporary art world is not currently focused on abstract, three-dimensional sculptures deriving from a modernist tradition. One can see this in the case of Caro as well, who was once a sculptural innovator, an assistant to Henry Moore who moved off in a radically different direction, but is now himself an establishment figure. The difference is that the scale of the British art world is such that it can easily accommodate the presence of major senior figures, whereas Ireland is a much smaller place. Gibbons should be better represented than he is in our public collections.

GRAHAM CHORLTONis based in England, in the West Midlands, but he has shown work in Ireland on several occasions. Mark St John Ellis included him in a group exhibition, The Obsessive Garden, and he’s been an award-winning exhibitor at the RHA Annual exhibition. Now he features in a solo show at the Cross Gallery, Somewhere Else. Most of his paintings are modest in scale, though there are a couple of exceptions.

An accompanying note provides a context for what we see on the walls. Chorlton collects postcards, and the postcards serve as the basis for his paintings. For the most part they are not conventionally scenic views, though he does have a penchant for cherry blossom and other flowering trees. Otherwise he depicts anonymous urban settings, including city centre expanses and more isolated modernist blocks that look like the kind of architecture you usually encounter on the urban periphery.

They are ordinary places, presumably densely inhabited, but we don’t see much of the inhabitants – a single, distant car on the road, perhaps – and the mood of the images is tinged with a gentle, reflective melancholy. Often scenes are glimpsed by night. Chorlton likes the misty fluorescence of garage forecourts and the pools of artificial light that dissolve the hard edges of deserted city streets. As with Eithne Jordan’s recent exhibition featuring Vienna by night, there is something cinematic about his work, with its intimations of narrative and its photographic quality. Indeed he cites the visual sensibility of several filmmakers, including Wim Wenders and Andrey Tarkovsky, as influences.

All of which would be neither here nor there if Chorlton didn’t manage to do something interesting and distinctive with the material, which he does. His paintings are put together in a cool, offhand manner and with tremendous technical ability. Successive layers of colour are applied in washes so that they seem to soak into the surface like dye. Yet though it could easily be a recipe for loose, uncontrolled effects, he delivers it with casual precision. The results are consistently impressive and sometimes brilliant, as though the image is conjured up by magic from random washes of thin pigment.

Individually the paintings are fine, but they also play very effectively against each other, so that the show is more than the sum of its parts.

In the basement space of the Cross Gallery, nag, Sam Douglas works on a smaller scale again than Chorlton. He makes tiny classical landscapes, incorporating the effects of darkened and curdled varnish with other marks and blemishes of ageing. So we have to peer carefully through the shadows and textures to catch a glimpse of the landscapes within. There we often find as central motifs striking topographical features, such as Brent Knoll in Somerset, with myriad historical associations. The sense of a complex past with which we’ve lost touch comes through again and again, as though the pictures are clues to a puzzle we can no longer solve. It’s an intriguing show and Douglas, who graduated from the Royal College of Art in London as recently as 2007, is clearly someone worth keeping an eye on.

Light/Listen, Hillsboro Fine Art, 49 Parnell Sq W Until Apr 8; Somewhere Else, and, in nag, Sam Douglas: Unsettled landscapes, Cross Gallery, 59 Francis St Until March 27