Fluid landscapes that melt and flow into one another


VISUAL ART:JONATHAN HUNTER’S Paintings from Bethany at Hillsboro Fine Art have a protean, dreamy quality. Most of them are landscapes, but landscapes in which the forms are fluid and ambiguous, melting and flowing into one another, writes Aidan Dunne

In the catalogue, Hunter cites the Chinese painter Shih-t’ao (also known as Tao-chi) on landscape painting: “The goal is to create vibrant energy with haphazardness.” That’s a good description of Hunter’s own approach which is very free and spontaneous, frequently allowing the paint to find its own way.

Shih-t’ao, a noted theorist, lived from 1642 to 1707, and wrote a renowned treatise on the philosophy of painting. He was also a bold and innovative artist. One of his most celebrated works, 10,000 Ugly Ink Blots is remarkable for so glaringly drawing attention to the medium rather than the subject. Its masses of brush-strokes make up dense, rhythmic patterns that can be read, as the title implies, as essentially abstract marks as well as forming an overall representational image. It’s been compared, quite understandably, to Jackson Pollock’s all-over abstract compositions.

Hunter treads this fine line between representation and abstraction in his own paintings. They were made during a residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in the United States – a residency several Irish artists have found extremely productive. The artists’ studios are set in 75 acres of woodland and, while Hunter does acknowledge these immediate surroundings in his work, he did not set out to make “direct copies” of the local landscape. The landscape is, rather, a starting point or a reference to be borne in mind. Given that, he trusts in his intuition and what Shih-t’ao terms one mark, or perhaps an holistic mark, a way of working in which every single mark made both contributes to and somehow embodies the eventual whole.

Needless to say there are certain risks attendant on this approach. It may not work, for one thing. But while the results are variable to some extent, this is certainly Hunter’s most ambitious and adventurous show to date. Previously his agreeably ambiguous, wistful paintings veered on settling into a set of comfortable mannerisms. In this current body of work, though, he cuts loose and takes chances, with a light, felicitous touch, employing a range of surface textures to great effect, mingling transparency and opacity, and shows great feeling for colour. The ongoing dialogue between abstract marks and a nominal subject lends great dramatic tension to most individual pieces. One thing that comes across repeatedly is a sense of a hallowed, even an enchanted space: a fitting tribute to Bethany.

CIARAN MURPHY’S March at Mother’s Tankstation features a series of monochromatic or near monochromatic paintings. They are fragmentary or partial views of generally recognisable subjects – White-tailed Deer, Palm Tree Post-storm, Brown Cliff – but presented in the remote, distanced way that is a familiar feature of a great deal of contemporary representational painting. It’s a mode of representation that starts from the premise that we live in a world of pervasively mediated imagery or, to put it another way, a realm of signifiers, cut adrift from the actual signifieds. It’s as if as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, we’re already at one remove from the real.

Murphy locates us very emphatically at that remove, evoking various kinds of optical technologies and image processing in the views he offers us. His Scavenger is seen as if through a hunter’s night-vision goggles. While many of his images suggest ominous interpretative possibilities – that blank Brown Cliff somehow manages come across as a reconnaissance photograph of hostile terrain, and the ragged palm evokes the violence of a tropical storm, for example – all of them remain ultimately ambiguous. They are fragments, divorced from their context.

What he does, though, it to tap into the multitude of anxieties underlying contemporary life, whether the risk of terrorist atrocities, environmental catastrophe, large scale conflicts, or any of myriad other dark contingencies, and allude to them in a casual, deniable way. That is, because his images are so pointedly non-committal he could turn around and claim that any one of them is, after all, just a nice, innocuous scene that caught his eye. Because his paintings are relatively sparse physically and visually, with not a huge amount going on to keep us distracted, every detail is important, and technically they are delivered with great verve and a nice, offhand manner. His toned-down palette is subtle and very well judged.

IN THE PAST few years, Marie Hanlon’s paintings have developed a playful air, where previously they seemed inclined towards quite a different, more sober abstract idiom of colour fields. This is not to say that they are any less serious than they used to be. In fact, the shift has allowed her to expand her expressive language considerably in every way. Her current show at the Rubicon Gallery features a series of paintings made on small panels of birch plywood, just off-square, together with a set of painted wooden cubes and some works on paper. There is the feeling, particularly in the paintings on plywood, that the surface is like a screen across which shapes, lines and repeated patterns and motifs dance and tumble.

The wood provides a warm, sympathetic, textural ground that is airy and spacious. Hanlon doesn’t weigh down any of the elements she feeds into this space. They are light and buoyant, and have an easy, fleeting quality. Another analogy might be the time shared by several musicians united in the performance of a piece. Instrumental sounds converge and interweave and then disperse. Each painting and each pencil and gouache drawing is an occasion, relaxed and improvisatory, but also concentrated and considered. The boxes, six-sided paintings, extend the possibilities. It’s a bright, attractive show.

Paintings from Bethany