Heavy artillery from New York


IN MOUNTING an exhibition of large paintings by Pat Steir, IMMA has lined up genuine heavy artillery of the most contemporary, long range calibre. She was one of the most interesting - and one of the most highly publicised of the generation which emerged in New York in the mid 1980s, even if that decade was mainly a time of confusion and transition. Spacious, courageous, imaginative, often with some basis in nature, her paintings seemed to offer a life raft for those who felt swamped by the waves of conceptualism and the more dogmatic types of installation art.

Steir has already created an installation style piece in IMMA, but these are bonafide paintings, including several of her favourite Waterfall themes which rather resemble star shell explosions. There is a series of imposing Wave pictures, paying deliberate homage to Courbet, though also evoking Hokusai and Oriental art - which is plainly one of Steir's major influences. Her approach to "nature", in fact; is close to the Oriental artists ability to "abstract" from the natural world by a mixture of observation and stylisation.

In fact, a mixture of full frontal boldness and of refinement is the keyknote to her style. Perhaps it works best and most characteristically in the big black and white paintings, which combine an energetic overall rhythm with a kind of filigreed delicacy. Other works play with the theme of a lunar eclipse, others evoke a starry sky, others the sea, but almost all combine an almost Abstract Expressionist directness and thrust with a stylised, elegant linear quality. The Abstract Expressionist tradition or line seems to have reemerged strongly in the past decade and a half, and I doubt very much if Steir herself would deny her debt to it, or at least her awareness of it (and not only the New York School; the legacy of Tachisme also seems plain, particularly in the waterfall pictures with their intricate tracery of dribbled paint).

With their imposing (and fully justified) scale, hieratic presence and mixture of refinement with an almost brash, all American energy, these paintings add up to a powerful and coherent statement. What disturbs me at times is a certain showy, over obvious quality which I find hard to define, or even to locate with any definit ion, but which I cannot entirely avoid or shut out. Is this, in some way or other, a new version of the Romantic Picturesque, presented and re created with characteristic New York elan and style? Is there even an element of something approaching - distantly approaching, of course - highgrade Kitsch? But then, perhaps that element was present in the gestural rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism from the very start.