Life and death in art

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Although he is now well into his 50s, Patrick Graham is one of the Irish artists who came to prominence only in the 1980s.

The bleak, powerful, anguished works he produced at the time presciently raged against the spiritual bankruptcy he saw around him, and seemed to express a profound sadness and regret at a personal loss of faith. A gifted draughtsman with a rare facility for representational technique, he has never been satisfied with the mere exercise of technical virtuosity.

In fact, with something approaching self-denial, he characteristically worked his way through any hint of slickness or stylistic felicity, until his drawings and paintings reached a point of exhausted, honest directness. This meant that on occasion colour was replaced by a residual, muddy grey, and images by words.

Graham has shown little in Ireland in recent years. His last show, at Green on Red in 1997, consisted of work on paper which, given that he is one of relatively few Irish artists who can be relied on to make complex, convincing paintings on a museum scale, suggested that he wasn't working at full stretch. This time around, though, besides works on paper, he is showing three large, related paintings. They are, typically, layered with implied meanings centred on their two-part titles, Pieta Series: Swan.

Graham's spare landscape format, dominated by a high skyline, with a sweeping horizontal emphasis, relates to the Irish midlands (he was born in Mullingar), even down to the occasional promontory that has an obvious symbolic significance for him, the "Captain's Hill" that recurs in his images. His work repeatedly stresses the fact that the ultimate questions of life and death are not confined to some esoteric theological realm but must be posed and answered in the here and now, amid the everyday messiness of living. The symbolic conflation of local and universal in his work means that the chance finding of a dead swan has echoes of Irish mythology and Christian iconography.

The swan is a symbol of sacrifice, but brings no hint of Christian redemption. Rather the feeling is that the drawings and paintings are episodes from Graham's continuing argument with himself. It is as if his routes to finding meaning in the world lead through what he sees as the variously discredited institutions of religion and community. He cannot quite bring himself to give up on them, but is also too honest a witness to fake it, to accept the potential consolations of faith and belief.

Anselm Kiefer remains an important influence, but this is not to suggest that Graham is just another Kiefer clone. He isn't at all. It's interesting that there are some stylistic (though not temperamental) affinities with the work of some younger artists as well, including Mark Joyce and Ronnie Hughes. Graham's paintings, with their scarred, scraped, reworked and sometimes torn surfaces, are quite beautiful. The silvery greys of the fourth in the series are amazing to look at, and all of them engender an exhilarating sense of space.

Not just pictorial space, but a conceptual space that he has succeeded in generating through process. In the hands of someone such as Graham, painting becomes not a representation of something, but a direct means of testing propositions of faith and meaning.

The links between his show and Anita Groener's, Heartlands, at the Rubicon, are quite striking. In some of her best work to date, Groener, who is Dutch and came to Ireland in 1982, muses on the experience of moving from her homeland and settling down here. It is, in many respects, an extremely personal and moving exhibition.

Some of the work concerns the artist's correspondence with her mother. Repetitive visual patterns and images evoke the repetitive patterns of human communication. Rather than diminishing the significance of such routine intercourse, the effect underlines the latent emotional charge of apparently banal exchanges. Behind the language of habit, there is a tacit awareness of separation and change, of loss and distance, of time passing.

Sycamore fruit wings and vessel shapes feature prominently. Perhaps their symbolic role relates to travel, to taking root, to nurture and community. Texts, almost entirely obscured save for the occasional phrase, are another recurrent motif. They suggest loss and a revised way of seeing. Perhaps acknowledging the fact that a transplanted person loses touch, to some extent loses a past, a whole range of references - and must learn anew. Inevitably, we are led to think of mortality, to questioning the span of a life, ideas of permanence and the persistence of meaning and identity. The overall mood is not exactly melancholic, but the reflective tone and the use of obscured images and words does imply a coming to terms with life's limitations.

Stephen McKenna's landscapes, at the Kerlin Gallery, are both very ordinary and unnervingly strange. In views of rivers and trees, and blatantly dramatic western skies, he seems to approach pictorial cliche and then, at the last minute, deviate and end up with something quite unexpected. This has perhaps to do with the fact that he looks intently, even analytically, at what he is painting. Previously, Italy has dominated in his work, but this time around most of the subjects are in Carlow and Donegal and, appropriately, there are two paintings that have falling rain as their main subject - although the bulk of a cow is sketchily visible through the slanting drops in one. In these pictures McKenna is painting things that are ubiquitous but usually invisible. In a way you could say he does the same with trees.

When he paints trees he also looks intently. Each tree is considered as an individual, with striking results. He gives priority to the oddity of the specific as opposed to the vagueness of the generic. He doesn't try to convince us that these are trees by resorting to pictorial formula, but paints the tree as an object that happens to be there in all its specificity. This might sound like Craig Raine's Martian poetry, a technique of making the familiar seem strange, but it's not quite that. In a sense, what McKenna does is more naive in that he doesn't seem to be interested in that kind of knowingness. He is, quite simply, interested in the things themselves, and in the problems of how to represent them. And that is what makes his pictures so consistently intriguing.

It is surprising, these days, to find two young artists taking on a basic subject of representational painting, figure and ground, and tackling it in a sophisticated way without the protective buffer of irony, or, for that matter, without rehearsing Lucian Freud's naked light-bulb approach. Yet both Beatrice O'Connell and Colin Crotty have produced outstanding shows on that basis (the latter's show has unfortunately finished its run). O'Connell paints either male or female figures in interiors. We never feel that her usually naked subjects are merely academic figure studies, partly because of her oblique viewpoints and subdued lighting, and partly because of her ability to imbue the paintings with atmosphere. They are brooding, moody images which seem to capture individuals caught up in personal dramas.

As it happens, Crotty has previously painted moody studies of disconsolate looking individuals in plain interiors. That is more or less what he does again in Passing, but here he is much more concerned with exploring the relationship between figure and ground. He does so in ways that suggest remembered presences, the passing of time and the dynamism of experience. Incidentally, it's notable that the work doesn't reproduce well. It loses too much of his subtle, assured use of close tones and surface textures.

Though it too is over, Andrew Folan's exhibition at the Ashford is worth mentioning. Folan is a printmaker, but most of the work was sculptural. In fact, the show was like a model of a Mayan city, with its series of miniature paper ziggurats.

These elegant, ingenious constructions were inscribed in a very complex, three-dimensional way with images, mostly anatomical drawings of hearts and other organs. The conjunction of hearts, ziggurats and the show's grisly punning title Arterial Ink, suggests a concern with ritual human sacrifice, a possibility supported by other factors, such as a reference to Goya's celebrated Sleep of Reason etching. For much of the time he engages in a kind of bio-engineering, integrating organs in offbeat ways. One of the best pieces consists of a stack of sheets that seem to be tied up as a parcel. It is called Small Parcel containing 96 images of itself. Folan builds other elaborate ambiguities and equivalences but, though a lot of hares are thus set in motion, no hounds are loosed in pursuit. With his dispassionate, analytical coolness he delights in ingenuity for its own sake, or perhaps as a means of exploring the possibilities of his medium.

Reviewed:

Patrick Graham, New Paintings, Green on Red Gallery until March 18th

Anita Groener, Heartlands, Rubicon Gallery until March 11th

Stephen McKenna, Landscapes, Kerlin Gallery until March 18th

Beatrice O'Connell, New paintings, Kevin Kavanagh Gallery until March 4th

Colin Crotty, Passing, Paul Kane Gallery

Andrew Folan, Arterial Ink, Ashford Gallery

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