Mentioned in passing
Paul Thek is a name that is usually, and frequently, referred to in passing in books on 20th-century art. An author will discuss some quite well-known artistic personality and his or her work and then, almost as an afterthought, say something like "and of course there were Paul Thek's efforts in this area." But Thek himself has remained, at least on this side of the Atlantic, tantalisingly out of the picture. As have the specifics of his work.
Thek, who was born in New York in 1933, spent much of his life on the move in Europe and died in 1988. He felt aggrieved about what he saw as his neglect by the art establishment. The Douglas Hyde's current show is a gesture towards redressing the balance but it is probably true, if a little harsh, to say that it is unlikely to win him many new fans. This is partly because of the off-hand, improvisational and understated nature of the work on show: groups of paintings, notebook doodles, some sculptural objects. In fact, much of what he did has a distinctly ephemeral, throwaway quality and hardly looks as if it was meant to be corralled and preserved in a cool, museum context at all.
His speedy, eclectic sensibility seemed to gobble things up at a frenetic rate. You get the feeling that he couldn't slow down enough to produce something considered. In this he did indeed anticipate the studied casualness that characterises a lot of late 20th-century art, and is exemplified on one level by the approach of Luc Tuymans: oblique, understated, wearing deep concerns with a show of flippancy. But any real appraisal of Thek must await a more substantial showing.
Sean McSweeney has admitted to being wary about painting unfamiliar places, and his tireless exploration of his own patch, Ballyconnell in County Sligo, is testament to the wisdom of knowing your subject. He has produced fine work in Spain and, latterly, Switzerland, an unlikely choice for an habitue of bog-land and the rain-drenched Atlantic coastline.
What engages him there is not so much the grandeur of the alpine peaks but the signs of human presence, in the form of the meticulously cultivated, terraced land in the valleys.
Their regimented patterns allow McSweeney to elaborate on his formalised treatments of the managed landscape, such as his schematic representations of rectangular pools created by bog cuttings at home in Sligo. The tension between the regular, geometric forms created by humans and the play of nature, which softens the lines and adds atmosphere, provide him with much fruitful material. Many of the works could be described as abstract, yet we are always aware that his vision is anchored to the forms, colours and textures of the earth. The show features some really marvellous pieces and is distinguished overall by a terrific sense of freedom.
When Maria Simonds-Gooding was invited by the Graphic Studio to make some large-scale prints there in 1998, she wasn't sure what the outcome would be, or whether there would be any outcome, until she found precisely the paper she needed, "a material that could speak for itself, had its own life." This was handmade Indian paper, and it was, she says, "quite unpredictable and sometimes hell to print with." If this level of attention to the support seems disproportionate, all becomes clear when you visit her show at the Graphic Studio Gallery.
Her carborundum prints are substantial, sculptural objects, partly because of the thick, gorgeously tactile sheets of paper, and partly because that is the whole basis of her audacious approach. Simonds-Goodings's concerns are with a world of small-holdings, of tenuous human habitations inscribed on vast and inhospitable natural environments - just as she inscribes lines and fields of stony textures on the paper. She does all this with a stringently spare vocabulary and tremendous concentration. Seen against the backdrop of an urban, western culture of shocking excess and waste, her elegant evocations of a spartan environment are sobering and salutary - but never moralistic.
Clement McAleer has a more explicitly formalist take on landscape. He is a very capable painter, and his work is never less than interesting, though sometimes he seems to be just treading water. He takes straightforward pictorial formats, often just bands of land, sea and sky and injects energy in the form of local incident, by creating lively, agitated, churned-up surfaces. There is a feeling that sometimes the flicks and twists of the paint-work tend towards slickness, but at his best he can create complex, involving work that keeps the eye and the mind busy.
Howard Hodgkin inevitably comes to mind in relation to Edward Kennedy's exhibition Hold at the Paul Kane Gallery. His uniformly small paintings evoke a sense of the precious, with their concentric framing borders of paint around intensely coloured centres. This structural device expresses Kennedy's intention of homing in on an essence in each painting, and often he succeeds in creating a kind of meditative space in which remembered moments, or objects or whatever the particular subject, have a glowing, calm presence. There is too much work in the show, and while the logic of the uniform format is clear enough, it seems cumulatively formulaic as you work your way around the exhibition, and he might have been better off with some variation.