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Shaping The Landscape Of Half A Century - Aidan Dunne reviews 50 Years of Modern Painting in The Irish Times

SINCE IT OPENED in 1999, the Peppercanister Gallery has pursued an interesting exhibitions programme, alternating early and later modern and contemporary artists, predominantly Irish or with strong Irish connections. It has also championed several relatively neglected, sometimes underestimated figures, such as Robert Janz, Sonja Landweer, Deirdre McLoughlin, Breon O’Casey and Joseph O’Connor.

It was launched as a partnership between mother and son Antoinette and Bryan Murphy. With her husband Pat Murphy, Antoinette is an art collector of long standing, and from early on Bryan shared his parents’ enthusiasm for art. 50 Years of Modern Painting is a compact survey show reflecting this lengthy family involvement with Irish art and in particular Bryan’s close personal engagement with the work of painters from the mid-20th century to the present day, encompassing figures beyond the gallery’s own stable of artists.

The earliest piece in the show is by Camille Souter and dates from 1961. The most recent – just completed, in fact – is Liam Belton’s The Last Time I Saw Paris, a still life in a crisp, realist manner. But landscape is perhaps the main strand of subject matter in Irish art – its default setting – and it’s naturally central to the Peppercanister’s show. Three other areas are evident too: the human figure, including portraiture – abstraction, and interiors.

The Figure

The Artist (2011) by Andrew Vickery

The Artist (2011) by Andrew Vickery

ANDREW VICKERY is best known for his sequences of narrative paintings about journeys. There is an appealing storybook quality to them, but they also withhold information. We rarely see the people or the interactions implied by the images. By contrast, the series of character portraits showing in this exhibition focus on the people, casting each individual in a role defined in terms of profession, vocation, family or emotion. Again, Vickery’s style is simplified and approachable, and each work hints at a potential story.

Also featured in the show are Graham Gingles and Neil Shawcross. The latter is one of the best-known portrait painters per se in Ireland. He too has long employed an informal, conversational, graphic style that cheerfully embraces elements of caricature and whimsy, all in the cause of conveying a subject’s character more vividly. Gingles, best known for his intricate box sculptures, is an exceptional draughtsman, approaching his human subjects with incisive precision, often on a miniature or close-to-miniature scale.

Landscape

Spruces by Gavin O’Curry (September 2011)

Spruces by Gavin O’Curry (September 2011)

GAVIN O’CURRY’S Spruces (2011) is a big monochrome study of a forest of spruce trees on a mist-wreathed hillside, an image that evokes the spirit of Casper David Friedrich. It is typical of a great deal of contemporary painting in using a second-hand visual source and making clear that it is doing so. Rather than trying to disguise its documentary photographic origins, the painting highlights them, inviting us to speculate about representational style and meaning. By comparison, Sean McSweeney’s Shoreline, Ballyconnell (1987) clearly emerges from the painter’s prolonged, attentive familiarity with a specific place. It’s a direct, nuanced response rather than an investigation of artifice.

Somewhere in between, perhaps, is the Barrie Cooke work included. Dating from the mid-1970s, it is one of the extraordinary rainforest landscapes made following a sojourn in Borneo. In the dense linear patterning of the paint surface, Cooke suggests the rainforest as a labyrinthine network of interconnected organic processes. This analytical approach to the landscape prefigures his subsequent treatment of Irish-landscape subjects in relation to environmental pollution rather than traditional picturesque concerns.

Interiors and still life

Liam Belton's The Last Time I Saw Paris (2012)

Liam Belton's The Last Time I Saw Paris (2012)

LIAM BELTON is one of Ireland’s foremost academic painters, and has built a considerable following for his meticulously realistic still lifes. They are characterised by his liking for very formal compositions and a spare, almost monochrome palette, with an emphasis on white or, more accurately, whites. He also likes to build allegorical hints into his work. The Last Time I Saw Paris, painted this year, simply marshals a number of items from the city in a tightly organised arrangement.

Graham Gingles could also come under the heading of interiors given that his sculptures are rooms within rooms, infinitely recessive interiors packed with myriad images and objects that hauntingly suggest the strange workings of memory.

Galway-based painter John Brady’s small, intensely chromatic works are based on interior spaces. That may not be immediately evident as he seems to begin with a straightforward image of, in this case, an art gallery and overlay it with areas of colour that convey an emotional response to the space.

Abstraction

PERHAPS SURPRISINGLY, abstraction has flourished in Ireland, even if there are often associations with aspects of landscape in otherwise purely abstract works. Camille Souter’s Pale Shapes (1961) is a case in point. A wonderfully warm arrangement of forms, it came at a time when landscape, still life and human subjects were increasingly finding their way into her pictorial language, a language that had strong links to Abstract Expressionism. Here, it is in texture and shape that we sense a world beyond the composition itself.

No such ambiguity is evident in the work of Albert Irvin, Ciaran Lennon, Richard Gorman or Makiko Nakamura, although none of these artists would discount the importance of the real, outside world in their painting. For Gorman, the world as embodied in his sensibility and awareness is always there in the process of making a painting and is inescapably part of what we see. Nakamura’s rigorous abstracts with their lustrous surfaces are partly – but significantly – about time and memory.

50 Years of Modern Painting

Concise overview of modern and contemporary painting in Ireland. Peppercanister Gallery, 3 Herbert Street, Dublin 2, tel: 01-6611279