more thoughts from ballinglen
Upon my return Saturday from a few art-packed days in Dublin, I started a post that reported--with links and explanations--the work I had seen at museums and galleries around the city. But I've abandoned that post now, because with a little distance on the experience, what interests me most about being in Dublin and seeing all that art was not really the specifics of the work or the chronology of going from here to there. What seems most important is how what I saw fed into answers and ideas and questions about my own work at Ballinglen. As artists, it seems we always look at the work of artists we admire in light of what it can teach us about our own. Certain artist's work that I saw in Dublin spoke to me strongly, because I was looking for something they could offer.
I have seen changes in my painting since coming to my residency at Ballinglen, and questions about the role of spontaneity, simplicity, and degree of finish or perfection in my work have been floating around. As well I feel a new interest in using stronger shapes--brought on by the drama of the rocky coast here in County Mayo.
In the week before my trip to Dublin, I shifted from working on the labor-intensive oil and wax paintings to much smaller, more spontaneous pieces in monotype, pastel and charcoal. This has given me a fresh, exploratory feeling, because these are not media I normally work with, and I moving quickly along on a small format has allowed new directions and possibilities to show. I love making monotypes (using a real press like the one at Ballinglen) but have not done so since the mid-80s, when I was in grad school. I needed a little memory refreshing to get started, but was soon deep into it. I'm more familiar with pastels and charcoal since I use them in my oil and wax painting, but there they play a minor role. In these drawings I have been using them to divide space, add intense color and carve out shapes. While areas of detail occur in these small pieces, I'm also aware of making bolder shapes and allowing the spontaneity of mark-making to show.
Along with these experiments in media and approach, Ballinglen has offered me the resources (a wonderful library!) to read about and contemplate the work of other artists. This too has fed my work and thoughts about my work. One article, about Sean Scully
in an Irish Arts Review magazine from 2006 in which he discusses the spiritual aspects of his work, particularly resonated with my thoughts about what the changes I'm experiencing in my work may be about:
"The problem with one current idea of the spiritual in art is that it is represented by a kind of inhuman puritan notion of the perfect. So that under this umbrella, the spiritual is clean, cleaned-up and purely perfect. My idea is more human. And it embodies an acceptance of imperfection. In fact it incorporates it in a built up, imperfect surface surrounded by complex and uncertain edges. Spirituality is not something outside us that shines like a perfect lit-up plexiglass box, that we have to aspire to. It's already in us. In our imperfect bodies, we are already spiritual. I make something that accompanies what we already are, humanistic and complex. Not cleaned up. Spirituality doesn't have to look clean. It should look as the world looks."
I love this quote and find that it creates a certain freedom in my mind to allow things to be more loose and rough.
In the library at Ballinglen is a lovely book about Agnes Martin
, and after reading the Scully article, I found myself comparing and contrasting the spirituality of her quiet, monochromatic work with his. Her work is more controlled, refined and precise, perhaps a bit more "perfect" in Scully's view, but her hand always shows, and with that a sense of her own humanity and humility. So--I've been thinking about these two views of what elevates an abstract work into a realm of contemplation and spirituality, both of which appeal to me strongly. Oddly enough, when I visited the Sean Scully paintings at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, there was a stunning Agnes Martin painting just around the corner in the next gallery. What an opportunity to see these two masters of what I think of as humanistic minimalism together, just a few feet apart.
Also nearby at the Hugh Lane was the installation of the insanely messy studio of dublin-born artist Francis Bacon
, reproduced in exact detail after his death--with the help of archaeologists excavating and cataloging every item to transport to Dublin from London. As some of you know, my own studio leans a bit in Bacon's direction, and I spent some time with the background information supplied in an adjacent room, finding his mess intriguing and reassuring. Although I don't particularly relate to his paintings, the fact that he found his chaotic studio to be important to his way of working seem to get back to Scully's ideas about the complexity of life and one's response to it.
Other visual stimuli in Dublin included the surfaces of ancient Egyptian papyrus and beautifully shaped fragments of early Christian manuscripts at the Arthur Chester Beatty Library, and the constructions of Tony O'Malley at the Royal Hibernian Academy--so roughly poetic, tactile and inventive--very moving and certainly in the "rough edges" realm of spiritual expression.
I saw many other works of art at various galleries and museums, and many that I loved, but these I mention as feeding my inquiries of the moment about spontaneity, degree of finish, use of shape, and exploration of materials. As I rode back to Ballycastle on the train, I thought about how holding these sort of questions in mind while going out on a visual exploration (whether in galleries and museums, in the landscape, or while looking at art books) allows ideas and connections to appear, often in unanticipated ways.
I plan to keep on with my quick and spontaneous work in my remaining two weeks at Ballinglen, perhaps also spending time with the more developed oil and wax paintings to see what cross-over ideas may emerge. As I look over the small drawings and prints I've been doing, it seems to me that several artists (not just one) could have been at work! I'm not sure that even I could identify all of them as being my own if I simply stumbled upon them. Yet I feel connected with this body of work in a fresh, new way, as you do upon getting to know someone for the first time.
One of the joys and purposes of an extended residency, is letting go of expectations and following whatever leads you. How and in what ways these small, quick drawings and prints, and my ruminations about artists like Scully, Martin and O'Malley will carry through in my work once I am back home remains to be seen. Possibly these are in-the-moment responses to materials and experience and will have little carry-over outside this time. But I feel the very act of doing them is important in some freeing way.