Art Worlds

Irish News Column
Irish News January 2001

I suspect that most of us experienced during our first year at secondary school, the lazy art teacher’s favourite lesson; The class would be asked to criss-cross a page with intersecting lines and then fill in the spaces with different colours. The children usually completed this pointless exercise within minutes, leaving the unimaginative teacher with a problem.
Chung Eun Mo’s paintings always remind me of those lessons. In the Fenderesky Gallery’s group show, her piece of work, generously entitled, “Light Span” has much in common with those paintings; it is hard-edged and empty. This is just one painting, but it is in the company of works by other artists which also suggest, brief encounters with the media employed. They all belong to that visual club which proclaims, “ anything I mark is Art.” Tjibbe Hooghiemstra’s four pieces, entitled “Angel,” are scraps of faded paper, vaguely stained with doodles, like a childish attempt at something or other, found on some art-room floor. A fragment of printed, French text is stuck to one to give it an appearance of intellectual depth. David Feeley, using muddy watercolour has, perfunctorily, painted small circles on his four pages, then, with designer’s bravado, added muddy, coloured spots to their centres, and all of this, on handmade paper. He calls these images “Cycles”; They really are a load of circles.
Despite being painted on Japanese Washi paper, Richard Gorman’s minimal abstracts are not full of eastern promise; In fact its difficult to say if they are full of anything, but, they sit easily in the company of Felim Egan’s oh so familiar patterns.
When I look at works like these, which show such slight involvement of artistic activity, I wonder; can anything exist in such sparse, pictorial environments? If so, must it not be a very crude form of life?
If Ruskin thought Whistler was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”, what would he make of today’s minimal wastelands, where a pot of paint would be considered a bonus. One of the great mysteries of contemporary painting is the persistence of minimal abstraction. A possible reason for this is, that it allows the artist and the viewer to have an imagined, aesthetic superiority; an entrée into arcane territory where explanation and defence of the artwork are redundant. When one is presented with such a paucity of relationships in a piece of work, no scrutiny is required. Confronted by Gorman’s minimally, painted Washi paper it is sufficient to say to a companion; “ I really like that,...you don’t see anything in it? Well...” Your companion will be suitably belittled, knowing that his aesthetic sensitivity is ill-equipped to deal with the complex, emptiness of these images. If he is shrewd, however, he will learn to say that he also likes these barren works, because, his opinion can’t be challenged. No critical language is required and no artistic grammar need be learned to gain entrance into Art’s empty room. There must be a point in the development of artistic taste and judgement, for both artist and audience, where refinement has to stop. If eradication of what seems to be superfluous in the artwork continues unchecked, it will ultimately step beyond reality into the void.
Minimal abstraction, of course, is just a small part of the Art World and while it is a significant element in this exhibition, it thankfully is not the only element. In Fenderesky’s upstairs galleries there are painters who are still extending their skills; Graham Gingles’ rare venture into two dimensional paint, a quietly thoughtful triptych by Gerard Devlin, Fionnuala D’arcy’s strangely painterly, watercolour and pastel landscapes, and of course Clement Mc Aleer and David Crone whose works always tickle the eye and tackle the mind.

When I use the term, Art World I realize that it suggests some kind of aesthetic homogeneity, a place where everyone’s taste is sophisticatedly similar. Such a location doesn’t exist of course; its just an umbrella term, like Christianity, to help us negotiate a minefield of different opinions, loosely linked to the same source.
There is , for example, that rarefied art world inhabited by candidates for the Turner Prize, who, like the pop star, are totally dependent on the PR Man for their existence.
The famous auction houses have their own art world which is where they sell great art for great prices.
Then we have that extensive world of the small commercial Art Gallery which exhibits and markets the work of those seriously, committed painters who, notwithstanding fashions, continue, like the novelist, to create within the boundaries of their
Art form.
Finally, and funnily, we have our own motley crew of art dealers, art consultants and self-styled art agents eager to give the artist the full benefit of their ignorance.

Joseph Mc Williams January 2001©