Camargue

Joanne Savage appreciates the poetry in Ronan Walsh's equine paintings

Ronan Walsh’s work retains a tension between abstraction and figuration that recalls the work of Jack B Yeats in moments like 'The Singing Horseman' and abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning. There is the same vigorous, thickly applied paint and scenes where subjective expression overrides careful or conservative rendering of the subject.

De Kooning played with the female form, allowing the paint to gesture at her figuration, but ultimately sacrificing her to the abstraction of loose brushstrokes and skeins of colour. Dublin-born Walsh is a romantic abstract painter and does something similar with his skewed outlines of horses and landscapes. He is perhaps temperamentally closer to Yeats, his brushstrokes suggesting a more lyrical intensity than the hardnosed conceptual rebellion favoured by de Kooning.

In many of the pieces in Camargue (an exhibition at the Gormleys Fine Art gallery on the Lisburn Road) such as 'Study for Four Horses' or 'Racing on the Beach', the outlines of people or horses are left intact and representationally accurate. Elsewhere expressionism takes over and forms are hinted at amid the surface blur, biomorphic and gestural. You just catch the suggestion of a horse or a horizon as the abstract use of colour, nervy brushstrokes and impasto fill the frame.

Hot pink, violet, sunflower yellow and chartreuse give these paintings a summer-time vibrancy and Mediterranean mood that lifts you, so fleetingly, out of drab old Belfast in late November. The swirling spontaneity of the paint suggests action, high-energy, wild horses galloping across the shore and the ceaseless movement of the sea.

'White, Orange Camargue' is landscape pared down to the intersection of colour and line. It is impossible to identify the scene or a figure, but the paint itself, its colour and manner of application, becomes suggestive of mood. The painting has movement in its lineaments and heat in its palette of burnt embers and luminous, sunset hues.

'White, Green Camargue' is a richer piece. Fern green and gentler gradations of colour produce a softer feeling, more pastoral and calming than the garish boldness of 'Yellow Horse by the Straits of Florida', one of the largest paintings in the collection. The silhouette of the grazing horse is just discernible. More important is the living, almost frantic emotion of the brushstrokes, thick swathes of colour together giving an impression of the general scene, photo-real definition abandoned in favour of colourful vagueness and whimsical ambiguity. Emotional experience is prioritised over the faithful depiction of physical reality.

The paintings can feel twee in places, especially where the palette overdoes the playschool colours and Irish equine theme. 'White Horse and Foal' for example, reminds me of the painted scenes in Enya’s music video for 'Orinoco Flow'.

Much stronger is 'Dancer with Yellow Hat and Horse', which almost has a surrealist quality in its mesh of melting, running colours and dripping, dancing lines, like a multicolour flash of a carnival scene blurred by rain. There is poetry in this abstraction, feeling and intensity in the textured surface. 'Gypsy Dancers Say Goodbye' is similarly evocative and its gritty, uneven paint suggests a kind of pathos or abandon.

The studies 'After Da Vinci’s Neptune' are interesting for the way they take a cross section of the original and update them with bolder colour. Da Vinci’s furious swirls are captured in a flambuoyant palette, so too is the sense of equine power.

You might wonder what the Irish painterly fixation with horses is all about. Horses have a nobility, beauty and elegance that make them popular subjects. They are aesthetically pleasing and heavy with symbolism. In Irish mythology horses were associated with mystery, magic and potency. They embody desire, life force and ineradicable drive. Ronan Walsh preserves a certain wildness in his horses, a sense of anarchy, playfulness and passion. The dry conservatism of traditional representation gives way to free lines, free movement and momentum, like so many horses galloping in the wind.

Camargue is currently on display at Gormleys Fine Art Gallery, 251 Lisburn Road, Belfast.