Former fabric designer Kevin Collins paints a 'delicate and luminous' version of Northern Ireland under the stars
Kevin Collins' background in handloom weaving – he previously worked as a fabric designer for Ulster Weavers – is manifest in NI Night, his new exhibition of paintings at the Bradbury Gallery. It's there with the weave and weft of fabric stretched, ironically, across canvas, presenting his abstractions within concrete forms.
Collins uses various approaches to demonstrate different physical attributes: man-made forms are concrete, for example, the buildings either solid, clumping, Lego Land distillations or more complex, striated ghosts of light, shimmering out of the water.
Boats are empty vessels, cut-out-and-keep, floating featureless fridges. Plants are broom heads, bundles of blood-red sticks, fasces, crowding and threatening the timorous white buildings. Hills – many recognisable Northern Ireland landmarks – loom over the rest of landscape.
In 'Hush a Bye Mountain', the Slieve Donard and its neighbouring Mountains of Mourne are huge, featureless mounds, each bigger than the last, made of crushing sedimentary layers. They threaten the small town of Newcastle, where Collins grew up, even as the town is engulfed by thickets of flaming trees.
The heavy outlines and simple delineations in this painting lend it the quality of a picture book illustration, but Collins' impressionist style is, in its own way, as inescapably sublime as the apocalyptic painting of John Martin, it's cultural antecedents those Romantic canvases depicting man's endeavour as a mere rupture in the natural order.
Other paintings show a markedly less intimidated mankind. 'Belfast Castle in Autumn' shows the building as living fire underneath a night sky consumed by stars. Collin's skies are made of stars, little plus signs of myriad hues – here a rich royal blue, there a lighter cornflower, even reds, stitching the sky together. The effect is of a huge blanket drawn across the landscape, as comforting or terrible as that sounds.
'Calling Time at The Crown' seems, at first, to be more conventional, even twee (the two figures staggering from the bar and waving goodnight wear suits and flat caps; there's not a fanny-packed Canadian tourist in sight), but the painting is constructed of huge horizontal and vertical slabs, enormous, powerful strokes of paint.
It is here that Collins shows a mastery of colour, from the sulfurous yellow of the bar, smearing into the lilac of the sky and further out into rust reds and looming, lowering purples.
'Cutter's Wharf at Night' is a small canvas, in comparison, which displays his weaver's roots. It looks like cross-stitch – the neat stippling corresponding exactly to the interlocking lines – and you can see exactly his sureness of touch, how he builds up the separation and gradation. It's delicate, nimble and luminous.
Personally, however, I prefer the more even-tempered, stylised paintings, the ones that transform Northern Ireland into an Eastern European master illuminator's magnum opus.
'The Island', with its simple composition of undulating hills, becomes almost meditative, the titular island floating pacifically in a gentle sea, a small grey boat unmoored and un-moving, resting in the water. On the distant hills, the windows of little houses twinkle under the stars. It is a vision of tranquility and peace. An unusual but necessary vision of Northern Ireland at night.
NI Night runs in Bradbury Gallery, Belfast until June 28.