Visual Arts in 2009

Joanne Savage on the deftness of John Sherlock and the daftness of Sean Scully

What has been the best and worst of the visual arts in Northern Ireland during 2009? One woman’s meat is another’s poison, one woman’s Van Gogh is another’s boredom – so it’s difficult to say. Like love or appetite, the appreciation of art is personal. The artist produces the painting, sculpture, drawing or installation and we bring ourselves to bear on it, taking from it what we will.

Perhaps it is enough to say that ‘good’ art should make us feel, emote or engage in some way, however fleetingly. It can be innovative or traditional, stretched on canvas, 3D, expensively wrought or cheap, highbrow or lowbrow, in a gallery or scrawled on a gable wall with a spray can – if it stops you in your tracks and makes you think ‘wow’ rather than ‘whatever’, you’re onto something.

One of the pieces of art that most engaged my interest this year (and there have been many) was John Sherlock’s immaculate sculpture 'Blitz Survivors', unveiled at the Home Front Exhibition in Belfast during October.

The bronze work shows a mother and child running through the ruins of a Belfast street the morning after the Blitz of April 1941. The woman wears the clothes of a millworker and every detail of her form is rendered with care. The little girl wears a nightie and clutches a teddy bear. Both figures are frozen in anguished, purposeful motion amid the city’s devastation.

The cobbled street is cluttered with rubble and pools of water where attempts have been made to douse the fires caused by the blitzkrieg. A crumpled copy of the Northern Whig newspaper lies in the background, the headline of April 16, 1941 chronicling the human cost of the Luftwaffe’s visit.

The detail in this piece is exact and affectionate. You can see the tramlines and a water pump. A button missing from the woman’s blouse lies on the ground. Sherlock has a real concern for historical accuracy and a deep empathy with his subjects. 'Blitz Survivors' is immediately intimate and moving.

What is most striking about this piece is what you might call the ‘static movement’ of the figures, the way the outstretched, determined limbs of the mother and her clinging child, her head swung back from the force of the mother’s frantic pull, suggests all the turmoil and terror of the ravaged city.

The kinetic tension of the figures, reaching forwards, rushing on, struggling to the next destination or shelter, conveys the indomitable will to endure and hold fast in the Blitz’s aftermath. For me, this is a stunning piece of sculpture, a perfect rendering of memory and emotion in bronze.

One of this year’s most unsatisfying exhibitions was Sean Scully’s retrospective at the revamped Ulster Museum. The museum’s decision to let this exhibition dominate four separate gallery rooms – ruling out display room for other artists – was a disappointing one and means that most people will only hurry through this wing of the museum simply to go somewhere else.

Constantinople or the Sensual Concealed is another case of the emperor’s new clothes. Everyone else insists on the importance and wonder of this exhibition and so like sheep, we noddingly agree, knowing deep down that this collection of grid and block paintings is mostly rather dull.

It isn’t because Scully’s work is abstract that it is unsatisfying. Rothko, Pollock, Krasner, Mondrian and many, many others made abstract and abstract expressionist paintings that are full of emotion, punkish rebellion and fascinating tensions.

Scully’s work purports to be about light, overcoming boundaries, and mediation or the 'importance of art as a bridge between rigid positions'. This nicely conflates the matter, gives scholars of the arts and loquacious critics a thesis to ruminate over and file their nails on, but is essentially irrelevant to the viewer. None of these themes or weighty subtexts are visually suggested by the works themselves.

Scully’s oeuvre seems to be about colour, the interactions of geometric shapes, the tensions between a nervy free-hand line and formulaic grids. Much of it is vivid, rectangles or shapes given to the foreground in such bold colour that they seem suspended in three-dimensional space.

Aside from this brief sense of the luxuriousness of his paint box and the deftness of Scully’s sense of the aesthetics of pattern and the emotional import of colour, there is nothing here but hot air and ego.