Between Two Worlds
This exhibition of abstract expressionist paintings at the FE McWilliam Gallery is 'uplifting to behold'
California artist Jay Meuser summed up the ethos of abstract expressionism when he wrote of his painting 'Mare Nostrum': 'It is far better to capture the glorious spirit of the sea than to paint any of its tiny ripples.'
Abstract expressionists use paint in a nonfigurative, novel and unique way to capture a mood, an emotion, an idea, a state of mind, maybe the essence of a landscape or a figure – the ‘spirit of the sea’, for example, rather than the sea as it is objectively.
This is an imaginative act of interpretation, a way of capturing inner vision or subjective experience. The abstract expressionist is broadly committed to allowing colour, paint and brushstroke to themselves become arresting and expressive; such artists have liberated themselves from the necessity of mimesis or representation.
David Crone, Mark McGreevy and Dougal McKenzie may all loosely be characterised as abstract expressionists, although each of them still occasionally flirts with more traditional representation, and this is hinted at in the title for their current exhibition, Between Two Worlds, which runs at the FE McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge until August 31.
You might say each artist is here caught between abstraction and representation, or between subjective interpretation and depiction that follows the solid outlines of objective reality. These highly symbolic, spontaneous works – like drug-induced hallucinations, blurred deamscapes, brightly-lit mandalas - use vivid colours in a manner that calls to mind Picasso, Kandinsky and de Kooning.
All three artists on display here are connected to Northern Ireland. Crone was born in Belfast and lectured in art at the University of Ulster until 2001. McGreevy hails from County Down and was a student of Crone’s. Edinburgh-born Dougal McKenzie moved to Northern Ireland in the 1990s.
Crone’s palette is marginally more subdued than the all-out showy and extravagant hot pinks, yellows, blues and greens favoured by McGreevy and the odd, surprising, almost comic-book like inversions of outline and colour prevalent in McKenzie’s paintings.
There is perhaps a melancholy and lugubriousness that hangs over Crone’s work, particularly in the seminal 'Shop Window' (1979, above), where the face and figure of a solitary woman is just visible among the shadows and wire grille of the shop front.
Her form is only rudimentally outlined and in places seems to merge with the background of shadows. And 'Field Objects' is another key example of Crone’s melding of representation and abstraction, and shows dandelions amid a patchwork of earthy shapes and colours.
Patterning and colour are distinctively employed in McGreevy’s work also, although he pushes his practice further into weird abstraction, as in the intensely gaudy 'Yo Sweden' (2006), a strange amalgam of intestinal shapes, plants, tentacles, tubes, swirls, flashy colours that could almost take you to the point of headache, a vague memento mori set incongruously in the foreground.
This substantial work is bewildering, bizarre and playful and seems to reference the oneiric landscape and trippy, hectic intensity of Salvador Dali’s 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus'.
Some of McGreevy’s smaller pieces, like 'Chungling', have a faux-naif quality that is almost endearing, but his preference for garish colours can begin to grate. Steeped in abstraction, the paint itself needs to convey emotion or an idea; McGreevy seems reluctant to do so, remaining jocular and opaque in his practice.
McKenzie is perhaps more measured and intricate in his approach, and interestingly employs an inversion of colours and outlines on detailed scenarios – the curator describes these as ‘similar to screen imagery’. Here the subversion of colour and line is dizzying, intriguing.
A key moment in this technique is 'A Visit to Bad E.M.’s' (below), which apparently depicts two intellectuals in conversation with Edouard Manet during the Siege of Paris. The palette here is almost psychedelic, the painting like a blurred vision or fleeting illusion.
McKenzie also seems more heavily involved with symbolism than Crone and McGreevy. His paintings project a sense of layered subtext and depth, as seen in the work of surrealists like Giorgio di Chirico – Tableaux is one obvious example.
This is a joyously colourful exhibition of painting that seems spontaneous, free and liberated from the straitjacket commitments of naturalistic representation. Although depthis lacking in certain instances – some of the paintings do seem slight – overall these colourful conundrums of brushwork project a rebellious playfulness that is uplifting to behold.
Between Two Worlds runs at the FE McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge until August 31.