Into the Black

Neil Shawcross and Charles Walsh paint it black at the Ormeau Baths Gallery

Black is darkness, concealment, secrecy, mystery, grief, death, Halloween, fear, rebellion, non-conformity, evil, bad-luck, elegance, high fashion, sin. Black is the inverse of white’s virginal purity and antiseptic clarity - it is knowledge and transgression rather than naivety. Primitive, enigmatic and elemental, black is an obliteration of colour and illumination.

Neil Shawcross and Charles Walsh both explore something of the symbolism of black in this new exhibition at the Ormeau Baths Gallery. Shawcross paints chaotic figures on the walls of the gallery in black: mad frescos screaming against white; whilst Walsh produces grids of paint on linen, which highlight the different shades of colour that conversely create the impression of total blackout.

Shawcross is a much-feted post-impressionist painter, one of Northern Ireland’s most famous artists. Like him or loathe him, it’s undeniable that the artist has developed a unique style, minimal lines easefully delivered to render his subjects whimsically on paper or canvas.

An adept watercolourist, he has painted affectionate and distinctive portraits of Francis Stuart, Michael Longley, Eamonn Mallie - then post-Warholian depictions of objects or labels: fruit bowls, cups and saucers, vases of flowers, dust jackets, bottles of Jack Daniels and ketchup, cats, violins, chairs, telephones - still life with wry humour.

Here, Shawcross leaves the humour to one side and gives us sprawling, hulking, looming figures in black paint, a catharsis of dark, atavistic drives given ragged form, shapes like bogeymen or monsters of the subconscious released in messy black markings.

In one room of the gallery the artist has painted directly onto the walls so that the viewer is surrounded on all sides by giant black shapes, figures that lie prone or hunched, two of them merging to form an unsettling horned figure - all like dark hieroglyphics.

These are emotive frescoes, the predominance of black conjuring notions of fear, chaos, dark desire, anarchy. The figures on each wall blend into one visual narrative spanning the room - they could be scenes from a nightmare, black relics of neurosis or guilt.

In another room the black figure becomes replicated as part of a pattern, a curled-up nude repeated and repeated until the human form becomes an abstracted shape, a geometric motif. In another painting the prone body is languorously sexual, ample-thighed, wanton, the head merely an attenuated line. This eloquent black splodge against white could be the body of a woman or a demon - its ambiguity is potent, captivating.

None of Shawcross’s black paintings are given titles or formally introduced - they blur into each other with chaotic, kinetic energy, raw and uncontainable, passionate and free.

Next to all these swirling masses Charles Walsh’s work seems somewhat sedate and prim. This is an artist primarily interested in geometric shapes and subtle gradations of colour. There are grids and more grids of black paint delicately interwoven with patches of navy, blue, dark green, mauve, brown.

Where Walsh uses oil on linen to depict his variations on black, the colour has a rich and immaculate sheen, the alternate lighter squares of colour lifting the whole so that it acquires depth and nuance and wonderfully intrigues.

What at first seems merely a wash of black, on closer inspection, is revealed as a build-up of dark blues, olive and fern green, the darkest navy, chocolate brown; the viewer is made to see black, not merely as the obliteration of all colour, but as an excess of colour, or colour obscured into darkness through saturation of pigment and plenitude. There is here an abundance of detail and texture to be found in black.

For me, however, it is Shawcross’s rudimentary silhouettes that deserve most attention. Their teeming energy and jagged delineation - the splashes, flicks and wads of black around them, their proliferation in an enclosed room of frescoes - all suggest glimpses of the heart of darkness, stirrings of the dark Sargasso of the subconscious.

Into the Black: Neil Shawcross and Charles Walsh runs at the Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast until May 21.