Richard Gorman's meaningless abstract paintings with a Japanese bent leave Joanne Savage flabbergasted

If, as Andy Warhol astutely observed, 'art is what you can get away with', then Richard Gorman is getting away with a hell of a lot, because this exhibition at The MAC is – and I am sorry to say this – the very definition of banality.

Why on earth The MAC decided to fill its main gallery spaces with these coloured globular and then circular or rectangular shapes intersecting in various permutations on handmade dyed or painted Japanese kaza washi paper – especially following the high glory and bold political challenge of their most recent exhibition by American artist Kara Walker – is flabbergasting.

No one is likely to be transfixed by this marginal exhibition unless they are pretentious enough to have read the programme and understood the highbrow concepts contained therein.

The programme was written by Jamshid Mirfenderesky, who, when looking for a justification of abstract work, ranges (somewhat ostentatiously) from the notoriously difficult Hegel – 'art exists if it makes sense and it makes sense only in relation to a wider conceptual framework' – to the obscurantist par excellence, Samuel Beckett – '...what is the word - / this this - / this this here - / all this this here...'.

Words and meanings are not to be attributed to these Gorman paintings, which we are urged to take at surface value alone. These broad, clean, precise geometric forms are defined as a process by Irish writer Colm Toibin in the programme, who calls Gorman's strategy 'to pull back the mask, pull down the frenzied surface'. And Toibin adds: 'A painting does not mean; a painting does.'

Well, this sounds intelligent but is not borne out by the experience of art at all – Michelangelo's 'David' certainly means something, and the intrigue is wondering what that meaning is. Conceptual art hangs on the attempt to mean or the struggle to confuse or obfuscate meaning. The 'Mona Lisa', for example, has an enigmatic meaning that has enthralled art historians for centuries.

Even abstract artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner meant something – they were rejecting representational painting to say something anarchic about the application of paint on canvas and abstract painting, though devoid of the figurative, can abound with meaning in the quality of brushstrokes, in the use of shape, in the emotion with which it is executed, in the poetry of the brush moving across canvas to its own rhythms.

All I can think is that the mask and the frenzied surface Toibin refers to may have been more interesting than this collection of mediocre shapes in colour that are apparently devoid of meaning or, in this reviewer's opinion, only of fleeting and incidental aesthetic interest. The kindest thing one could say is that Gorman experiences a late Matisse-style joy in colour and shape that has purity and simple, almost child-like zest about it.


Irish artist Gorman travelled to Japan to learn about the art of paper-making and the Japanese techniques of dyeing thick paper surfaces, although here Gorman also sometimes uses gouache and oils as well as dyed kozo washi, ranging from a buoyant, vibrant palette and elsewhere a dour and dispiriting one.

While I do admire this interest in Japanese papermaking and Gorman's own humble explanation of his artistic modus operandi, hee says: 'A painting is not a message to anyone. It may not tell a story, it may not even represent an idea. It means only that it signifies my time doing.'

Gorman's work is certainly very limited in what it can feasibly signify. The images are not exactly full of emotion but rather languid in one long buddha om of indifference to the viewer, or perhaps an invitation to become hypnotised by the specific juxtapositions of colour and shape.

We see vivid orange (what made me think of) Tic Tac shapes, traffic cone yellow tubular shapes, neon pink shapes, indigo and blue grids and circles and rectangles, ochre and black and brown, grids of white circles, recurrent globed intersections of shapes in neon colour pops, shapes overlapping so as to become ever-new constructions of coloured form.

But, again, as the programme is keen to insist, it means nothing other than the surface appearance of colour and shape on paper. It simply is and requires no explanation. It is flat, two-dimensional, oblivious to the viewer, and this is why it is really unfortunately rather mediocre art.

There is nothing to excite, engage, thrill or provoke the viewer and no amount of arty, conflated theorising (incidentally contradicting the artist’s insistence that his work signifies only how he spends his time) will convince the eyes otherwise.

If a fancy academic programme must translate artworks or decode them so that their elitist meaning becomes decipherable then this is a failure of the visceral response art should provoke in us, because the only test of a painting's success is the feeling it elicits from the viewer standing before it. If you feel nothing, the painting has signified and offered nothing to the viewer.

This is perhaps the definition of bad art – an incipient yawn or feeling of indifference when confronted with abstract pieces that offer little but a mastery of Japanese technique, a flat use of layered colour on Japanese artisan-made paper. But is this riveting, moving, beautiful to look at? Vivid at moments and engaged with careful shape arrangement, this is simply not particularly arresting art.

Kin runs at The MAC, Belfast until July 27.