Remnants: Stephen Lawlor
Oliver Sears Gallery, Dublin 2017
Copying from the Old Masters was, for hundreds of years, and still is for many people, part of a painters apprenticeship. In Remnants, Stephen Lawlor takes on that idea with a twist. He looks to works by three great Venetian painters: Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto, and makes not direct copies but reworkings or variations on sections of, or complete, compositions. He has done this before, albeit in a more conscious, conceptualized way, trying out various approaches to dealing with a pre-existing, underlying image. With this new body of work, he is much more relaxed about the process and perhaps less bothered with symbolism.
He is a restless, exploratory artist. He came to painting by way of printmaking and has shown a willingness to present himself with new challenges, stretching and developing his use of the medium. Along the way, he has discovered that he loves paint, especially oil paint, and is enraptured by it's potential.
In Remnants, while the paintings are non-representational, they pursue a lively dialogue with their sources in terms of composition and chiaroscuro. Is there a subtext here about the risk of losing touch with a wealth of cultural heritage? Looking at two ambitious works, Canopy and Orpheus and Eurydice, certainly, there could be, particularly given our current age of anxiety. The overall implication is one of renewal and regeneration: there are always new things to see in great paintings.
Aidan Dunne , Irish Times April 2017
61x76cm Oil on Canvas 2017
30x35cm Oil on Canvas 2017
61x76cm Oil on Canvas 2017
51x61cm Oil on Canvas 2017
30x35cm Oil on Canvas 2017
30x35cm Oil on Canvas 2017
130x150cm Oil on Canvas 2017
130x150cm Oil on Canvas 2017
130x150cm Oil on Canvas 2017
40x50cm Oil on Canvas 2017
25x30cm Oil on Canvas 2017
91x91cm Oil on Canvas 2017
66x78cm Oil on Canvas 2017
Spiritus Mundi 2016
An exhibition of new paintings by Dublin based artist Stephen Lawlor at the Bourn Vincent Gallery at the University of Limerick from November 25th 2016 until January 5th 2017.
The title comes from WB Yeats’ poem The Second Coming and is a reference to imagery from the collective human memory. This exhibition is a subtle exploration of the iconography of western painting and it’s subliminal position within that memory.
All of us who have an interest in how painting organically grew and changed from the early 14th century until the modern period will feel a connectedness to these paintings. They wander emotionally through layers of classical composition and present a hauntingly hybrid vision that echoes in the mind and work more and more on the senses the longer they are viewed.
140x160cm Oil on Canvas 2016
140x160cm Oil on Canvas 2016
140x160cm Oil on Canvas 2016
30x25 Oil on Canvas 2015
30X25CM Oil on Canvas 2016
30X25CM Oil on Canvas 2016
Oil on Canvas 85x100cm 2016
30x25 Oil on Canvas 2015
Tondo 45cm Diameter Oil on Board 2015
65x78cm Oil on Canvas 2014
50x40cm Oil on Canvas 2014
68x76cm Oil on Canvas 2016
25x30cm Oil on Canvas 2016
Some Untidy Spot 2014
''...where dogs go on with their doggy lives,and the torturers horse scratches it's innocent behind on a tree...''
WH Auden's iconic poem, Mussee Des Beaux Arts, written in 1939 after the poet visited Breughel's 'Fall of Icarus' at the aforementioned museum in Brussels, comments on the continuum of life. More precisely how the Old Masters observed how life goes on regardless. against the relentless march of humanity, until that last vital breath has expired, disaster is confined to 'some untidy spot'.
Stephen Lawlor's practice is steeped in the Old Masters. Not only do they influence what he makes, they somehow underwrite the very purpose of his creativity. The collection of paintings and sculptures reflects two years of intense work; pushing, probing, even wrestling with the material. All in order to discover the relevance of those celebrated masterpieces in contemporary terms. Here the artist has achieved something rare: he has made art about art, avoided the derivative cliches and channelled almost for decades of technical knowledge into singular, clear and powerful cadence.
Emotionally this is painting at its fullest; personally raw but technically refined. To all those who worship at the altar of conceptualism, this is why painting is relevant.
from Cat intro, Oliver sears 2014.
Hughie O’Donoghue & Stephen Lawlor
At Stephen Lawlor’s Studio DUBLIN September 30th 2014
HOD: These are obviously a specific body of work and they have moved on from the last work of yours that were portraits of individual people, and before that the CU landscape paintings but how would you see these, what is their genesis and how did the idea come about?
SL: After the portrait exhibition where would I go? I have no problem painting people in the same way I would paint a landscape, but, I let it settle for a while. After a period I started to work from a small reference above my desk of a battle scene which brought me entirely away from the actual landscape and from portraiture into another place where I had an interest going back for years in old master paintings. This meant I could introduce all kinds of colours, abstract the forms, bend them, twist them and wrestle with them, and this process became quite a long voyage, almost two years.
HOD: I am looking at them, my eyes are rolling over them, I think I can see Henry VIII in there somewhere…and Philip IV of Spain, and Ginevra Di Benci. Is it that your subject matter is the legacy of old master paintings?
SL: Yes it is a sort of reaching back into time and a reappraisal or a forensic look at those works. I think anyone who appreciates art has retained the memory of those paintings. I see you noticed Ginevra di Benci immediately and along with her there are works by Holbein, Memling and others by Da Vinci. There are quite a few iconic images there and I thought about what I could do with them, without being clichéd or falling into traps. So I started to dismember them or blur them and play with them. As things started to happen in the wet paint I retained or obscured elements as I went along.
HOD: What I pick up from this work is that there is a kind of a….that this edifice that is the history of painting is with us and has become a kind of subject in itself, how you both engage with it and how you distinguish yourself from it that is the task of the painter in a way.
SL: I found that as it progressed it changed considerably. In the early ones as you can see, the marks are quite distinct, on top of each other or behind each other. They have a very definite relationship to each other. That became a problem, but with time I began to feel more relaxed in the use of paint. You talked about the need to want to paint and it is in the process itself that I found the greatest potential that I don’t think one could have in any other medium, you know the slipping and the sliding, the accidental, the layering…after a certain point you’re no longer in control. From the start I wanted no plan, so not be restrained in any overriding way. I just let it take me…its frightening actually to go in there, but also totally rewarding when something happens that allows for something you never anticipated.
HOD: Yes, well I think it’s how painting establishes meaning, you have almost lost yourself in the process of the painting.
SL: That is completely true. If I could tell you a little about the process, I would start by looking for a subject from a digital database of old master paintings I have put together. I would introduce the elements casually but if it is not working, rather than remove it I would start again on top of it with another image entirely while it is wet. The possibility for accident is increased and I am then in another place entirely. I have gone off on a number of tangents that were so far astray from the original group I started with that I had to back-track, however I am trying to….
HOD: But that’s good.
SL: …I know it’s good but after a few weeks on the wrong track to make a big detour…when you know you have to go back it is slightly painful but I kept those anomalies and some are pivotal paintings which brought me from one way of working to another way of working which I could never have anticipated until that accident happened or I had made that turn.
HOD: Was there a moment when you thought, right, I am going to develop this into a series? When do you say, right this is the framework, I am going to make this body of work that takes as its subject matter, not its meaning but it’s subject matter, this kind of legacy of painting.
SL: I have always wanted to address it and to jump from period to period which in itself is an interesting thing. These are based, not by choice but by my preference on paintings roughly from the 1400 to 1800 or something like that. It is actually quite a long period of time and a lot of these people influenced each other, so there are connections between those artists that one begins to notice. I found it a fascinating exercise to move back and forth across time, taking something, perhaps a way of painting the subject.
HOD: Have you ever been visited by the art police? ...laughter… they usually wear plain clothes.
SL: Yes I am aware of them but I keep a very low profile, they don’t call me very often, I think I am below their radar.
HOD: What they usually do is they approach you at an exhibition opening and then at a certain point they say to you ‘but you can’t say that’ or ‘you can’t think that’. I suppose what I pick up from the paintings in a sense is the fact you are thinking into that tradition. You know people often think of the word tradition in a very negative way, where what I think when I hear tradition is of an accumulation of knowledge and experience and if you dip into this accumulation of knowledge and experience in a particular way there is much to be learned from it. You were talking earlier about this. One of the ways painting is often attacked is because of its physicality because it is actually very difficult to talk about painting and it is very difficult to explain painting and that’s one of the reasons why I think it becomes marginalised in our conceptual culture which is largely literary, not visual, these are visual. You are confronted with a painting, you look at it and you can’t immediately take out all the words to dot the ‘i’s, cross the ‘t’s and say exactly what it is. You have to live with it and look at it and while I have been sitting here looking at these they are changing and certain pictures are to my eye appearing much more successful and mysterious, and I am sure that is your experience as the painter.
SL: Absolutely. But I think painting, the engagement with the process and the attempt to develop your own language and then bring that somewhere, may or may not have a conceptual component but it is not absolutely necessary. With conceptual art often the execution can be poor. So much time is spent in determining what it is about as opposed to physically doing it.
HOD: Yes, well the thing is that painting deals with ideas in a different way and I think that conceptual painting is a contradiction in terms frankly, because conceptual painting is an illustration. This dichotomy between conceptual art and painting is often presented as if painting doesn’t contain ideas, but it does contain ideas, it embodies ideas, it doesn’t illustrate ideas and these paintings don’t illustrate but there is a clear thinking process and a probing process going on which attracts the eye.
SL: But it is far more emotionally based and therefore directly affects the senses on a much more fundamental level than the concept can.
HOD: I would agree, how we feel is kind of significant as well, based on our understanding of the world and the painting. I would argue that in a really successful painting its meaning is really only ever established when someone looking at it really connects with it. It can’t just be great in isolation sitting in a room by itself. It only really comes to life when somebody connects with it. I had this recently in a painting by Anselm Kiefer hung in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition called ‘Krank Kunst’ (Sick Art) and to me the painting was evocative of the fields of northern France. It looked like poppies in a field and the fact that it was 2014 and the fact that the painting itself looked like a battlefield evoked this sense in me and I was saying this in some talk I was giving somewhere in connection with the arts council and someone said ‘no, no it’s not about that it’s about the fjords of Sweden and it’s about Germans going on holiday’ and basically what this arts professional was telling me was that he had read a book on Anselm Kiefer, even more than one book on Anselm Kiefer, and I said I am sorry you are wrong because I have been looking at the painting, this is in the painting, whether Kiefer intended it to be in the painting or not it’s in the painting because I have seen it, that to me is a really fundamental point, painters never entirely control the meaning of their work, it is always slightly beyond their grasp.
SL: I think with good painting that is entirely true and subliminal things happen as you work, things that are in your memory, an emotion of a certain place so even when you look at someone else’s painting which I have been obviously doing, what you get from it when you transcribe it may not have a lot to do with the original but it draws up something inside yourself that comes across.
HOD: Tell me about the difference, because I feel a difference between the portraits and the more overtly landscape paintings and then this kind of figure groupings which look more like history paintings or religious paintings. So the genres are clearly separating themselves as I am sitting here looking at the paintings.
SL : Well that is interesting, the one in the centre there ‘Virgin II’ is based on a painting by Jan Van Eyck of the Virgin. I didn’t think it was going anywhere for quite a long time until I started wiping away layers and then reapplying and wiping away and then it took on this whole aspect of an icon that had been left in some damp old church for 200 years, so I stayed with that and so it became what it is. On the top right, by comparison is a painting of Elizabeth I which I called ‘Virgin I’, as you probably know she liked to project the idea that she was in fact a virgin…
HOD: The Virgin Queen
SL: Yes, the original subject was painted by Nicholas Hilliard, an artist who painted miniatures, which the queen liked so she commissioned him to paint her portrait. He made two in 1575 which are known as the Pelican Portrait and the Phoenix Portrait. I was drawn to them because they were so different to European painting then, they are cruder and flatter and they don’t have the finesse of what was happening with paint on the continent. Instead they have this very ‘Englishness’, like the Holbein prior to them of Henry VIII.
HOD: I am sure in that particular painting what you are aware of is that the paint is no longer actually serving the image, the paint is doing something else as it’s being manipulated over the surface, nevertheless there is this subliminal residue of the image and when I look at it I wonder am I projecting onto it my memory of the original painting.
SL: Yes, the process takes over. But if something is not right or not working you have to be honest with yourself, if it is too illustrative. What is the point in reflecting a painting as it was, there is none.
HOD: It becomes something else.
SL: Well in desperation I dragged the paint in a number of directions across that surface….
HOD: Desperation is good! (Laughs)
SL: Desperation is actually very good. I find it to be quite useful. Desperation sometimes turns to anger and then that in fact forces your hand to either make something of it or destroy it.
HOD: Well I totally empathise with that. A painting stalks meaning in a subtle way, and it’s the meaning in a painting I think, that is the product of both your subject matter and how you tackle your subject matter and at a certain point I think what is exciting in painting is when, as you talk about your anger, or whatever, is when you have lost that control.
SL: Yes….I actually approached this in a very blunt way, I like not to be in control which causes things to happen then that could not otherwise occur…I am thinking about overall…. there is one large portrait I wanted to put up because nobody’s seen it and I am at the point where I am about to paint over it again and there are probably three images already under this. I suppose for the first time in making paintings I have brought it to the end really.
HOD: Yes, I think the larger piece is to my eyes successful, if not more successful than the small ones because partly due with its scale. There is no diminution its life size, and it is interesting, I always think back to Giacometti’s dilemma, late in his career when he is making portraits of this Japanese man and his problem is that the portrait looks more like a Giacometti than it does the man, but that’s not a problem because it is a Giacometti.
SL: That’s what you would expect.
HOD: Exactly, in a sense, in a way this larger portrait of yours isn’t a portrait it is a painting of a personage and we all immediately see that and you could interpret the painting literally but the painting isn’t literal.
SL: This one arrived there by accident and desperation really. Do you like it?
HOD: I do. The ones that I am drawn the most to are the most worked and to my eye that expresses the idea more, the process, it is almost like it’s been taken in and regurgitated to a greater extent than this smaller one.
SL: Interestingly, that is the only one I left as it was because someone came into my studio and said stop!....they all start like that where they look fairly well painted and then I have to, out of sheer ‘oh what the hell’ destroy them and in the destruction is as much creation as in putting the paint on.
HOD: Well in a sense you get that in Francis Bacon’s paintings, underneath those Francis Bacon blurs of paint are sometimes quite simply constructed ordinary paintings that have been assaulted essentially.
SL: Yes I can sense that, he got it down though, being able to obliterate in the right way.
HOD: Yes, but he made the point that he took risks and that really in modern or contemporary painting now if no risks are taken in the painting process it’s not interesting in any way, we all know that it is just hard to practice it., because it puts you in an uncomfortable place.
HOD: Yes, because we all like our comfort zone, we all like to go through the day and be able to do a nice days painting and what have you, you don’t particularly want to go that route of angst and anger, you always feel uncomfortable or I feel that as a painter, the only interesting time is when I am dragging something out of myself really trying to sort of struggle with this make it beyond….
HOD: Ordinary in some way
SL: I can fully relate to that and I’m glad to hear somebody else say it.
HOD: What about the landscapes? I say landscapes partly because there are other pictures that are clearly evocative of landscapes, but this is a tree, an absolute tree, and that is a hill and whereas this picture, if it wasn’t next to it might not read as a landscape but once you see the two together you read their tonality and their colour is very complimentary to each other but there is also a receding kind of a classical landscape but painted in a way that is very free – they are very beautiful.
SL: I got quite.…to be able to do that, allude to the landscape as opposed to actually paint it, I made a little suggestion of foreground, perhaps a little suggestion of middle ground and then the background is obviously behind. The mind of the viewer when they see it puts all that together and you can then make sense of the space or try to. But in some of them, the more successful ones, the eye slips off these elements and you keep thinking no it’s not really what I think it is, it’s actually abstract but then it keeps reinforcing itself and coming back. That is based on a painting by Domenichino who I think was out of fashion for an awful long time and his work buried in the vaults of various galleries. It’s quite a classical painting but for me they became apocalyptic in some way. I sort of casually plonked down a cloud or tree or person in exactly the same way for each so that there was no definition of any actual object but the mind seems to put these things together without even having to think about it.
HOD: Yes, one gets absorbed into the surface of the painting and partly because on close inspection the marks that make up the painting assert themselves as that, how they are made with scratchy marks or brushstrokes, you can see them, what they are as well as engaging with the illusion.
SL: Yes and the illusion goes right back to when I started making art in terms of taking elements from old master paintings and putting them together, almost like a stage set, a two dimensional stage set of what the original subject was, so not a joke, but a place where…that is not real, a totally plastic environment where things can happen.
HOD: Yes, one can see how it might work in that way. Are each of these pictures related to a specific painting or are some of them variants of a theme.
SL: Well they start off as I said as engagements with specific paintings but you can see there, what looks like a blurred tree was in fact a virgin at one point in the foreground. Again out of sheer loss of patience with how it was beginning to come together I obliterated her and the background and then stopped and was about to start something new and then realised that in fact something was beginning to work and then I just brought it further. It is a combination of, I think a landscape by Poussin and perhaps the remnants of a Virgin & Child by Fra Fillippo Lippi, one could never tell… one can sense that there is much more there than meets the eye but you can’t tell.
HOD: A lot of people would see an abstract painting but feel….. pictorial depth, spatial depth, aerial depth which is not something that’s that common in most 20th century painting which is quite flat and opaque so there is an aerial perspective in the pictures, a sense of depth. I think that in the landscapes particularly one of the most successful aspects is this tension between the pictorial and the object. There are only two conventions in painting, the convention of the picture as a window and the convention of the picture as an object and I think in a way, in some of these picture those two conventions are in a kind of tension and its partly because you perceive this depth, this misty depth in the pictures so you go into pictures, but the physicality of the picture itself is constantly insisting on its ‘objectness’.
SL: Yes. I love the tension that is created between those two things and to make them objects is exactly where I would like them always to end up, to contain still within, even the tiniest of allusions to spatial depth and that keeps the viewer where they cannot avoid it. To look at it and think they should be going in with their eyes automatically and then they have to come back out again and then move back in again and therefore there is this constant moving around in the mind between those things….in fact one of the reasons I returned to this subject was in response to something that happened years ago. I was taken through the National Gallery in London in about 1997 by Christopher le Brun. He was then on the Gallery Board and had access at night. A security guy came around with us but as we left one gallery the lights went off and in the next one and the lights came on. It was so weird and unexpected but I remember seeing a very wide Pesellino of David and Goliath. The story ran from left to right and unfolds across it with a crude use of perspective. The eye is kept in motion…plenty of tension. I responded to this in two paintings which became like cartoons as opposed to the later ones which are more abstract, another deviation. There is something American about them, even something comic book or Walt Disney in them.
HOD: It is a question of tension, we were talking of the tension in the painting and I think this looks successful but I can’t tell why at the moment, certain things draw your eye, it holds its space, commands its space. You will see different things in this picture to what I will see and to what other people see and how important is it to you that people see what you see in the pictures or does it matter.
SL: Not at all. They don’t have to. Would that concern you?
HOD: No, I think a picture only really achieves a kind of meaning when somebody connects with it and they may see things in it that you didn’t intend to put there and I think we’ve become obsessed with controlling meaning which is partly why painting has had such a difficult time because they are more concerned with writing labels a lot of the time in museums, explaining.
SL: I saw one in IMMA recently, it was hard to believe, explaining what a work was about, explaining so you can relate to it.
HOD: Explaining how you should think, what you should feel
SL: So you see no problem in the variety of these works, they are related but some not too closely.
HOD: I see a selection of this work at a particular moment, it is one thing in your studio, in an exhibition I think the selection and what you decide to hang is hugely important. I know artists often neglect that enterprise and want to show everything they have done and can’t emotionally disconnect from the process of doing that. But you do in a sense have to do that.
SL: To become objective, to get it right…….. This one here is the only actual landscape.
HOD: There is something about the way it relates to the edge, you get a sense of landscape in it obviously the blue, the sky, but the way it is broken and you’re dragged back to a more abstract form. In a sense it’s hard not to read that as a receding landscape with a hill and I think it comes back to what we were saying before, the more successful works are the ones where there is a tension, where the painting has all its facets there, but it’s slightly ungraspable there’s a slight ambiguity. Of course it is impossible to deliberately court ambiguity but through this process or immersion and it’s the cumulative struggle that’s evidenced in the build-up of the surface. That’s not something you can fake in a painting. People do try to fake that in paintings but you always see it when it is just texture but this process of building the painting it’s a kind of meditation on the act of painting itself and that is what is most engaging.
SL: These are the ones that got me past the point of struggle, when it wasn’t really going anywhere. Once I passed that point, it all became possible, you know after a point you are so immersed in the medium that you don’t have to think too much about it. To actually get into that state at the beginning was quite difficult and you must force it and force it and that takes quite a lot out of you. But after you have figured out how it might work you can step in and step out quite easily and I found these reflect that, they’re not as troubled, not as laboured.
HOD: Yes, I think that is true.
SL: I think when the definition starts to disappear, things become much more fluid, which I found to be the point where it all began to work for me.
At Stephen Lawlor’s Studio DUBLIN September 30th 2014
In conversation with
Published in the Irish Arts Review Winter Edition November 2014 - February 2015
You had two Residencies in China, in 2011 and 2012, one in Finland in 1998 and one in Singapore in 1986. What did you get out of them?
I was teaching and exhibiting on my visit to Singapore and it was my first visit to Asia. Just watching people on the streets and how they went about their daily lives was fascinating. China was very different but I really loved it: the huge social differences between here and there; the climate; the people; the history. Guanlan International Print Base has 100 staff and we were each given a small team to help us make work. Fantastic. The newness of Shenzhen and the scale of its expansion, as it tries to outdo Hong Kong is literally hard to take in. Perhaps New York and London felt like this in their youth in an earlier century. They took us on trips to some very ancient places and taking in the age and sophistication of the Chinese culture did away with any preconceptions I had. It was a very focused and productive environment and the 12 hour working day meant I returned with a series of large scale prints each time.
I’ve also had residencies in Sweden, in the forest, which fed into my work: the enormous never-ending scale of forest there allowed me to engage physically with thelandscape. I painted large-scale acrylic paintings on paper which were very loose and which later I developed as a series of silkscreen images using the same acrylic paint. This continuity meant I could use a painterly approach to these prints and it was a natural way to further develop the original acrylic paintings. On one visit to Sweden in 2006 I went to open an exhibition at Galleri Astley. It was the depths of winter and the temperature was minus 19. They put me up in a manor house, a well-finished type of small hotel. On the first night the ghost of a seventeenth-century woman appeared at the end of my bed. She appeared in stages in the dark and was made out of grey swirling smoke. First her cheeks, then her face, then head, then neck, then shoulders, then body appeared, and once formed she lunged at me!. This was not the usual Scandinavian welcome but it affected me deeply and has in a strange way subsequently affected my work. That woman had been seen in that room many times……
In your 2012 exhibition at the Oliver Sears Gallery you showed figure paintings for the first time, such as Valerie, Mr Bennett and Mr Zhao. I remembered them as being quite large but in fact they were relatively small and compared to larger portraits by, say, Colin Davidson, you were much less interested in the descriptive aspects of the sitter. Why portraits? What did you want to do?
The portraits happened accidentally. Oliver Sears was getting married. What does the poor artist give to the man who has everything? I suggested a double portrait of him and his wife to be. They were delighted with the result and he suggested that I expand. I agreed and approached a number of friends to photograph and paint them in the same way. I didn’t paint any features though I tried to retain the likeness but with the least possible inclusion of detail, which was quite a challenge, but I believe it worked in most cases. I have painted two portraits since then. The first was for the National Self-Portrait Collection at UL. The other I painted as a result of hearing an interview on RTE radio with a victim of Father Brendan Smyth. He described his reporting of sexual abuse just after it happened to a panel headed by the then Monsignor Sean Brady. I was stunned at the hypocrisy and how the victim was sworn to secrecy even though other victims were still being abused by Smyth who remained at large for years after that interview. I googled Sean Brady and certain images of him struck me as very similar to a PR photograph of Adolf Eichmann I had encountered years before: both were firmly set in tight-lipped demeanour. I considered how Brady might have appeared to the victim at 10 years old. The resulting painting entitled Brady in Red was my only ever attempt at a sort of social statement.
When you went to NCAD in 1980-83 you studied Design, though, like David Lilburn you were from the start of your career best known as a printmaker. What kind of tuition did you have at NCAD, how useful was it, and what impelled you towards printmaking?
At the end of secondary school, I had applied to NCAD in 1976 but I was not accepted. As an alternative I walked around every ad agency in Dublin and eventually got a job with Arrow Advertising and worked there for four years. I enjoyed typography, photographs, laying them out physically with a scalpel and ruler: making something look visually appealing. But I knew that it was not for me so I applied again to NCAD in 1980, to Visual Communication, and was accepted. I spent most of the three years in the Life Room. In NCAD I’d be given two weeks to do a project that I’d do in an hour at Arrow so I had plenty of free time. Towards the end of 1st year I approached Campbell Bruce who said I could go to Fine Art but only if I started again in first year. I believed I was too old to go back a year at 21 so I didn’t. If I had I think I would have engaged with painting far earlier.
The benefit of NCAD was in meeting artists. I had access to the library: Eddie Murphy was great. Between the library and the Life Room I would spend most of my days: they were my first investigations into visual art and I began to get an inkling of the contemporary art world. By sheer coincidence I was going out with a sister of Mary Farl Powers and she suggested that I do a course at the Graphic Studio. I did a ten week, US Marine style boot-camp with James McCreary, became a member, and slowly began to engage with the process of printmaking. I printed editions for older members like Ruth Brandt, Maria Simmonds-Gooding and Patrick Hickey and later with Michael Farrell, Richard Gorman and Alice Maher among many others. From working with these artists I saw scope for moving in various directions. Then I became fully engaged with the Graphic Studio and I worked out a system of distributing artworks to galleries inside of and outside of Ireland. It was only in the mid nineties that it dawned on me that I should broaden my approach to making art which coincided with when I started painting and making sculpture.
As with Dermot Delargy, and to a certain extent David Lilburn, the world of printmaking seemed too narrow for you to be confined within its realms. Delargy moved into painting and Lilburn regularly does Public Art projects. Why did you feel the need to move into painting (c. 1996) and how difficult was it to make the transition?
Enormously difficult. Anyone who is not a printmaker doesn’t realise the massive amount of physical work involved. By that time I had a good reputation, had many works in many places, but I felt that it was not sustainable. One would have to keep up the huge rate of output just to survive, not to mention the chemicals we were using. I’d thought about painting but was always afraid. It had been said to me: ‘You’re not going to be painting! It doesn’t work!’ But I had learnt printmaking with conviction and hard work. Why couldn’t I learn to paint in the same way? It has taken me twenty years. I should add that the immediacy of paint was a huge stumbling block earlier on. With prints the restrictions are so many that you have to be careful at every point. With painting it was the opposite: complete freedom.
While at NCAD you did Life Drawing with Roger Shackleton, which you have always regarded as a major influence. Can you explain why such a basic prerequisite for an artist constitutes a major influence? Was it the manner in which you were taught?
I don’t think the Design Faculty took Life Drawing seriously but they were required to teach it. Hence the class was sparsely populated so Roger could give us his full attention. Roger didn’t have the normal dry academic approach to teaching. He was a very easy-going character and his own drawing was superb: nonchalant, offhand, yet the construction was perfect. I wanted to be able to do that….It was his personality that also helped to make it easier and so you felt that you didn’t have to approach it too formally. You could enjoy it. No rigorous anatomical approach. Roger was gay in a time when that didn’t allow for an easy life. He would always pick out in a drawing what did work. Then he would redraw in the margin, attempting to do so from yourperspective, breaking down the form into the basic components. He recreated what you had done in a positive easy manner and so you thought ‘you can do it!’ and you did. Roger enjoyed immensely what he was doing.
You joined the Graphic Studio in 1983 where you remained actively involved until at least 2005 and you are still a member. What, as a printmaker, did you want to do as a young man, and how did – and how do- you see yourself in relation to the history of Irish printmaking?
I guess I’m a little tired of being typecast, like an actor. Also if you’re labelled it’s ‘how dare you slip out of it’! In my teens I wandered up to the RDS Horse Show, climbed over the back wall and with my friends would go around looking for devilment. I looked at the horses themselves, not like racehorses, these were much heavier. David Broome was representing England at the time. There was a sense of movement and physicality, so I started making images of horses. I looked at George Stubbs’ horse studies closely. I made lithographs in tiny editions! For many years I was stereotyped as a horse artist. The landscapes started as loose backdrops for horse images and slowly the horses got smaller until they vanished entirely so it was an organic progression really from one to the other.
I went back to fourteenth century landscapes. I preferred to concoct a landscape out of elements from various paintings, creating a stage scene, vignettes where things might happen. I lit them, creating the drama for the viewer: skewing it, giving it that strange spiritual quality. There is some parallel in what Rothko did with layers of flat colour.
As others have, I dedicated a number of years of my working life to the running of Graphic Studio Dublin. It remains a National Treasure in my view and a great resource for the visual arts. Apart from my prints, my contribution was probably mainly in the co-ordination of countless group exhibitions and projects in institutions like the National Gallery and Chester Beatty Library. I am still involved in the planning and co-ordination of these events which help to sustain the profile of printmaking in Ireland generally.
You have had a long relationship with Sweden: five one-person shows since 2004 and group exhibitions dating back to 1997. How did this come about and what is the attraction?
I think that, around the mid nineties, two Swedish artists, Lars Nyberg and Lina Nordenstrom, visited Graphic Studio Dublin. They took some prints of ours back to Sweden, they sold, we were paid, so it was a good incentive to venture over. We had a great reciprocal arrangement with these artists. I showed first in Stockholm then I was invited to show at Galleri Astley in Västmanland which is surrounded by forest. I went to work in the forest and loved it – en plein air. It was a really successful exhibition, and everyone was so supportive, welcoming and encouraging. I have made many connections, showing from Kiruna in the North to Gottenburg and Skäne in the South and I also show my work in Oslo. Per capita their interest in visual art is higher than anywhere else I’ve ever been. It is a wonderful country.
Digital imagery seems central to your work. You use a camera rather in the way a writer uses a notebook as an aide memoire, and on the computer you experiment, manipulating pixilation, scale and so forth. Obviously this process is itself a form of abstraction, shifting the material away from the descriptive and topographical bases and towards a stylised angle of approach which can appear linked to Impressionism at one end of the spectrum (e.g. Trees, 2006) or to a Poliakoff landscape abstraction at the other end (e.g. Liebherr 2). What is the benefit of the digital camera for you (possibly a crosslink with the more technological side of printmaking?) and in what direction are you headed?
A lot of my influences have come from historical paintings. I’m already starting from a two dimensional subject or source. This equates with using the camera which has allowed me to record landscape or people. Once on screen a two-dimensional source that I can control, crop, heighten, lighten, darken….it does abstract and flatten everything too. For this current show I’ve scanned images of paintings dating between 1400 and 1800 into the computer – no digital camera –they predate photography, an otherworldly viewpoint. I had not planned to focus on the 400 years but works prior to 1400 did not appeal to me. Perhaps it was their flatness. Works later than 1800, after the camera arrived there seems to me to have been a shift in perception of how artists saw reality and that change too lost something for me. I’d previously painted in Spain and Sweden from digital images of the actual landscape but these new images were scanned from catalogues. Basically I’m deconstructing and reconstructing, flattening, foreshortening, cropping images – extracting what I want from them, an exploration to see what might happen. What I’m doing is quite different to what I have been doing. It’s quite possible to do anything now nobody seems to mind, like Glenn Brown for example recreating Auerbach’s paintings. I have been working on these paintings for two years now. I think I have succeeded in pushing the material to the point where each of the paintings has their own particular life as combinations of struggle and chance.
Printmaking essentially stayed the same technically from Durer’s day through to the early twentieth century. You are a product of the period which saw enormous advances in technique, from Stanley Hayter in the thirties through to the American printmakers’ organisations like Tamarind. How do you see the balance sheet, so to speak, between the old and the new techniques?
This is an ongoing argument. I’ve had this discussion from China to Sweden to America. At Graphic Studio Dublin there was a leaning towards the traditional. I’m not that interested in modern media. I find it’s too easy. Getting your hands dirty on a daily basis, the slog, is how I grew up with art. If I occasionally see something superb which has been made digitally or photographically, I’d acknowledge it, but for me, I’m not interested.
I attended a seminar in 2012 at the 1st Lingshi International Print Biennial in Northern China. We were presented as foreign ‘experts’, there were national TV cameras, and they took this very seriously. Suddenly it was announced ‘and now the foreign experts will speak’! There had been some argument between traditional old style, and the Beijing new guys. As with most things, the new media will become the normal, and the old media will be less apparent. It’s just the way things go. I contended that this argument went on everywhere and the danger, as I saw it was in the rejection of traditional techniques and that care should be taken not to lose the baby with the bathwater. In China those techniques go back thousands of years which is I suppose why so much seriousness surrounded the issue.
What can you do in a painting that you can’t do in a print, and vice versa?
I believe it is the immediacy of paint and what it has to offer. My methodology – I wrote that down the other day! – is that I’ve no problem in destroying a painting. I paint very quickly: an intentional nonchalance that allows me to paint in a fluid, intuitive way to produce something unexpected. I would find it impossible to make a print in that way.
Your prints demonstrate an exacting desire for control, precision and exactitude, an aesthetic that would have sat comfortably with that of James McNeil Whistler. But whereas Whistler’s paintings display the same scrupulously finicky aesthetic as his prints, your paintings diverge markedly from your printmaking, being much looser in handling, more gestural, seemingly more open to accident. Why do you think this is so?
I think it’s to do with the medium of paint. Perhaps I’ve been seduced by the sheer slippery, wet surface. I never expected or planned for this to happen but when exploring a medium you should be open to any possibility. In my years of involvement with printmaking I’ve seen painters come to make prints and I know from their paintings which print media will suit them. Seeing myself in reverse, I could never ask a painter what way they thought I should paint. Unfortunately printmakers are seen somehow as second-class citizens in the pecking order of the art world. I have tried to reconcile the two media in my work most recently in China with five large silkscreens. It didn’t work for me. For now I’ll continue to develop my painting in the hope that the two will meet again and speak directly to each other but there is no point in forcing it.
In your exhibition Cu, the broad brush strokes, tactile surfaces, all-over compositions frequently organised on a diagonal, and a sense of movement – one might think of early Auerbach in particular – belied their expressionist ancestry by opting for a small as opposed to a larger scale, a form of condensation if you like. What is your attitude to scale?
I think that the impact of a very powerful small scale piece of art can entirely transcend itself. I’m not sure if it’s my own background, growing up in a small house, that has affected my tendency but the intimacy of something small and perfect has always meant something to me as opposed to enormous expressions of something grander.
Tell us about your current work and take us trough the process of a typical painting.
I decided at the beginning of last year to step away from where I’d been. These new paintings are a continuation of the journey I started almost twenty years ago, dismantling Old Master paintings systematically and re-assembling them in a different way. To re-invigorate my energies I decided to make a return to my point of departure, when I started making prints. The earliest ones were fairly crude and were constructed of segregated black marks but as they developed they became more fluid. I have tried to inject something a little raw into the paintings by relaxing control over the paint which is not very easy. The ensuing uncertainty considerably ratchets up the tension which in turn opens up interesting possibilities. The subjects range from battle-scenes to religious scenes, Royal portraits and Greek mythology. When something works too easily, one needs to be suspicious. I think Richard Diebenkorn said that, and it’s to be cautiously considered. I’ve tried to deviate away from the likeness: I’m not going to destroy it if it looks too like the original…What I started out with, as a plan, was freedom from constraint of technique or concept. How the paint can be manipulated is any way.
What you’re seeing is a remaking of particular iconic paintings between 1400 and 1800 so the viewer is familiar with them yet they are reborn in a way that retains some of their quality yet it is something else again. If, like Warhol, one sets out to capitalise on the iconic status, that would not be my intention here. I’m allowing each piece to develop in its own way. Perhaps those that are most successful retain a faint echo of the original.
I would start a painting in the full knowledge that it wouldn’t work. I slap the paint on, approximating the marks. I’m looking at a reference on the computer screen and I’d start to put on the canvas, in a loose way, what I see, in thick paint (not fannying around). I’d then assess it after perhaps half an hour. It rarely works at that point – though it can work. Generally I’d start then to merge the marks, darkening or lightening sections, adding more paint, wiping away. I would become quite emotional, getting angry if it wasn’t working and therefore forcing it to become something. If this doesn’t work I then take a second reference and paint over the first one, leaving the original paint there. The new image is a hybrid and has qualities that could not have been there had I not attempted the first one, thus creating the potential for accidents, anomalies and unintentional elements.
This process, if there’s still no resolution, I’ll put aside for weeks or months. I’ll have twenty paintings on the wall, half finished, near-to-being finished…it’s an emotional process. I don’t know what I’m looking for when I start out but I’m seeking a result that is totally unanticipated. Most of them would need something very small. It’s only with time that you add the touch and feel it’s complete: nothing more to be added or taken away.
In a world which has seen national boundaries begin to disappear in art – not unlike football teams! – and where a jogtrot through a Biennale often reveals a depressingly similar range of work - what is it about your own work that you would consider distinctive?
As I said earlier I don’t feel that I fit into any category. I came from an oblique angle into the art world. I’m very different. I don’t come from a place where they turn out clones and ideologues with a mission to spread the conceptual gospel.
My interest in historical painting gives me this unique perspective that allows me to represent the past in my own way. I was told at an opening by a young girl: ‘I just wanted to tell you that if I died I’d love to wake up in one of your paintings’. That disturbed me, that it could affect someone in that way. I suppose it’s the antithesis of conceptual art but I’m happy to stay there!
Stephen, you were born in Dublin in 1958, just at the time when Ireland was threatening to emerge from the deadening conservatism and poverty of the fifties and sixties. I can remember, as a child, streets being full of rubbish, and hoards of beggars. So who were your parents, what part of Dublin did you grow up in, and now in retrospect, what are your dominant memories of childhood?
Strangely, my parents were Joseph and Mary! (Much laughter). My father grew up in the Liberties and moved out to Crumlin at any early age. He was a sort of building contractor who would do any job, extensions, plumbing, electrics, pipe-laying. He was the fifth child in a Republican family. The best man at his eldest brother’s wedding was Brendan Behan! Another one, George Lawlor was Dr. Noel Browne’s Director of Elections and had been a fully active member of a Republican Army active service unit. George was a well-read socialist politician and a Marxist. My father’s Dad died when he was ten and he was apprenticed as a baker in Bolands at the age of 14. There were eight children and the older four brothers left and never came back. It was that kind of family. We had no real connection with his family. He had a terribly hard life. He was intelligent but he never had the opportunities. By the time he grew up he was anti everything: Fianna Fail, the Catholic Church, and the G.A.A. whom he referred to as ‘that evil triumvirate’. But he was a great wit.
My mother’s family was called Dent, from Ringsend: a special part of Dublin really. Her uncles were deep-sea sailors and her brothers were dockers. They were lucky as they all worked in the port. Stuff fell off the back of trucks regularly and that sustained them. There were ten of them. It was a very close-knit family. I grew up just off Bath Avenue which was close to Ringsend so my mother could visit her mother every day. It was along the River Dodder of which I have fond memories. There was lots of time spent on the riverbank and on climbing over the wall into the rugby stadium at Lansdowne Road. We’d have rafts on the river but we avoided Ringsenders because they were tougher than us. Was there any element from childhood that shaped me? No! There was no one around who had an interest in visual art.
I went to CBS, Westland Row. It was similar to a concentration camp environment: constant beatings, stifling, really quite scary for a child. One way of escape was if you became an altar boy as you didn’t have to attend some classes. St Andrew’s Church was right next door. While serving mass, the incense, the light, the paintings, the singing…there was something in relation to the spiritual quality of that environment.
I got that sort of magic feeling: another world; a parallel place. Later in life, quattrocento paintings revealed the same feeling –that was when things began to happen to me in terms of the visual arts. Nothing to do with God either!
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2014
Oil on Canvas 30x34cm 2014
Oil on Canvas 65x78cm 2014
Oil on Canvas 50x60cm 2014
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2014
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2014
Oil on Canvas 30x25cm 2014
Oil on Canvas 30x25cm 2014
Oil on Canvas 30x25cm 2014
Oil on Canvas 30x25cm 2014
Beyond the House of Carmen & Figure paintings 2012
From Life and Culture, Irish Times, Thursday May 24th 2012, Sinead Gleeson.
In the bright space above Fifth Avenue, it could be said that the painter most influenced by light is Stephen Lawlor. His Iron Hat Avoca series of landscapes is hanging in New York at the same time as a major show in Dublin, at Oliver Sears Gallery. Beyond the House of Carmen & Figure Paintings suggest a double concern and the exhibition is a bisection of Lawlor's landscapes and his figurative works. Downstairs are the Carmen landscapes of Andalucia, El Burgo and Ronda.
Infused with every imaginable shade of green, they are explorations of light as much as topography. The figurative works, painted in Ireland, emanate from a different pallette. The juxtaposition of black and white recurs, in corners, on the boundaries and there are flashes of the olive greens of Andalucia in what Lawlor insists are 'paintings of people' rather than portraits.
'I don't like flat light', Lawlor says. 'Most of the figures were painted late last year or earlier this year, in weeks dominated by the Irish winter's lack of light. I prefer to have the dramatic, sharp light coming from one direction that gives you an atmosphere. Going from the Spanish light to that is very different.''.
Many painters would baulk at the idea of exhibiting such diverse work together, but Lawlor seems to revel in the ongoing experience of experimenting and learning as a painter.''Stephen's technical abilities are extraordinary'', says Sears. ''He's a master printmaker and he's only been painting for about twelve years''.
Lawlor believes that printmaking has a tough physicality to it, while painting is more psychological, but he acknowledges the former's influence on his methodology. ''As a printmaker I learnt about mixing colour and crucially, that by tweaking and augmenting colour even slightly, you can change things dramatically or incrementally.''
In a way this helped Lawlor embrace paint -not just in terms of shade, but in terms of pigment and texture. ''I often put down a lot of paint knowing it might not work, but I then begin a new image if it doesn't work. layering is something I learnt in printmaking, but with painting you have this slippery mass of paint. I never take it off the canvas - I like that out-of-control element, because it means you don't have a predetermined outcome, which is open to possibility''.
Moving from landscapes of copper mines and scorched spain to painting people - and people he knew - was initially daunting. Lawlor had always sketched people as drawing exercises, but when he graduated to rendering them in oil, he found more common ground than he expected with his landscape work.
'' When I paint landscapes, i try to force the shapes and patterns to interlock, so I approached painting figures in the same way. The fact that they're people doesn't matter, but a face is equally as important as apiece of rock. Presenting both landscapes and figures, I worried that this exhibition would appear fragmented, but your whole experience as a painter merges, and it becomes the end of a journey - and a resolution in paint.''
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2012
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2012
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2012
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2012
Hinterland 2009 & CU 2010
To visit an artist’s studio to see work-in-progress, even if it’s the workplace of an artist one admires, can be fraught with concern. So it was that on a recent afternoon, by Stephen Lawlor’s Dublin home, I experienced feelings, first, of relief and then of delight – for the paintings that unrolled before me, marked by a bright confidence, conveyed a place and time, an atmosphere and emotional response. They brightened my day, and the days since I saw them.
A pivotal member of Ireland’s Graphic Studio for more than twenty-five years, Stephen Lawlor is an uncommonly successful artist. While maintaining an avid ‘audience’ of collectors of his prints he retains the respect of his peers.
Let me dwell for a moment on the work I came first to know best. First, in what could be called his signature horse (a subject rendered now in various etchings and in bronze editions) his aim is not verisimilitude. He doesn’t aspire to Stubbs’ anatomical exactness or to the breathing, snorting likeness of, say, a Géricault. He doesn’t try to conjure anything as specific as the horses that wander in our back field, Moses Hill, Ben, or Bella the mare. Rather, he’s devoted to the pursuit of a more elemental horse, eohippus, a Platonic ideal. His by now widely known ‘Ochre Horse’, for example, suggests an heraldic creature, with the grand magnificence of a warhorse from a Parthenon frieze, or a majestic mediaeval charger. (His horses’ Classical bent is further invoked in a companion piece, ‘Ilium’, the Latin name for that ancient city in Asia Minor, site of the Trojan War.) Stephen Lawlor’s horse is immediately and utterly recognizable – all mass and presence – because the artist has sought, found, and captured an equine essence. In contrast with this monumental undertaking Stephen Lawlor’s more recent ‘Winter Wood’ is a model of delicate balance. The birches looming out of that dark hinterland evoke the fired fragility of willow pattern china.
We value outstanding graphic work for its integrity, its determination first to be itself. These etchings don’t aspire to transfer their subjects realistically, yet they achieve something else – they succeed in becoming, as John Ashbery wrote of the work of his fellow American poet, Frank O’Hara, ‘instances of themselves’.
Stephen Lawlor’s work has long been remarkable for its mastery of medium and scale. From the careful art of printmaking and, perhaps, in particular intaglio, with the fewer opportunities it offers for going over one’s tracks, to repair or revise them, his new paintings demonstrate a way of revelling in the relative freedoms afforded by the great expanses of those enormous rolls of robust paper and of their theme.
It comes as no surprise that, in all his work, Stephen Lawlor exhibits a high degree of technical skill, the fruit of long experience. The technical triumph of the new paintings, as I understand them, lies in the way that the light is not applied but, rather, emerges, or emanates, from behind the image, like light bouncing back from the eye’s retina. But what is particularly exciting about these paintings from the forests of Sweden is that for his exceptional technique he has discovered an enthralling subject.
Stephen Lawlor has spoken of his encounter with a revenant, the visiting presence at a manor house adjacent to Galleri Astley, and his new exhibition, Hinterland, features images of this woman in what might be a blood speckled gown, some of them with a kind of crosshatching that interrupts the light of ordinary day and shields her from its glare. In others (as, indeed, in ‘Ochre Horse’ )a web of lines suggests the craquelure of Old Masters. In these portraits the religious matter of earlier work (crucifixions, archangels, a papal audience, images of Christ) give way to something heterodox. His paintings of the forests, lakesides, riverbanks and clearings – but especially the forests! – around Uttersberg and Skinnskatteberg are enlivened with a comparable atmosphere and drama. In them the paths and passageways through the woods suggest the twists and turns of an unfolding (but, perhaps, never ending) narrative. There are, among these birches and evergreens, patches of smoky, misty areas. In short, there is about them, too, a haunted sense, and that spectral impression devolves from the essence of the place to which they attend. Essence – as intrinsic nature, that quality which determines character. Essence– the property or properties without which something would not exist or be quite as it is. And Essence, too, in the sense of something extracted or concentrated from something.
In these essential paintings and prints Stephen Lawlor has rendered, or translated, a place into exquisite art. The tall, commanding uprights of trees are offset by the subtler force of horizontal surfaces, lake and river, lakeshore and river side, and by the shocking close-up of individual leaves in, say, ‘Forest Floor’. That shock of lights persists as a series of highlights on the vertical trunks and in reflections of water and leaves.
I’ve suggested that Stephen Lawlor is better known as a printmaker than as a painter. On the evidence of this new, coruscating work, this may change. The full flourish of the work in Hinterlandrepresents an important milestone, and advance, on the journey of this artist. He has returned with interest the rewards of his visits to a hinterland of Sweden.
Loughcrew, January 2009
Peter Fallon is the founder editor of The Gallery Press, Ireland’s leading literary publishing house. His most recent books of poetry are The Georgics of Virgil and The Company of Horses.
This exhibition was the result of a commission from Dr Aidan Doyle of Newcastle University to visually investigate the disused (sister) copper mines at Avoca in Co Wicklow and Amlwch, Anglesea in Wales. Their history and industrial heritage stories today are very different.
Below is an essay for the catalogue by Brian McAvera and below that a small text on the Geology and background of the subjects by Dr. Aidan Doyle.
The imagination catches fire at both the actuality and the symbolism of a copper seam submerging beneath the Irish Sea, then re-emerging at one end, in Anglesey in North Wales, and at the other end in Avoca, Co Wicklow, in the Republic of Ireland. The symbolism and the continuities of tradition, heritage and history, continue as one realises that these now disused, open-cast mines would seem to be the perfect symbols of both our vanished history, and of a Celtic connection.
So what does Lawlor do? Does he fit within any definable British or Irish context as a painter? Is the work more European or American in inspiration? What is his relationship to photography? As a printmaker of long-standing should he be placed within the category that art historians call Painter-Etchers? Is he in any sense a landscape painter, or even a topographical artist? Is he an abstract artist in disguise, or is he somewhere on that sliding scale of abstracted work which starts with Impressionism and which is still current today, in all visual art-forms, in what Georges Bataille, as filtered through Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, have called L’informe.
Let’s look at his history first. In the early eighties, fresh from college, he started to make prints, often basing them on vignettes taken from Old Master paintings. By zeroing in on Old Master details, he combined a post Pop Art sensibility with the pleasure-principle of pictorial design. Etchings like Coast, Road to the Sea or Horizon could be viewed in the surrealist sense of the detail standing in for the whole, but they fitted in rather better with that kind of conceptual sensibility which appropriated from a source and then reinterpreted it in terms of colour, mark-making and design.
As both painter and printmaker, Lawlor seemed to be drawn to particular themes such as The Crucifixion, The Annunciation, the Landscape and – in another zeroing in – the Horse. Sources, whether singular or composite, provide him with a rough template: a starting point for jump-leading the imagination. The same will be true of his paintings, only here the source will be a digital photograph; and instead of using composites, he will prefer to select a single image - though with digital technology he will be able to activate the idea of a composite by zeroing in (that word again) onto a detail, and changing its status by magnification which – sooner or later – results in abstraction.
As the emphasis upon the horse might indicate this is a pantheistic temperament – as opposed, for example, to the specifically religious and catholic temperament of a painter and printmaker like Patrick Pye– and one which transforms the raw data of source material into a mnemonic of a Third Space: a dreamworld, or a staged encounter.
In his printmaking painterly concerns were soon in operation, in terms of spit-biting and the manipulation of plate tone. A skim of plate tone might be graduated across an area of sky while other areas would be aqua-tinted by spit-biting. Where the acid, when applied by the brush, encountered water, soft edges would be created on the equipoise between darkness and light; between the deeply dense aquatints and the light areas of plate tone.
His use of three or four plates for any given print, so allowing for a layering of colours is analogous to his painting wet-in-wet, except that in the paintings the layering of paint is more overtly interactive as opposed to the more controlled and calibrated optical mix of the prints. This painterly attack came to a head when he started to produce monoprints in 1997 in which the paint was, literally, brushed on.
If we shift forward in time to the current exhibition Cu (the chemical symbol for copper) what are we being presented with, and how were these works generated? We know that previous to this series of works the artist had spent seven or eight months in a Swedish forest which resulted in the exhibition Hinterland. Those paintings were essentially Impressionist works in that they expressed the artist’s personality and response to the world.
The archetypal impressionist subject is landscape and its artists were encouraged by, and used, photography as well as being fascinated by new research into colour and light. Lawlor’s subjects in painting have likewise tended to be landscapes. He uses a digital photograph on the screen, and thus imbued with light, as his sketchpad reference, and the impact of light on water or forest trees as with Lake 11 or Vertical, is clearly of central importance to him.
The exhibition which immediately preceded the Swedish one, which had three of Dublin’s rivers (the Tolka, Liffey and Dodder) as its nominal subject matter, exhibited the same concerns. In Tolka 2 for example, broad taches of white depicted the flickering of light as it skited across water. Both of these exhibitions were landscape-based, though the emphasis for the most part was on the natural environment. In the current exhibition we observe the effects of the encroachment of man upon the landscape in both Anglesey and Wicklow.
These are man-made landscapes but not ones which are consciously designed. The spoil heaps, the end result of rock which has been pulverised, roasted and dumped, over the years create an unnatural landscape of colour as the metals in the rock oxidise. There is randomness to this process (and indeed also, to a degree, in terms of the scars left by open-cast mining) which is very different from the more controlled world of a planted forest or an urban river.
If one thinks of Asphalt Rundown (1969), by the American artist Robert Smithson, which consists of a series of photographs of a lorry, tipping a load of liquid asphalt down a mountain scree, some connections can be made. By pouring asphalt down the mountainside Smithson is at once acknowledging the random weathering of a quarried landscape while at the same time attempting to put a shape upon it by mimicking the random nature of what had been left. It is precisely this pull between randomness and the artist’s urge to impose some form or shape (no matter how loose) that Bois & Krauss characterise as L’informe or ‘formless’.
Lawlor’s response, like Smithson’s, is a controlled slippage between the imposition of form, and the urge to explore what is an actually abstracted landscape. He has learnt from the camera’s unthinking ability to squash space and to create dramatic foreshortenings. This trope (a staple of modernism from Gauguin onwards) emerges in the way in which he flattens the perspective to the point where the painting can be read as an ‘allover’ image, whilst at the same time allowing a limited, recessionist reading.
Fundamentally these are paintings about ambiguity: what is it that we are actually seeing? How do we ‘read’ an image? Initially, when the present writer first saw the paintings as images on a disc, they looked like seascapes: waves crashing against the shoreline, somewhat in the manner of the Irish painter Donald Teskey. The images had the swirl and skirl of strong, visceral movement.
But ironically, in real life, screes and spoil heaps, especially large ones, do suggest latent movement. A scree, of its nature, has a diagonal thrust, and when made of small pebbles, is easily set in motion. Large spoil heaps create the same kind of kinetic sensation: one imagines that to pull out a pebble would set off a landslide. This latent kinetic energy is made patent in Lawlor’s paintings.
Lawlor clearly abstracts. He is not interested in a description of piles of scree for example, but rather in an evocation of the scene. The paint is allowed to wander and drift, and a sense of movement is built into his working methods as he will frequently have three or four loaded brushes in one hand, and switch rapidly between them. The drag and pull and twist of long bristle brushes condense this sense of movement into swirling brushstrokes which enervate the picture plane.
This sense of condensation is paramount. The original manmade landscapes are vast and one might have expected the painter to opt, like so many American and European expressionists, for sheer scale. Yet these paintings are tiny. The immensities of rock face, scree and the quarried scars, are taken to task, reduced, simplified, made to behave within the confines of the small canvas. Paradoxically, by emphasising the allover surface, man’s inruptions into the earth’s tissue are levelled out.
Condensation however, also has other effects. It heightens the immediacy, emphasises the sense of movement, and so creates a drama, almost a melodrama, which is reminiscent of the effects achieved by a Gericault or a Delacroix. One can observe this in a work like Iron Hat, Avoca No.5 which is constructed (like many of these paintings) upon a quite firm, indeed aggressive diagonal, which runs from bottom left to up right. The swirling paint suggests a maelstrom: an anger and a brooding sense of incipient violence as if the scree were sea waves breaking upon the shore or pouring down a waterfall.
This brio of brush marks would drive the eyes to skitter off the edges of the painting if not only the diagonal, but also the area to the upper left (which registers as black but is technically a thick ‘Van Dyck’ brown), did not anchor the painting. With paintings like these a sense of architectural underscoring is necessary. Lawlor favours diagonals but also, quite frequently, he nails down a composition by the use of a small spot or tache of dark paint as in the mid right of Iron Hat Avoca Number Four. Occasionally this is reversed as in Iron Hat Avoca No. 8 where the anchoring is daintily done by a pinky rose area on the centre right.
What most of these paintings do is to replicate the sense of the eye flicking backwards and forwards, upwards and downwards, as one walks across a landscape, while registering unexpected hues. In other words the sense of being in the landscape, the sense of being the artist as he moves across it, is muscularly reproduced in the paint. It is tempting to call the painter an expressionist but this is really not a very useful term in relation to him. The use of broad brushstrokes, tactile surfaces, and allover compositions can be observed in the School of London (Auerbach, Kossof et al), in the School of Paris (think of everyone from Soutine through to Dubuffet, Poliakoff and Soulages) or in the American Expressionists (from Pollock to Philip Guston), and all three groups have left thumbprints upon Lawlor’s work, but the crucial distinction is scale.
All expressionist painting and particularly the American variety is vulnerable, as Robert Hughes noted, to an overt grandiloquence and pretentiousness which confuses size with scale. What is striking about Lawlor, and is perhaps a product of his earlier immersion in the print world, is the sense of containment and control in an arena which normally indicates the opposite.
This small scale containment is all the more striking when one thinks of a painter like Auerbach whose earlier work, specifically the London Building Sites 1952-62 series is close to Lawlor’s current work, in terms not only of subject matter – both are large-scale encroachments by man into the land – but also in terms of its earth colour palette offset by striking patches of warmer colours. The majority of Auerbach’s Building Site paintings are large-scale whereas all of Lawler’s are small-scale.
In a painting like Amlwch, Anglesey, No.5 for instance, constructed like so many of Auerbach’s, of thick, dense brushstrokes, and like many of that artist’s Building Site works capable of being read as both a flat, cauled, abstracted and frontal surface, and as recessive landscape, the difference is that Lawlor’s painting, unlike Auerbach’s is not only small but also contains the latent energy of movement.
So, to answer the questions posed earlier, as to what kind of painter the artist is, it seems clear that he is neither a narrowly ‘Irish’ painter, solely concerned with a parochial exploration of landscape and its Irish identity, nor is he a topographical painter in any real sense. Rather he is a European artist (albeit happy to pillage any useful American painter) with a distinct tachiste imprint, and a sensibility which combines his printmaker’s flare for subtle colour and small-scale with an animated surface flecked with light.
Brian McAvera is a playwright, curator, art historian and art critic.
The Celestial Vault
Dr. Aidan Doyle
The Wicklow Mountains bear few traces of the natural world other than as it has been ameliorated through human agency. What we see in Glendalough, for instance, is a landscape made by the hands of men and women. Geology records the natural processes of attenuation that take place over aeons, and is written down in a language which describes temporal zones spanning hundreds of millions of years. Volcanological deposits have made the Avoca valleys the focus of mining for at least four thousand years. Mineralisation there is largely the result of volcanic activities which occurred millions of years ago.
Metal ores have been deposited in massive sulphides formed by the exhalation of volcanoes on the seabed. This activity is studied as it occurs today as hydrothermal vents formed when superheated water from beneath the earth’s crust bursts through the ocean floor. The water is rich with dissolved minerals and these precipitate when they meet cold water and become massive sulphide ore deposits. At Avoca, and its sister lode at Amlwch in North Wales the major ore minerals in the deposits are chalcopyrite, sphalerite and galena, providing copper, zinc and lead respectively. Minor minerals such as arsenopyrite or mispickel, (along with orpiment is an important ore of arsenic – and can be an indicator of the presence of gold), tetrahedrite (copper antimony sulphide) and bismuthinite (a sulphide ore of bismuth), as well as some gold and silver, are also present.
Most of the metal bearing rock here is composed of pyrite.
The word Gossan is used to describe oxidised and weathered rock, usually the upper and exposed part of an ore deposit or mineral vein. Gossans have been important indicators of buried ore. Prospectors use these clues to speculate as to the type of mineralization likely to be found below an iron cap.
“morja ter nebesnega oboa” - sea and the celestial vault
It is certain that gold, silver and copper mines were worked in this area from the remotest antiquity. It is also known that gold was obtained here in much greater abundance in ancient times. Gaelic, Old Norse, Anglicised Gaelic and English are likewise temporal markers of place. Ptolemy mapped the world in 150 AD identifying the location of the river ‘Oboka’: in fact, the oldest place name in Ireland which comes down to us from the Scythian languages by way of Hittite metal miners who came here first before histories were written down. The closest parallel we have is the modern Slovenian language where ‘oboka’ means an arch – the celestial vault or rainbow– and the Avoca was named for the celestial arch by people who knew of the treasures secreted in its valleys – and how to get them and what to do with them. Hittites established their kingdom in central Anatolia through most of the second millennium BC. These were the first civilization known to have worked in iron. Excavations of their cities record a people with distinct engineering mining and metallurgic skills. Resource procurement remained vital to Hittite supremacy and the command and priority of rights over these resources. They knew how to read the landscape and the gossan lode. Such resources abound in the Avoca river catchment.
The earliest workings of which traces can be detected were for lead in Cronebane, and iron in Moneyteigue. And “… at the Magpie or East Cronebane (Ovoca), there are ‘old men’s workings’ on the ‘gossan lode’, and in them were found stone and wooden implements. Ruins of very ancient iron workings and mines are recorded between Aughrim and Ballynaclash.
Economically useful minerals were listed by Kinahan in an exhaustive volume in 1889. He noted that the “Great Mineral Channel extends from near the sea southwards of Wicklow, in a south-west direction, to Ovoca, and from that to the flanks of Croghan-Kinshella, a distance of about fifteen miles. In the channel and adjoining it the rocks are ‘iron-masked’, similar to the rocks adjoining to the intrude of the younger Granite”. It is linked to the igneous activity which accompanied intrusion of the younger granites, and is evident in the orebody at Amlwch, Anglesey. As these have been worked across time they offer insights into histories that have been written on and concealed within the landscape.
Through drainage from the deep and ancient mines four thousand years of human activities have caused the lower Avoca to be the most polluted river in Ireland. The scenery of the mine sites is subject of judgmental bias. The general idea of taste relates to a person’s ability to render approbation to a given situation. Aesthetic verdicts differ from factual judgments by which we understand things to be either true or false. The same cannot be said about conclusions drawn from the operations of taste where sentiment determines that a particular object is or is not beautiful. Kant’s ‘Standards of Taste’ determine how aesthetic appreciation is derived from habituated expectations based on custom and association. We know what we like and we like what we know. Alternatively cognitive positions in environmental aesthetics promote the idea that the understanding of the nature of the object of comprehension (its narrative – its history and meaning) is important to aesthetic appreciation of it. A positive appreciation of a place may confront the accepted stereotype; and this is never more so than in rural Ireland. The scenery afforded by the Avoca and Amlwch mine sites is the subject of significant judgmental bias. We are familiar with the idyll of the Irish landscape, the pictorial tradition underpinned by romantic recollections articulated around bucolic imagery: the stuff of the calendar and picture book. Abandoned mines paint a totally different picture. Looking without prejudice at a differentiated landscape can be effected through an Aesthetic Realism approach, by which we agree that the purpose of study is to like the world through knowledge of it.
Despite European conventions which should serve to protect this exposed geological heritage the Avoca mines are a threatened landscape.
Dr.Aidan Doyle is an artist and recently co-ordinated the EU Celtic Copper Heritage at Avoca Mines. He is currently responsible for RCE North East (http://www.rcenortheast.eu/) and is based at Newcastle University.
57x76cm Acrylic on Paper 2009
Acrylic on paper 57x76cm 2009
Acrylic on paper 57x76cm 2009
57x76cm Acrylic on Paper 2009
Oil on Canvas 38x30cm 2010
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2009
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2009
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2009
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2009
Oil on Canvas 25x30cm 2009
25x30cm Oil on Canvas 2010
Memory and Desire
'Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.' - Leonardo da Vinci.
Penumbra, Afterglow , Lumen, Diffusion. All words used to describe light and its effects, yet all were ultimately rejected as possible titles for this show. Although Stephen Lawlor's works are certainly characterised by a uniquely luminous quality of light, these words proved to be too literal and failed to capture the poetic, otherworldly feeling that unites the prints in this exhibition. The title that was finally chosen was inspired by the opening lines of T.S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland,' a poem that has deep affinities with Lawlor's images in its references to memory, loss, longing, chance encounters, and, above all, a deep but understated spirituality. Eliot did not present the reader with symbols that can be easily deciphered, offering instead a kaleidoscopic array of allusive words and scenarios that are often inter-textual. Similarly, Lawlor's works have a distinctly suggestive rather than representational approach, evoking impressions of, or reactions to, a subject, rather than depicting it literally. Lawlor also absorbs myriad sources from art history and makes them his own. Unlike Eliot, however, Lawlor's exquisite body of works creates a dreamlike landscape full of ambiguity rather than a wasteland, and represents both a new stage in his artistic evolution and a synthesis of his career to date.
This career has been notable both for his personal artistic achievements and his considerable contribution to printmaking in Ireland and abroad through his work with the Graphic Studio Print Workshop. These dual roles are combined in his organisational position and participation in group shows such as Art into Art at the National Gallery of Ireland in 1998 and Holy Show at the Chester Beatty Library in 2002. His prints have featured in countless other group and solo exhibitions at home and abroad, and form part of notable collections including the National Gallery, Allied Irish Bank, Dublin City University, and the Office of Public Works. Over the past several years, Lawlor has also turned his attention to painting and has had a number of successful solo shows, including those in Stockholm and Dublin in 2003 and Sligo in 2004.
To admirers of Lawlor’s work the horse is undoubtedly the most familiar image. As he has previously noted, the subject was initially inspired by the anatomical studies of the English painter George Stubbs, but developed to become an exploration of the figurative and abstract dimensions of the subject. Ochre Horse clearly suggests this trajectory in an image that both captures the essence of the animal and explores tonal varieties of light and shade. The large-scale mono-prints are related to painting not only through their painterly source, but also in their technique, as the paint is applied directly to the copper plate, without the use of etching, resulting in a loose, even Romantic revisiting of the subject. The horse image also features in a series of four small-scale bronze sculptures. The move from paper to sculpture was prompted by the artist's visit to a Dublin foundry, and by many suggestions that his horses had a three-dimensional quality and would thus be an ideal subject for sculpture. The resulting works, as Lawlor observes, are 'like creating fifty individual drawings, as they need to work from every angle simultaneously.'
The small-scale landscapes are the most intimate works in the show, drawing the viewer into scenes that are reminiscent of journeys and transitions. These works are both continuations of concerns that are notable in Lawlor's work throughout his career and composites in themselves. Lawlor has always drawn on sources from art history and used these works, mainly paintings, as palimpsests that form the basis for his own reactions to nature. Various elements in a particular landscape print, whether a tree, a cloud, a road or a mountain, may come from a different origin and combine to create theatrical panoramas that are often more a meditation on the landscape as a genre, than a depiction of a particular place. What is most striking about this referencing of the work of past masters is the sense of atmosphere and tension achieved. This tension takes on a spiritual dimension in several other pieces in this exhibition. Woman at Otter Mountain is based on the tragic story of a woman whose spirit haunts a manor house in central Sweden where her husband killed their child and then committed suicide. What first appears to be an intricate study in pattern and line as the artist deftly traces the embroidery of her skirt becomes an evocation of eternal torment, with the figure's face revealed to be a cracked, faded echo of a human visage. Even the pop culture figure Batman takes on a sombre cast in the haunting representation of him entitled Ecce Homo. Lawlor began working with this shadowy icon as an experiment that was almost discarded. It survived, however, and Batman has been transformed from comic book hero to Renaissance man. The softening of his graphic edges had led him to become a more ambiguous, mysterious character that both in his roots in another artistic field and in his status as a mythical figure, complements the otherworldly protagonists of several individual pieces.
Perhaps the clearest departure from the artist's signature themes of horse and landscape is a series of Crucifixions and an image based on the Annunciation. The four small-scale pieces entitled Crucifixion and the large Christ prints follow on from works made in 2004, reducing the figurative components so that the composition is honed to its essential elements. These prints are further examples of Lawlor's intuitive knowledge of art history, as he first addressed this theme after being moved by a Crucifixion by Delacroix, which was itself an adaptation of a Rubens painted two hundred years earlier. These works are also related to a very personal motivation, however. Some time ago he received a request from a friend who had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness for a painting that could help him to reconcile himself to God. Even this inherently devotional subject is dealt with in a manner that foregrounds the importance of the mood evoked by the image. This approach is also found in the Annunciation and in The Interview, where a meeting between Pope Urban II and his teacher St. Bruno, originally captured by Spanish painter Zurbarán, becomes a mysterious encounter infused with drama and a distinctly ominous feeling. This concentration on mood is central to Lawlor's philosophy of art: 'I don't generally like clever or conceptual art. I prefer to create an atmosphere and develop an image within. The result has a much longer lasting and emotionally deeper appeal.'
Their extremely diverse subject matter notwithstanding the work in this show shares in common an extremely seductive style. The alluring quality of light that defines all the pieces is the result of a highly complex technique that has been honed over almost two decades. This involves a combination of the method known as spit biting with a careful manipulation of the plate tone. The open areas of the prints, such as the skies, are smooth copper that is inked but holds only a skim of ink known as a plate tone. The other areas of the print are aquatinted by spit biting, which involves applying acid with a brush alongside water so that the acid runs into the water and a soft edge is created between darkness and light. There is thus a contrast between dense areas of deep aquatint and lighter areas with some plate tone, resulting in an even more subtle gradation on the light areas. The control of plate tone is painstakingly achieved by hand, putting to use an intuitive, tactile experience that is akin to painting. These effects are further enriched by repeating the process on three or four plates, so that a layering of colour and tone is apparent.
Although the most obvious departure in this exhibition is the presence of sculptures, all of the works mark a major evolution in terms of the range of subjects addressed and in the assurance with which they are explored. This confidence is intrinsically linked to a technical skill perfected throughout Lawlor's career, as well as to his innovative use of the accomplishments of past masters to produce a synthesis of old and new. The prints, mono-prints and sculptures that make up this show are above all remarkably beautiful and even haunting in their skilled manipulation of light and dark and their intricate layering of jewel-like colours. Lawlor's works are testament to the continuing relevance and creative potential of printmaking and to his singular sensitivity towards the medium.
Catherine Leen 2005
Etching 25x30cm 2015
Silkscreen 28x23cm 2016
Etching 22x35cm 2015
Etching 13x16cm 2012
Etching 54x45cm 2016
Etching 65x50cm 2005
Etching 60x50cm 2005
Monotype 30x20cm 2004
Monotype 30x20cm 2002
Etching 11x9cm 2007
Etching 11x9cm 2003
Etching 14x9cm 2009
Etching 25x30cm 2012
Etching 20x25cm 2010
Etching 18x25cm 2014
Etching 11x9cm 1994
Bronze 14x8x12cm 2014
Hand Painted Bronze 10x9x7cm 2014
Hand Painted Bronze 12x9x7cm 2014
Bronze 12x10x8cm 2014
Bronze 10x9x7cm 2014
Bronze 23x25x10cm 2005
Works on Paper
57x76 Acrylic on Paper 2017
Acrylic on Paper 39x44cm 2012
Acrylic on Paper 57x76cm 2009
Acrylic on Paper 57x76cm 2009
Acrylic on Paper 57x76cm 2009
Acrylic on Paper 57x76cm 2009