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
Bourne Vincent Gallery, University of Limerick 2016-17
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.
SOME UNTIDY SPOT
''...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
Beyond the House of Carmen & Figure Paintings
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.''
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.
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.