Dermot Seymour: Des Bêtes et des Hommes
1st publ. on Huma3.com on April 4, 2012
A retrospective of Seymour’s paintings has opened on 15th December 2011 at the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, titled Fish,Flesh and Fowl. It is destined to travel to Paris, Dublin, Navan, Skibbereen, Letterkenny – in different editions covering the period 1982 -2011. A delightful result of collaboration of the curator Jim Smyth with the dealer Kevin Kavanagh and with the director of gallery, artist and curator Peter Richards, it is accompanied by a catalogue with an introductory essay by Jim Smyth, poetry by Paul Muldoon and Jamshid Mirfendersky, a feuilleton by Dermot Healey, and a spirited essay on one painting by Seamus Heaney.
All share, in different measure, bewilderment about Seymour’s ability to make the obvious to harbour the least obvious meanings. It starts with the titles: they are complex, obtuse, even openly misleading, and ambiguous. Smyth quotes Seymour: they are …the conclusion to the work… the ropes that bind it all together…the little things …I put together the ingredients of the painting and then structure it into a type of sentence, and that results in the titles. (catalogue, pp 12 and 13)
No, he never manages to put all of the “ingredients” into a title. The optics, composition, format revive the meme established by Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472), thinking of perspective as a pyramid in a window opening onto the world. Seymour develops it into another Alberti’s idea, that of continuous space, in an application of filming method of horizontal panning, where the space on the picture plane continues outside it. His tonality and light evokes lessons from the late 15th C German and Italian paintings and the 17th C Dutch “small masters”. The modelling of volumes and movements re-examines a tradition of Baroque and Surrealism. His trust into a lens based verism to carry a fantasy is parallel to that of, say, Rainbow Foot by Mouse and Alton Kelley, for the album cover Europe 1972. Nearer to home, the imagined and the observed appeared in paintings by Jack Pakenham ( Dublin, 1938)
Seymour chose to avoid both documenting life and using art as a propaganda tool. Instead, he aims at engagement with moral judgement to brand an era of the Troubles and to create a distance from it. The images evoke the voiceless silent majority, utterly bewildered by the violence, destruction, hatred, and distrust, all seemingly endless.
He rejected the hubristic ambition to teach others what to think. The so called Troubles severely curtailed civil liberty while declaring to protect it. Still, he is not prepared to justify sordid means by positing noble ends. Instead, he shares the acute need to stay out of the established loops, to enable free thought that can ask questions about the common good. An excursion into moral philosophy, he shares with Pakenham.
On one hand, liberty of one individual is a universal value, but when power hungry people start speaking about liberating people (ie collective freedom) different things began to happen. While Pakenham explored the moral pathologies, Seymour promotes the silent majority propriety. Some of his tools have been in use in poetry and in 19th C Anglophonic novels: recursive irony, playful subversion, familiar characters presented with peculiar tact and precision.
Seymour infuses meaning into something that seems not significant, but capable of becoming crucial to the meaning of the whole. The Last Ditch, 1982, offers such a detail. An Orangeman in a ceremonial dress observes calmly the land in front of him, as if confident in his ownership. Against a high overcast sky, we see his back and hands in white gloves. His relaxed composure is destabilised visually by the leaning fence post, a can of Irish Harp beer, and the black barbed wire. The section of the black wire that runs across a white glove is neither innocent, nor distant. It feels that the artist issued a call for awareness. Interestingly, the image is about distrust, but it does not elicit distrust as a propaganda art would.
To master unusual “meetings” on a picture plane, Seymour harvests three sources: his pre-Troubles youth experiences of countryside, the permission Surrealism issued to art to mix real and imagined, and the high skills, craft, of almost lens based rendering. A fish lands near a telephone pole head down like a bomb, a duck flies above a spike of a flag, a helicopter flies under an arch from one room to another, a girl reclines on a pig as the best ever pillow, headless man proudly displays his catch, a huge fish, cows balance on impossible precarious rocks. A bull meets a fish, a fox argues with a goose, an owl and a hare fly around a statue of St George. Hare and seal, hare and ram, boar and sheep, sheep and a cow, a bull and a rat and a walrus, a cow and a statue of Virgin Mary and helicopter. A monkey, a frog, a cat, a pig. An ass and a bull. Some with human expressions, animation that occurs also on one helicopter. Admittedly, such occurrences mock reality by being inconsistent with it. I recognise it as a trope, as humorous paradox, a tool to avoid a direct clash of opinion. Rhetoric devices, the literary tropes, may be inappropriate in visual art. Seymour stressed the importance of poetry in his life. It is not surprising to find other tropes, like symbols, allegory, metaphor, and a pleonasm. Pleonasm is often perceived as a stylistic vice, as a redundant element. Can redundancy turn into a reinforcer of an idea or a question?
The Russians will water their horses on the shores of the Lough Neagh, 1984, is a classical landscape(foreground, middle distance, sky) divided in the middle by a telephone pole. The strategy evokes a tradition of diptychs and also paintings like those by Mark Thomas, who painted duos of adjacent canvases at that time in Belfast. In the left half is an observant bull looking out of the picture, in the right half a younger man walking out of the painting, oblivious to the miraculous “bombing fish” behind him. Above the layer of bushes meandering under a wavy horizon, there are pairs of cows (bulls?), identical group painted twice, a visual pleonasm. The larger animals on the horizon look diagonally across, meeting in the area occupied by man’s head. The sky is calm, white whispers the future clouds to the pleasant blue, the idyll interrupted by spiky helicopters, one in each part. The bull and the two smaller cows (bulls?) direct their gaze out of the painting, at the viewer issuing a direct visual engagement. The repeat of a part twice in the same painting is reminiscent of Gaelic grammar “she is my wife, so she is” or Samuel Beckett’s Molloy’s cumulative “free, gratis, for nothing”. Seymour is likely to be aware of both examples.
Absurd ironic play, unbearable lightness of being visible, visual harmony, equivalency of animal and man, echoes of religious altarpieces, sense of humour – all reflect on both life and art. By his cleverness, they say, Aesop (620 – 564), with his animal fables, acquired freedom. Can we?