Paddy McCann at Fenderesky Gallery, Belfast, March – April 2013

Slavka Sverakova: Paddy McCann (catalogue essay)

Paddy McCann is known as a printmaker and sculptor, but pre-eminently as a painter. He is passionate about art, political in his choice of themes, and poetic even in translating uncomfortable memories into the form of hues and tones. His painting expands the merging of the figurative and the abstract by harnessing synecdoche as a willing trope. These selected parts or fragments stand for a narrative that spans his life. His guiding principles include, somewhat paradoxically, both a correct relationship to the observed or remembered truth, and an autonomous departure from it. The two are taxed for equal participation in making informed, un-coerced decisions.

The paintings related to his birthplace include memories of his childhood home, the local bridge, playing fields and land, which have helped to define his mode of landscape. When the Troubles were taken up as subject matter, the images of ordinary objects, a spade or a pillow, were deployed to anchor narratives that he wished to make memorable. The image of a pillow that a kind woman put under the head of an injured young soldier is particularly poignant. In that painting, imprinted creases morph, a little hesitantly, into the skeleton of an open hand – fusing the woman’s generous help with her subsequent orchestrated ‘disappearance’.

Parts of figures, outlines, heads, faces, stand for people missed or loved and remembered. Both figurative fragments and abstraction forge matrices that generate multiple possibilities of meaning, while not departing from the painter’s own subjective truth, rooted firmly not only in his lived experience but also in a desire for autonomous individuality. By autonomy I mean the capacity of a person to live according to reasons and motives that are not a product of manipulative and distorting external forces, including the art market.

During his formative years, McCann’s social environment offered little in the way of support for autonomous development. Yet the need for self-sufficiency, learning and independent achievement reached crucial levels. In his paintings, the subjective truth is not broadcast or held up as an icon to be revered; instead, it silently pulls the viewer into the (re-)lived event now rendered in a fragment or a shape, clashing hues, and menacing absences. Each painting insists on its own identity, maintaining its observed correspondences just on this side of resemblance yet ready to cross over to a dreamed-up reality.

In Bridge House (2011), a silvery apparition of a small house standing above the arch of a bridge echoes Grunewald’s palette in his fictive landscape of The Crucifixion. But McCann’s is clearly an ordinary family house, a home:

Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of our individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic … Was this not perhaps what Ovid was aiming at, when he wrote about the continuity of forms?1

***

For McCann, the motivation to investigate such possibilities in painting was preceded by the decision to become an artist. I asked how he arrived at that decision.

PMcC:   I suppose it came from within – intuition … I was moved by landscape and nature and felt attached to it. I also felt I could communicate that love/respect through painting.

I remember looking over the shoulder of my primary school teacher, as she drew a nativity scene. I felt an instant affinity with the mark making and the image appearing before our eyes. Later, my French teacher at secondary school said ‘you should be an artist’. The Careers Adviser laughed out loud when I said I wanted to be an artist. ‘No! No! No!’ he said, ‘there must be something else!’ I said, ‘Yes. I really like trees. I would like to work in forestry’. That appealed to me – to be out on my own with nature. From memory, the conversation did not go much further and I left feeling confused and deflated…

I come from a beautiful, rugged part of the world in South Armagh, growing up and being, as I said, close to the landscape and the farming community; this harboured a relationship that had a deep effect on the life direction that I sought. Deep down I knew I had to make some sort of response, so in a sense nature and the landscape were a crucial  support … I would have to thank my Art and Art History teacher, Geraldine McKenna, who supported me towards a Foundation Course in Art & Design in Belfast. Once there I felt immediately at home, the language was one I understood. There was openness and a freedom to make your mark. The teaching thankfully came from practitioners, which gave the whole thing a rightful confidence. The support was great in terms of all avenues explored. So after a period of being disillusioned and having little support, I found myself in a place that said ‘You can do what you want to do’.

(Email to Slavka Sverakova: January 27, 2009)

PMcC:   I feel I’m anchored to something deeper and so there is more weight and this has to be there in the work – this presence/emotion/charge – and yet I know it’s not just about time spent working applying, changing, moving. It’s about bringing yourself to a place within, where at least three or more things converge.

(Email to Slavka Sverakova: March 22, 2010)

As an example of such convergence, in 1991 he constructed a brick structure in The Old Museum Arts Centre, Belfast as part of Shifting Ground, a collaborative exhibition supported by six galleries and presenting ten emerging artists. The curators favoured artists who shared a vaguely formulated “general conception of art” and also “the potential that their work and visual material offers in handling and communicating social issues”.2 McCann’s Cryptbrick embodied the core ideas that have continued to permeate his art practice: the inaccessibility of absolute truth, of perfect memory and of the feelings of the Other. The combination of a series of small portraits painted on linen with the constructed chimney / column / cenotaph / lighthouse / watchtower emphasised one set of those three convergent things: McCann’s experience of surveillance, of the restriction of identity, and of Belfast’s great industrial past. McCann recognises, on the one hand, that paintings and prints are used in our culture as tools to recall the past. On the other hand, he knows that a single image, be it two- or three-dimensional, is inadequate to represent a past, or a personal experience, completely. Memories are a fallible jumble of personal significance that appears to others as random fragments. Even more so in the case of traumatic memories of death, whether as a consequence of tribal hatred, a car accident, cancer, or stillbirth. All, in turn, visited the artist more than once.

***

A place, a person, is a remembered entity, and, as such, demands the authenticity of the remembered fragments. Each painted image departs from similarity or sameness to embark on a journey away from exactitude; it has the tendency to seek out and nourish other, often unforeseen, connections, tentative hypotheses that avoid both the over-familiar and the obscure. Confident of secret, but real, links to a personal truth, each painting proposes to become a space for thinking.

In his paintings of heads and figures, I sense McCann’s reverence for existence, for life and for painting, and also the care he takes to avoid slipping into emotional rhetoric. Instead, in his phenomenological search for a way to extract the essence of experience (and of what it is that is experienced) he was led to the in-depth study of a number of older masters, such as Velasquez, Goya, Manet, Picasso, Matisse and Soutine, as well as more contemporary figures like Lupertz and Kiefer. McCann does not appropriate their system of forms or range of subject matter, nor does he imitate their mode of fit between art and the world. Instead, he respects their commitment to painting, and to keeping painting alive. This approach has other adherents, coincidentally. In relation to his own new paintings Peter Doig recently emphasised that “painting is a living thing”.3

An illuminating example is McCann’s work with the motif of a bridge. In Bridge House, the imaginative use of emanated light manages to almost dematerialise the home, turning it into a jewel-like apparition. By contrast, The Window (2011) insists on the correct proportion of the gaelic football playing field on the lush green. The more tragic works refer to the loss of a close friend or acquaintance. The Bridge I (2010), with its red fissure on a pink ground, has both the commanding silence of a Matisse and the pink of a Soutine.4 In its imagery, it is imbued with the power of a surgical knife in an imaginary operation. A schematic sketch of breasts above the bridge gives visible form to the story told by an invisible all-knowing narrator in a whispering voice-over. The story is stripped down to the telling details: the bridge and a bleeding breast. This type of painting meets its viewer on the diegetic level, that is, on the level of a character’s narrative, thoughts and hopes. The observed fragments, raw and disjointed, coalesce into a dreamy evocation of hope beyond reason. In this work, McCann intentionally condenses the narrative into a synecdoche that conveys the calm and dignified mystery of a belief. In Hold (2011), it’s as if he is writing ‘directly upon our soul’ (paraphrasing Socrates in Phaedrus). The painting shows a girl’s face behind an ambiguous form, which I had interpreted as the blades of a helicopter until the painter corrected me: “It’s actually the arms of a cross from a wreath – though, yes, the helicopter blades were part of it as well”. He painted this ambivalent fragment levitating high above the narrow, low horizon, forging a synergy with an upward turn of the head and neck that produces physical discomfort. It is based on the actual event of a wounded schoolgirl being taken to hospital in an army helicopter, in which she died. As a correction to the rather inflated instrumental values of some types of painting, Philip Guston thought to remind us: “Painting is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see.”5

When McCann looks back at the history of painting, he conducts an imaginary discussion (in paint) with those artists he respects and whose work resonates with his own. I think here of the desperation in a De Kooning, the stillness of Matisse, the strength of a witness like Velasquez, and the deeply reflective Blue Period of Picasso.

A comparison with the trend towards explicit storytelling in popular contemporary painting may help to isolate some salient points of McCann’s style: his muted suggestions, the frequent absence of a protagonist, the abstract ground transformed by a single colour into a universal space. These may be ‘ghosts’ of the real, its mere traces, but their effects remain still very real. McCann paints the master narrative of painterly illusion through the tortured recall of personal experiences logged in his memory. The particular events he witnessed in their unbearable reality demand an unbearably overwhelming approximation. He could have painted them within a space crammed with narrative details and telling objects. He chose another path: he chose to create a mental space of bodiless trace-lines that converge like vectors of the feeling of loss. The Bridge is a story of loss told in colours and forms that, like phrases in Chopin’s Ballades6, react on each other. It is admirable to see how in McCann’s drawings the tonality of charcoal or pencil is utilised to do the same.

Some artists treat the Troubles as a story that must be told in strictly politically correct terms. McCann focuses on how it feels to live in such conditions. The painterly translation of his truth zooms in on significant fragments of being: a figure in a forensic suit; a friend walking through a gate to his death; a schoolgirl playing in a garden before being shot while walking to church; a helicopter landing on a football pitch; a close friend dying of breast cancer. Presence-Absence (2010) is a typical McCann composition. A toxic green defines the volume and establishes the presence of a body, with blind outlines of the body behind. Seeing and not seeing, being and not being, the real and the ghost become staple elements of the intention to keep the private intensely private, while infusing the paint with the necessary force to evoke that particular feeling in a complete stranger – the viewer. To capture that possibility, McCann avoids theatricality and sentimentality. His chaste search for the minimal means of painting fires our imagination, which in turn steals us away from the outer world, as if cutting through Guston’s paradox.

McCann’s subject matter appears to follow the loss of reciprocity between society and nature, which happens each time a certain (version of the) past dominates the present and the future. He avoids that by subordinating human history to nature. As a result, the central aesthetic experience of the viewer is not just one of loss, death or sorrow but also the recognition of our being a part of nature, with all the attendant tensions, evasions and renewals that such recognition brings.

The play of reflexive resemblance and representation found in paintings by Velasquez inspired Michel Foucault to argue that the implied observer (or viewer) of a painting becomes also its implied subject; which is made possible by the visual absence within the painting of its ‘proper’ subject. Like the absent king in Velasquez’s Las Meninas, individualising features of faces, heads and bodies are absent in the majority of McCann’s paintings. The bandaged head in Observation (2004) dissolves in a stream of white behind an armature of robust orange marks that intersect at right angles. This resolutely handmade image is an indeterminate idea of a person threatened; the threat could be to the implied observer. In contrast, Wreath Carrier III (2011) features a classical three quarter figure located in the foreground of a dark abstract environment, a compositional form memorably redefined for Modernism by both Picasso and Matisse. The painting has a twin in Altar Boy (2010), executed in a deliciously dignified narrow palette also observable in Velasquez.

By merging figuration with abstraction, focusing on mood, tension and atmosphere, McCann is able to forge emotionally charged, sometimes strangely menacing images that problematise our gaze and that of the person in the painting. Examples are Ballymoyer Woman (1994) and Here (2004). The sense of anxiety about appearance (which Merleau-Ponty recognised in Cézanne) receives a heightened attention in a series of heads with one eye or no eye: inter alia Artist’s Impression (1993), Small Window (2002), The Street (2011), To the Studio (2010) and Into a Space (2011).

An intentional emptying out of solitary figures of identity also contributes in the series of Majella paintings: Gate Figure (2009), Couple (2011), Figure in Landscape (2011), and The History Man (2010).

In Being and Time, the philosopher Martin Heidegger proposes that intentionality is a sentient condition through which an individual may come to understand the ontological significance of something (its relation to being in general) in contrast to what is merely ontic (particular facts without regard to their being): when I see a red waterfall, I cannot be sure that it is the red others see, but I am certain that it truly discloses its redness to me. In that sense, paintings are true. Sentience underpins the ability to make conscious choices or to not make them. What responsibilities are entailed by consciousness? And what risks? The painterly methods of presentation and suggestion offer an answer by instituting a psychological distance between the sensual and thought. Abstraction is eminently successful in erasing particularising details and in tolerating experiment, using invention as a kind of testing. And it can do so in a way that does not overwhelm intuition. As mentioned above, in 2004 McCann allowed an iconic detail – an eye – to appear or not to appear in the majority of his paintings. It was not a realistically painted eye as in a conventional portrait, but neither was it a polished, hyper-realistic, reflecting iris. It was a “blind” eye, a knowing eye, dissolving at times within a passage of colour but still looking out of the canvas. Like the eye of sorrowful Orpheus after Eurydice slips back to eternity. In the earlier paintings of the 1990s, one-eyed portraits were a means to comment on the loss of identity during the Troubles, when criminality was called justice. The subsequent use of ambivalent detail stood for trauma, tragedy, loss and death, all of which the artist, the man and the father, personally experienced at that time. McCann paints the absence of the other eye not just as a sign of the violation of identity, but also as an immaterial (non-corporeal) threshold between what is and what could have been. In another painting, a figure is ready to leave but does not walk away; it dematerialises or enframes itself, softly and closely, with yellow flowers. There is also a twist. McCann paints The Poet (2011) as a mummified head with one eye open and a jester’s hat. The rioting hues of the painting create such a visual noise that the head takes on the submerged stillness of an archaeological artefact ­– we need to dig to reclaim it.

Most people think of openness and vulnerability as weaknesses. McCann, in an almost biblical mode, invites the viewer into a play, akin to a play of chess, in which each partner exploits the other’s inattention. This is reminiscent of concerns discussed by Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias: “… if I don’t produce you as a single witness to agree with what I am saying, then I suppose I’ve achieved nothing …”7

All of McCann’s paintings present some exchange, match or fit between painted fragments of the world and the world. A number of them are titled Witness – a word that evokes historical events, evidence, viewpoint, or (as in Plato) a mythomorphic conversation. There is more: different hues embody different moods, different feelings, and thus may appear to converse among themselves. Even within a controlled range of colour, McCann masterfully avoids the creation of a single, easily read mood. Instead he suggests multiplicity and ambiguity. Jazzy colours butt up against reflective colours without disturbing their otherworldly calm. The ensuing multiplicity constructs an image of individual responsibility when faced with a precisely (!) formulated uncertainty. In an early painting, Triptych (1990) – destroyed later in a fire – a man’s head metamorphoses into an animal head. The man’s age and gender are precisely defined, even as his changing eyes question who or what it was that he had so recently been. This specific example of metamorphosis merges into the realm of universal moral and aesthetic values. The Irish question could be a Slovak or Chechen or Syrian question.

McCann does not evoke death, sorrow and devastating loss in order to inflame the imagination or to make people fearful. His paintings are about coping with fear.

***

Although the paintings are the consequence of intention, knowledge and experience, they are imaginary. The 2010 painting Triptych contains a complex example of synecdoche, based on images of a parachute, a helicopter doorway with two loosely painted vertical limbs, and an agricultural shed.8 The selected forms refer to an actual event9, which inspired a series of paintings including the above-mentioned Hold. Abstraction and the elision of narrative details facilitate direct visual access to the subject matter without any need for verbal instruction, contra John Passmore’s claim that truth “does not enter into abstract painting”.10

The convergence of figurative and abstract forms in McCann’s paintings is not a case of straying from an intended motif or concept, rather it enables a continuity between experience and memory, between the real and the imagined, while reflecting on past masters in the search for benchmarks for his own art.

His own view on being a painter in this society is magnificently embodied in The Painter (2011), a painting full of humour and dedications to older masters. Madame Matisse’s green nose becomes a red triangle, under empty eye sockets familiar from Picasso’s Blue Period. Where I expected a necktie, there is a fist with a partially obscured pointing finger; a plaster keeps the mouth shut; the forehead has been split into right (horizontal) and left (vertical) parts – and all are splattered with colours homing in on the painter from above. What a take on genius! McCann is more of a wise jester, like the poet encountered earlier, but much more robust and well capable of a confident defence of the practice of “mute poetry”.

Slavka Sverakova, January 2013

Footnotes

  1. Italo Calvino, Six memos for the next Millennium, 1996:124
  2. Shifting Ground catalogue, p5, Introduction.
  3. Caroline Roux, Peter Doig, All about rarity value, Financial Times, September 15, 2012
  4. Chaim Soutine (1893 -1943)
  5. Artquotes.net/Philip Guston (1913-1980)
  6. Frederic Chopin removed a human voice from the Ballades and composed Ballades for a piano – stories in sound where, much like McCann’s colours, each phrase alters the following one.
  7. Plato, Gorgias, 472c
  8. McCann commented: “The three parts of the painting were a parachute, the cropped doorway of a military helicopter with dangling limbs, and the closed front doorway of an agricultural shed. I was attempting to interweave/compose a number of events which involved memory and tragedy: a memory of finding what I was told was a parachute in a field; the killing of a young local girl who died on the way to hospital in a helicopter; while the shed was the location of a more recent horrific killing of a young man, beaten to death. However they were also places of play/work when I was a young boy.”
  9. McCann explained: “I did not actually witness the event, but the repercussions continued on different levels, both personally and within the wider community to this day.”
  10. The Tanner Lectures on human values, 1980:172
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