Susan Connolly, Something about Some Things to do With Paint

Curated by Hugh Mulholland at MAC, Belfast, 9May – 22 June 2014

Susan Connolly at MAC

Great art and mediocrity can get confused, even by experts. But that’s why we need to see, and read, as much as we can. The more we’re exposed to the good and the bad, the better we are at telling the difference – that’s the considered conclusion of the researchers  in the field.  The above image presents one of the three remarkable  paintings Susan Connolly included in her current exhibition at the MAC, photographed by Simon Mills.  The first impression is of a painting destroyed in an emotional outburst. However, it is a carefully constructed work.

At he time she graduated from the MFA at the University of Ulster (2002)  by painting a room green she admitted  thinking about constructing a painting, view painting from within, while exploring  the paint.  The above image has no title, deliberately, and is larger than her earlier work.  This will become a key to an examination  of her idea being linked to one with a classical pedigree, later on.

At this point, I wish to focus on the nest of similar interests manifested in the art made by three artists: Analisa Saban, Itay Ohaly and Angela de la Cruz.

, Angela de la Cruz, Deflated 15 (Green), 2010, Lisson Gallery

In 2002, eight years earlier, Susan Connolly  finished this:

Susan Connolly Undersea Blue,2002

In a thoughtful, deeply engaging and hugely helpful essay published in the Exhibition Guide, Declan Long sensitively maps the meanders of similarities and differences, sensing greater  painterly intimacy in Connolly than in de la Cruz, who labours along the prescribed plan to “deflate the authority and pomposity of received version of painting” (Long, p2)

In the MAC exhibition the intimacy of an encounter with paint, painting is intensified by inserting a real  space in the viewing experience.

20140508 Susan Connolly Exhibition Documentation 023

Kandinsky is known for interpreting a room in a peasant’s cottage  as walking into a painting. Connolly  opens up a painting and its support so that a viewer can walk “into” it, observing it from the back.

It will now invite an association with a sculpture, installation and a relief.  In comparison with an artist who explores destruction as a process of making almost two dimensional objects, Connolly’s insistence on “a room space”  chisels its  contours with enviable energies.  Comparison with  Analia Saban  dismantles easy similarities of cutting and pealing  of skin of a painting, so central to Connolly.


Saban, Acrylic on canvas with Ruptures -Grid, 2010, 29’5 x 29.5 x 5 inches, courtesy Josh Lilley Gallery London

Declan Long noted the related anxieties about what is left to be done(or undone) in the practice of painting, crediting Connolly with a link to a setting “the defining one for some major innovations of modern painting” citing T J Clark on Cubism.  That link is the imaginary intimacy of a room, a value mentioned above.

Long also moves to think about the pealing of the paint as pealing of the “outer skin from the inner membrane”. The motive of cutting the surface has been favoured by L. Fontana  in a less ebullient manner that that of Saban. The idea became central to the more recent practice of Itay Ohaly who aims at revealing “coloured memories” reversing the relationship.



Itay Ohaly, Coloured memories etched on black walls.Credit designboom- 20/5 2014


“two distinct installations by israeli designer itay ohaly fill the walls at the design museum holon, speaking to the nostalgia of childhood toys. ‘colored memories’ inhabits two rooms, completely concealed in a layer of black paint, mimicking the color etching and scratch board art played with as kids. ‘we filled a piece of paper with random and colorful doodles, covered it all with black and then etched on it to make a drawing.’ Ohaly describes the youthful pass time: ‘it is a creative process which causes a sensation of surprise, discovery and magic, the same elements which characterize our experiences of childhood creations.’

Declan Long compared Connoly’s  method to child’s joy when unwrapping of a present.

The parallels between Ohaly and Connolly, and Ohaly and Long, goes deeper than it may look at first, as long as one goes along with Max Dvorak’s view of history of art as history of ideas (Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte)

Taking the main Connolly’s characteristics: autonomous paint, layering it, peeling it, cutting it, dominate all three exhibits at Mac.

20140508 Susan Connolly Exhibition Documentation 002

Its size is however not domestic.  The rigid  framed part holds coloured memories of the pliable skin pulled to the floor.  The painting is flayed alive, like Titian’s Marsyas, the little red marks, a frenzy of the all powerful victor.

20140508 Susan Connolly Exhibition Documentation 012



Tiziano Vecellio(1488-1576) The Flaying of Marsyas, 1570 -1576, Archbishops Gallery, Kromeriz, courtesy University of Mansfield

Iris Murdoch declared it to be the greatest painting in the Western canon.  Titian worked on it for a decade and a half, it looks unfinished to some, however, it is signed, a sign of the artist acknowledging a finish.

The myth refers to a struggle between two art canons: the citharoedic (see the figure  holding a lyra) and auloedic, played on the flute, the instrument invented by Athena. She threw it away when she saw how playing it distorted her face. Marsyas picked the  aulos, and became so accomplished a player that he challenged Apollo. Marsyas was about to win the first round, Apollo changed the rule by playing his lyra upside down, which marvel a flute cannot copy. The Muses pronounced Apollo a winner, and Marsyas is flayed alive by the victor. (Titian paints him taking part  in that gruesome deed- on the left).

Let me recap the main knots in the myth: vanity demotes art, artist commits hubris, being down in the hierarchy he challenges a god.  The two ascribe two characteristics of human nature – appolonian and dionysian.  Marsyas is a proponent of free thought  in Roman culture, Plato likened Socrates to Marsyas. The blood of Marsyas metamorphosis into a clearest river in Phrygia.

Titian painted themes which interested him without patron in mind.   In some sources Marsyas is presented as intelligent  and talented. As such he is evoked for example by Dante Alighieri in his plea for divine inspiration: ” Enter into my breast, within me breath the very power you made manifest when you drew Marsyas out from his limbs’ sheath -” Titian paints Marsyas as beautiful and noble.  The  figure on the right  thought of being the likeness of the painter is deeply meditating.

Titian manipulates the colours, the very material – paint. I have observed numerous layers, changes, scraped away layers and added new ones, when F Sysel worked on restauration of  the painting in Kromeriz. In metaphorical terms he applies  to paint  flaying, prohibition, cheating, blacking out, fabrication, scraping away, revealing, veiling, elusive forms defined in a frenzy, modelling between fingers. He manipulated colour as though it were a physical entity. Not the clarity of Michelangelo’s terribilita or the calm of Leonardo’s sfumato.  Connolly saw Titian’s  Pieta in Venice, noting the sense of tragic that is cleansed by suffering and is reborn.  She has mastered the passion for paint as autonomous  source of meaning, a complex one even if monochrome and empty:

20140508 Susan Connolly Exhibition Documentation 019

Some years ago I wrote to her:

“It is as if the paint, the paintings, concealed strange illuminations the insecurity of life visits upon us. It is as if your paintings were confessing to an event or a feeling, or a state of mind without ever giving a complete account”

This time at Mac, she did it in the scale of Titian’s Marsyas – “a paint field” 212cm high. Even in white it is intoxicating, yet, inviting a mute meditation.

Images of the exhibits at MAC courtesy Simon Mills.


About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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