Curated by Hugh Mulholland at MAC, Belfast, 9May – 22 June 2014
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.
In 2002, eight years earlier, Susan Connolly finished this:
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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:
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.