Seamus O’Rourke: Dark Inventory at Pallas Projects, Dublin, November 2014

A handout states:

S e a m u s O ’ R o u r k e
Dark Inventory
12/11/14 – 22/11/14

2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the burning
of ‘Entartete Kunst’ or painting and drawings
termed ‘Degenerate Art’ by the Nazis in 1939.
It is estimated that 1004 paintings and 3,825
works on paper were completely destroyed
during March 1939. O’Rourke examines the
empty spaces left behind after thousands of
these artworks were confiscated from public
galleries and museums throughout Germany
and which were subsequently burned in Berlin
by the Reich. In this ongoing ‘Dark Inventory’
series the artist engages with politicizing the
space between what is visible and what is
absent. He emphasises this critical moment in
the history of Modernism in Europe with a
corresponding reductive process on paper.
These drawings investigate ideas concerning
censorship and loss, examining art as a form of
commemoration with a dual critical strand.
O’Rourke tests how art is both recognised and
invalidated in society and acts as a form of
commentary or dissent in a controlling society
and how constant scrutiny is necessary to
protect freedom of speech.

The last sentence obtains unexpected pathos from the reality – the recent  killing  in Paris of cartoonists, police and hostages by three well trained terrorists. A less grave impact of current research (perhaps not available to him)  into O’Rourke starting point,-an act of vandalism by a dictatorial regime-  scrutinizes  the dates and places of the events, and also how many of the condemned paintings survived. 

The following will slightly scrutinise the incongruent elements of correspondence between the intention and the outcome.  O’Rourke aims at i/politicizing of the space between what is visible and what is absent; ii/ calling the work “these drawings”  he expects them to investigate censorship, loss and commemoration iii/ he is said to test  how art is recognised and invalidated as a from of comment on  or dissent from a controlling society.

All three aims are not obtained with any degree of certainty by visual means, by the visual force of the exhibits.

Here I hasten to add, I have not seen the exhibition, I work with online images only, assuming that even onscreen images will give away something significant about themselves.

It is suggested that a reductive process on paper corresponds to the historical event, the destruction. It is  a facile link. The reductive process consists of  the sameness of the technical means: paper, brush, black ink and water. This, like other  black or monochrome  western drawings/paintings is not necessarily reductive  process, quite an opposite,  it has a capacity to forge a large range of meanings, unrelated to the artist’s intention.

Consider what Ad Reinhardt  thought about his black  abstractions:

“A square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a man, as wide as a man’s outstretched arms (not large, not small, sizeless), trisected (no composition), one horizontal form negating one vertical form (formless, no top, no bottom, directionless), three (more or less) dark (lightless) no–contrasting (colorless) colors, brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork, a matte, flat, free–hand, painted surface (glossless, textureless, non–linear, no hard-edge, no soft edge) which does not reflect its surroundings—a pure, abstract, non–objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting—an object that is self–conscious (no unconsciousness) ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art (absolutely no anti–art).”

Both Ad Reinhardt and Seamus O’Rourke produced monotonal, enigmatic  paintings. But what difference in intentions and reflections, though!  The question is, has the younger artist  succeeded in turning  the  abstraction away from its roots in  20th C ? I doubt it, in spite of his intention, his are abstract paintings, freely  in service  to the viewer’s attention and imagination . And as such – they are in the world but not of the world.




Lost Collection

Lost Collection



I have not experienced the paintings’ presence, texture, nor their silence.  The  above reproduction sent to me kindly by the artist insists of deadly sameness mischievously subverted by an optical lie on the right low corner.

Corners have their own poetry, being both end of two meeting directions and a nucleus from which the  vertical and horizontal work out their dynamics or lazy addition. The visual accent on that corner is an accident of optics not of intention.  Enjoyable  chance.


Overall View 2

My motive for this essay came from the basics of  the appearance.


Overall View 1


All are rectangular,  painted by brush saturated with black ink mixed with water.  I wish I could savour the subtle changes or their absence. as the brush gradually  dries.

Black paintings have history.

Black Square (1913)  by Kasimir Malevich 

‘In the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.’

He painted,  the current research shows,  four versions of it after 1915; the square’s first appearance was indeed in 1913, as the design for a stage curtain in the futurist opera Victory over the Sun.  A design has a particular function in life, be it kitchen, car or theatre.  The question remains whether a painter can ever escape that weight of real world, and, more to  the point,  whether it is desirable. 

Born in the year of the first appearance of a  black square, Ad Reinhardt commented on his  Abstract Painting, 1963(MoMA) 

“There is a black which is old and a black which is fresh. Lustrous black and dull black, black in sunlight and black in shadow.” This is only visible after prolong looking. That investment by attention and time is perhaps needed  for O’Rourke’s seemingly same paintings.




Overall View 1



Fugitive Drawing 3 (1)

Fugitive Drawing 3



To supplement the absence of direct viewing of the originals, I asked O’Rourke to describe how he made them. He generously emailed this:


To begin-In my exhibition ‘Dark Inventory’ at Pallas Projects, Dublin, during November 2014, eight of the nine works exhibited were made on Saunders Waterford watercolour paper.( The remaining work was made on Arches watercolour paper )
Six of the nine works included are part of the ‘Fugitive Drawing’ series and have a pronounced embossment on the surface of the paper. When  I start a new drawing, I cut paper to a 50cm x 70cm format. In order to make these works I visualise the final work in advance. This is necessary as there is a three stage process involved. I begin with a pattern drawn in marker on the paper. The pattern is derived from outlines  of disappeared and destroyed artworks and is applied by a large marker, its abruptness and weight of line caused by tracings. Its fugitive nature giving its name to the ‘Fugitive Drawings’ series.
In the second stage I map out the actual structure on the reverse side of the paper sheet. This is initially drawn by pencil which later has the outline structures of missing artworks added by a narrow brush with ink.
I normally allow 24 hours for this inked outline to dry and the embossed lines to emerge overnight, on the other side of the page.
The final stage in completing the drawing is the application of black Indian ink which is applied with a large watercolour brush across the surface of the front of the sheet.
The ink laden brush skims the faint embossed  ridges and leaves behind an undulated surface.
There is a gradation in these monochrome drawings as a result and considerable subtlety.



Fugitive Drawing 6

Fugitive drawing 6



The embossing is more visible on the next image.


Fugitive Drawing 2

Fugitive Drawing 2



The first phase of creation of the image/object  in the series of Fugitive Drawings – refers to visual memories of the Modernist paintings declared as Degenerate art.  The drawing phase and the embossing phase are memories of other art , a link meaningful only to those who know O’Rourke’s models. It is not easy to establish what is what, the final phase – the all over painting- covers  traced patterns (in itself enigmatic reduction)  making the legibility even more remote.


Fugitive Drawing 4

Lost Collection


This reducing of clarity by a heavily veiled surface works for me as a successful metaphor of  memory of something which is not available.  It cannot be completely absent for the metaphor to work.  I cherish this victory of an image over the intention.

It is of this world – the dead  weight, Malevich seeks freedom from, becomes replaced by  O’Rourke’s sincere respect for older art so crudely attacked by a regime ( not  by the whole society as suggested in the exhibition text). That respect  is not politicizing anything – the vandalism, on the other hand, was a political decision.  It  is likely to happen when the instrumental value of art is expected to work for a political elite or  a particular ideology.

O’Rourke’s drawings/paintings work as free agents, whispering something along Ad Reinhardt’s soliloquy.









About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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