Unafraid Yellow (August 4 -31) and Unafraid Blue (September 8-28) at QSS, Belfast, 2017

Sean Campbell, Toy soldiers

A variant of these  toy  was soldiers exhibited, not so lushly yellow,  spiralled around a column supporting the gallery ceiling could have been  easily overlooked. In a spirit of Barnett Newman’s aesthetic discourse my first image here represents both the  inner sanctum of the series, that started with red and is destined to end with white.

Sean Campbell  exhibited also a print and a yellow installation.

I slipped down the wall and landed on my ass (Yellow with blue rectangles)n.d. 170 x 200 x 32 cm.

This photograph distorts its shape and angle, consequently, it offers a reading which the installation  refutes.  In situ,  the yellow hue is less modulated and  has a clear role to overwhelm both the scale and the other hues. The red, blue, grey and ochre simply settled where they fell   within the obedient order of the ” yellow floor boards”.  Yet, the small interventions not only interrupt   the monotony, they engage the yellow next to them  in an optical illusion.  E.g. The darker blue  on the left  makes the yellow surround shift the tone.   Consequently the yellow “pulsates” like a  dense liquid under the smooth surface. The , blue, red  etc coloured patches seem to just about hover above the yellow field – imagine a Mondrian’s abstraction exploded and carried on the stream of yellow towards you…. The patches animate the yellow field.

Zoe Murdoch chose to give the yellow hue the smallest of surfaces.  As if she wished to measure its power… in addition she disabled any poetic power of that heavily used yellow  wooden ruler, it has been used, damaged, broken.  If anything, it may evoke sympathy. Yet, the ruler rules over the complex screen with the window, stating how small it is.

Zoe Murdoch, The Window, n.d., mixed media. 23.5 x 22 x 6 cm

The unexpected power of a simple fragment over an complex image becomes even less friendly, when the eye connects with the rusty bolt behind.  The assemblage  works like a visualised  philosophical debate,  about what is real and what has which power.  The frame positions it all in the realm of  the stream of boxes  revived  by Joseph Cornell  – zooming on  what a visitor may or may not see.

Joseph Cornell, Magic Soap bubbles set, n.d, courtesy of Christies


Murdoch balances the ruler  on the edge  as if in despair  at being superfluous to the image of the window, which establishes its own, different  scale.  The tool that carries an agreement of many  is powerless  in front of the “convincing lie” – a lens based shrinking of the real size.  The  fragment of measuring tool is  “real” in the way the window is not and vice versa.    The  issuing ennui gets uprooted  when the eye notices the bolt  embodying  sense a threat.  Three incongruous objects in an accidental frame is a proposition of an unstable reality outside, i.e. where I am.  Suggestive of a dream, it is a take on the Lautreamont’s  “definition” of surrealism, slightly polluted by Arte Povera.  The yellow  in this assemblage appears to follow a line from his Poesis:

I replace melancholy by courage, doubt by certainty, despair by hope, malice by good, complaints by duty, scepticism by faith, sophisms by cool equanimity and pride by modesty.

Turning to the six charming small  paintings by Ashley Holmes evokes melancholy. In some the yellow describes light, in some a surface.   In one, shown below, the yellow is the power to drown the rest, like a tsunami.

The house appears twice.  In the foggy  (smoky) background the edifice recalls comfortable living – as a memory. Heavy sheets of  as-if-rain, yellow and purple, do not notice the powerful   black uprooting the “home” and turning it upside down.  Not enough. It blackens it out of being and sends its  tentacles high up  to touch the frame, and thus establishing its plane, with confidence,  as the picture plane.  It could not see the yellow hurrying up to erase the black foundation strip.   In between – there is a sweet stubborn decor – something between  medieval marginalia and very busy wall paper.



Ashley Holmes, Everything was coloured, acrylic on canvas, n.d. 38 x 25 cm

All Holmes’s  six small paintings are reminiscent of the Dutch Golden Century dedication to  houses inside and out, to the comfortable life of those who owned such houses.    The charm of narrative detail is threatened by the duo of black and yellow spelling a danger.  It is a parallel to Munch’s Scream – in the mist of destruction   by natural forces (like a hurricane or tsunami) contaminated by fear.   The calm embodies paralysis of all parts of the image, which easily offers different reading.


That the overall cover of visual field by one hue is not a simple matter is made visible by comparing the yellow in Campbell’s minimal installation with the complexity of misty  landscape (?) by Clement McAleer below.

Clement McAleer, Journey, oil on canvas, 183 x 152 cm

This colour field is visibly constructed as  frame-to-frame  layers, steps, flat and at the same distance from the picture plane.  I recognise four straight line horizons  with a expanse above that may be read as a sky.

The stripes! each previous one replaced by another vista…. I favour the second one with the moon coming out of the clouds  at the time when a red sunset on its left  below. eases itself into a  watery world, into vapours without  beginnings and  ends –  a state of the universe  inviting  for a journey  while making it difficult to see any particular  depth – instead just one continuous.   McAlleer’s yellow colour field  suggests distances and swiftly denies them holding the image  at the picture plane.  He makes the slippages pretty, and daring.  Is it a  mighty storm? Are those red smudges wounds, fires, fallen constructions?  Those insecurities make the prettiness unsettling, bringing about recognition  of what it feels like being on a brink of a journey…reminiscent, inter alia, of Dante Alighieri:

 “I found myself, in truth, on the brink of the valley of the sad abyss that gathers the thunder of an infinite howling. It was so dark, and deep, and clouded, that I could see nothing by staring into its depths.”

This is the vision that greets the author and narrator upon entry the first circle of Hell—Limbo, home to honourable pagans—in Inferno. 

While Sean Campbell chose to overwhelm the given space by large scale,  Robert  Moriarty preferred minimal addition of yellow  to the given size of  a common manufactured object.  In both cases the yellow hue matched the simple concept, by not crossing over the line of obedience.  Where Campbell chose  to cover the constructed object completely in yellow,  Moriarty  decided on minimal intervention, allowing the yellow hue to  cover only  the lowest part of the found object, with few yellow tiny strips littering the rest very  scarcely.


Robert Moriarty, Untitled, OSB Board, 244 x 120 cm, detail


Both strategies  forge an image, each with a narrative that could be read from the gossipy marks on the surface.

Dr Colin Darke, the curator,  points to the two concepts, the western civilisation built up about the hue: One is rooted in ethical norm:   Yellow cowardice, yellow bile of irrational anger, yellow garments in Renaissance portraits of Judas, yellow fear.  The other, considered by theologians of  early Christianity,  proposes yellow as colour code for dignity, joy, eternal existence; this for ex. by Grunewald in the Isenheim altarpiece.

The yellow hue  pairs with sunlight, gold and heavens and also with unbearable heat experienced by van Gogh in Arles.   In his last small painting, Wheatfield with crows (1890) he invested  this hue with eternal fear.

V van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1890



Blue does  that too.

In the well considered accompanying handout for the third exhibition inspired by the title  Barnett Newman  gave to the group of painting  Who is afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (1966 -1970)  Dr Darke recounts the blue from  ancient mosaics to the  Yves Klein’s invention (1950s)  mentioning Italian love of lapis azuli as well as the deep sorrow embodied in “the blues”.    Sadness, coldness, melancholy, joyful blue sky, clean air,   clean sea – blue can manage the contradictory values  and multiple meanings.

Classical role of holding contradictory elements together appears in the painting by Angela Hackett , with a title referring to time of the day when cognition becomes impaired by diminishing light.

Angela Hackett, Entre Chien et Loup, oil on canvas, 92 x 66 cm , n.d.

Its title:  “Entre chien et loup” désigne le soir ou le matin, … ”  “quand l’homme ne peut distinguer le chien du loup“, according a source from the 2nd century AD…. the dusk is that level of light and its absence when our sight becomes  partly disabled.  Some blues do not speak, they hardly even whisper, bleached by grey  of their easy brilliance. In four cases they still appear in all their sonority, only having their vitality strangulated by the  divided brushstrokes and by being pushed into an illusory depth.  The hue blue is given almost full range from pale to deep, from green blue to  the red blue registers.

Colm Clarke prefers the full light and clear vision, both in his installation and in the video.

In the small installation, shelf-installation, the blue painted on the shotgun shells feels both admissible and arbitrary.  The tenor of the installation is signalled by the plant whose seeds can be distributed in shells  to start the growth on enemy buildings. Buddleia slowly destroys their fabric.  The text explains the military take on this.

Colm Clarke, In the rounds, eight shotgun shells, native wildflower and selected seeds, Buddleia cutting, A4 text, various dimensions, n.d.


At first the calm of the order and the preposterous idea how to win a war  may bring in a superior smile, but then  … Clarke insists it is feasible, and retires to the role of presenter, asking his art to report “the facts”. This concept appears to govern his video Lofts (30 mins) about men keeping pigeons, preparing for competitions, and just sitting, talking.  The blue, is the blue of the air, of the sky captured by the obedient lens.  This is a life supporting story of people who opted out of sectarian war – or any war.  So the bombing an enemy  with seeds suddenly connects: both the birds and the shells make use of seeds.  I appreciated Clarke’s aesthetics of waiting calm,  as  combating the prominent obsession  of our civilisation with speed.

Catherine McLaughlin also presented a  video – of a landscape, of clouds, sky, sunsets, sea …  with subtitles in Irish language, and a voice over.  

As I had difficulties to hear it correctly, the artists kindly sent me the written version of  both:

Delectable voiceover.

A love story, simple and sweet. 

An increasing of heart rate, announces your presence, bodily. 

All night I watched your lashes twitch across your cheek.

Open and close.

Open and close.

Where they mine?

A consensual viewing or illicit pleasure?

Tomorrow,today, I received all the answers I needed.

And I am, will be, remain, content in your gaze.

As I read it, it confuses the visual impact, the impact of the visual thoughts, which may not at all  become less ambiguous and problematic than the words  disrespect for  logic and grammar. The noun Tomorrow and the verb’s past tense  –  clash.

Gladly I note that the rhythm of the images  not only avoided disharmony – it promoted the sublime of what was made visible.


Grace Murray’s  mastery of craft  strengthened the  values of honesty and  beauty of  the narrative  power  of differences. Of tonality while the shape is the same, repeating tirelessly.  The Nest accepts being completed  while unfinished.  Think of poetry here.

Grace McMurray, Blue Frame, ribbon and thread, 23 x 16 x 8 cm, n.d.

Grace McMurray, Nest, Ribbon, cotton, headboard, 62 x 92 x 5 cm,n.d.

Grace McMurray, Inverted Colony, Embroidery on cotton, 21 x 21.5 x 5 cm, n.d.

Grace Murray, Blue Cutcomb, plaster and ink, 27.5 x 32.5 x 5 cm, n.d.

Her website ,  https://gracemcmurray.com,  contains a respectable profile of  her art practice. Surprisingly for me, she mentions a connection of her art  to Sylvia Plath poetry and life, namely fear and loss.  I sensed poetic tropes resonating in the tonality of blue, intensity of suggestiveness of each tone  of a muted feeling.  What feeling exactly? I sensed deep ravine in the darkest of the blues and  hyperactive escapes from it by the lightest once, be they blue or pink.  The elements are like cells, like single sounds, single words, bubbling up above  unforgiving deep – not quite black- holes.

Rarely – the techniques of embroidery, patchwork, weaving etc achieve the poetic strength, most visibly established  in the Nest.

David Turner  favours lego as material to make images.  The industrial sameness is both an  advantage and hindrance.   Without surprise, I note that some of his motifs are connected to films, another strong representant of the 20th C.

David Turner, Misspent Youth, Lego, 25.6 x 25.6 cm

The ambiguity of the title  is reminiscent of irony.

David Turner, Electric Blue No 1, Lego, 12.8 cm x 18.4 cm, n.d.


David Turner, Electric Blue No 2, 12.8 x 18.4 cm, n.d.



Often, Turner tells the story of his experiences of living in divided society, torn apart by not just differences, but hate and violence.  This “blue series of three” exercises  some freedom from inescapable history into some kind of presence.  It is a kind of presence of the thought,  of being in the world, yet  separated  from  received view of social history, politics, and ideologies.   The  blue hue has only two tones in Lego  –  dark and light, hence the amassing of related blacks and greys to intensify the presence of blue in both abstractions.

In conclusion,  Dr Darke’s decision to gather  art around a hue and its tones proved as good as any for  a group exhibition. Yet, I find at least one strong advantage: focusing the artists of one particular tool,  evoked, provoked  researching its range and ability to drive, not illustrate, a meaning.

Images courtesy the QSS and the artists.



About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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