Curated by ArtisAnn commercial gallery 18 acrylic paintings on either paper, board, fabric, or linen and one oil painting on board, in a style McGookin has preferred since his wife taught him to paint on silk, formed The Joy of Eastern Compositions. Not long after his graduation in 1981 McGookin switched from “panel” painting” to painted banners often carrying images on both sides. In the current exhibition all but one work are panel paintings, some unframed.
It is not difficult to recognise each and every “sign” as borrowed, in the above flotsam of dark shapes over the four horizontal stratas of green, siena, yellow and red. McGookin appropriates/ imitates established symbols with drastically frivolous disregard for their habitual size. The horizontal abstract areas are a distant evocation of a Rothko deprived of the mystery by visible pentimentos on a backlit (often see-through) layer. Given the obsession with originality, does this robust imitation make this painter a lesser artist? Not at all. Others already recognised that.
Artists have always studied and borrowed from each other, ignoring the tidy categorizations of art history, e.g. renaissance was looking at classical Greek, the art chinoiserie in the 18th C appropriate chinese style, and japanese woodblocks were favoured by the early Modernists. In a more current case, the exhibition, “Kiefer Rodin” openly makes borrowing a theme. ( The exhibition coincides with the centenary of Rodin’s death in 1917, it premiered at the Musée Rodin in Paris this year and travelled to Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation).
“There is no copyright among artists,” Kiefer wrote in a 2016 letter to Catherine Chevillot, director of the Musée Rodin, discussing a joint exhibition with Rodin. “What seems at first like sacrilege is, from the perspective of cultural history, an altogether normal occurrence. Painters often made use of their colleagues’ studies to create new images.” (accessed on https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-anselm-kiefer-borrowed-rodins-arms-legs-new-sculptures?utm_medium=email&utm_source=11337629-newsletter-editorial-daily-11-23-17&utm_campaign=editorial&utm_content=st-A)
That confidence is supported by philosophy:
“Imitation, besides being the seedbed of empathy and our experience of time, is also, paradoxically enough, the seedbed of creativity — not only a poetic truth but a cognitive fact, as the late, great neurologist and poet of science Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) argues in a spectacular essay titled “The Creative Self,” published in the posthumous treasure The River of Consciousness (public library).” (https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/11/09/oliver-sacks-the-river-of-consciousness-the-creative-self/?mc_cid=5313daeec3&mc_eid=220fe9547f)
McGookin shares the obsessive liking of idiomatic pictographs and banners ( often painted from both sides) with AR Penck (1939 -2017) who connected his style of painting to “deficiency of means”.
Ottmann: How did you get to this sign language anyway?
Penck: That is really a very old thing. It started in the sixties or the end of the fifties, after I had intensively studied a number of artists. The decisive factors were essentially economic ones, not only material economy but also spiritual economy. And this spiritual economy has interested me, even at the time when I was well off, when I could get lots of paint. At the beginning, however, the scarcity of supplies played an important role — a certain Mangelform [form through deficiency].
Ottmann: How did you develop your sign language?
Penck: There are, first of all, possibilities to get to them through abstraction and then one can put them together again, that means deductively…. This is what I basically tried to develop, to transfer a kind of building block system to my paintings that I could really play with. (Laughs) … This is somehow a principle argument between the abstract system and the act of always wanting to take something into it that suggests more reality. (accessed on http://www.jca-online.com/penck.html)
In contrast to Penck’s sincerity others inflate his art like this
By utilizing a unique vocabulary of signs and symbols, he sought to express the psychological structure of mankind. His work is a unique and nuanced language: what may seem simple and composed of primitive pictographs has a strong sensitivity and depth of thought. (http://www.fosunfoundation.com/en/index.php/)
or diminish like this:
Paintings in the Standart series featured a rudimentary stick figure, a motif that would become central in his work. Blank-faced and stiff-bodied… A stick man dominates …For Penck, the stick figure, though a motif that dates back to cave art, represented the first ideogram of a proposed new system of communication that combined text, symbol and image. Standart was a conflation of the English word “standard” and the German Standarte, meaning “banner”. (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/may/05/ar-penck-obituary
Banners appeared in McGookin’s practice in the 1980s, there is only one in this exhibition and it is not in the expected smaller scale.
The black banner is like a dictionary of fragmentary visual thoughts capable of holding their meaning even when torn out of the context in which they originated. They behave thus like words ready to be used in sentences, and each banner of painting is akin a sentence or a paragraph thrown out of order.
Intoxicated by poetic associations each “idiom” stands on its own, holding its identity while not threatening another. The high key heightens the clarity of recognition of each individual meaning grounded in common knowledge. McGoogin then throws it all into the air by frivolous disregard for relative sizes. The red hand is five times bigger that the hands of the man on the ladder which indicates a distance. The tonality of the yellow hue of the ladder is the same as the yellow objects near the hand thus moving the ladder nearer the hand. These wilful optical games add to the whole a necessary freedom afforded by the mute poetry, the painting.
I used the term “idiom” above, mindful of the complexity pointed out by J Derrida in The Truth in Painting. The run of the mill definition is not fully apt: an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, as kick the bucket or hang one’s head… The man on the ladder may associate with the biblical story of Jacob – or not. Which it is, is not predictable. More apt though is another definition of an idiom: an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own. McGoogin paints each object, motif, item, in high visibility as if insisting -it is what you see. The composition and wilful scale subvert that clarity by a near surrealist refusal. So an axe can fly and a tower has two eyes.
I cherish the deliciously hidden humour in many of these paintings.
Monthy Python meets Juan Miro in a computer game… The danger is somewhat hidden, but not always.
The discipline of Hieronymous Bosch is evoked with mastery of illusion locked in silent secrets. In an unearthly high light (more like a pop concert lights) McGookin handles many different registers of persuasion. Some are less challenging, offering recognition soothing the exalted eye back to the more believable relationships in space above a believable green landscape with believable blue sky above believable horizon. The rest is sheer flight of fantasy. Paradoxically, as in a belief.
It is about inherited beliefs and stories and about us.
Images courtesy ArtIsAnn gallery, Belfast.