Colin McGookin: The Joy of Eastern Compositions, October – November 2017, EastSide Gallery, Belfast

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.

Marriage, Oil on board, n.d. n. s.

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).

Anselm Kiefer, Berthe au Grand Pied (Bertha Broadfoot), 2016. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo by Georges Poncet. Courtesy of the 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

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).” (

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].

Heaven and hell, 1967

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

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. (

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”. (

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.

McGookin, Black Banner

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.

Lashed Ladder,acrylic on board.

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.

Devenish, acrylic on canvas

I cherish the deliciously hidden humour  in many of these paintings.

Conspiracy, acrylic on board

Monthy Python meets Juan Miro in a computer game…   The danger is somewhat hidden, but not always.

Implosion (of the Refinery of Babel’s Children)

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.

About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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