Mark Shields, at F E McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge, March 1 – May 19, 2018

I sense that Shields’s  process dominates the image by piercing intention with invention and chance.  Reminiscent of John Cage.  By “herding “creation, principle and belief together.

In Principio, Seventh Day, 2016, charcoal on paper, 42 x 29cm

Shields  named this exhibition The Inaccessible Land … quoting Georg Buechner’s ” beyond the endless searching”  (on the recto page – opposite illustration frontispiece on the left page of the cover of  the  catalogue. )

Indira Raman revisits that search “…wondering whether the transience of our satisfaction may not in fact be inescapable and instead may reveal an inevitable aspect of the way the brain works, the understanding of which might provide a clue to how to contend with it”(accessed on

Riann Coulter  opens her  excellent catalogue essay  precisely with a contrast of two experiences citing Camus’s  analysis of the myth of Sisyphus: struggle and happiness.

As a curator, she achieved a calm and measured display for most of  the artist’s output of the last four years, seducing the space and light to mellow the strictness of black frames  of most of the series.  She spoke of  more art left behind in the studio. Reminiscent of the Gustave Moreau  house in Paris overflowing  with multitudes, and which Shields visited as a student.

Indeed the connectivity is a necessary part of Shields exploratory strategies.

The Inaccessible Land, 2015,oil on paper, 28x21cm, 1 out of 30.

Riann Coulter cites Shields making connections  e.g. to his garden, to Ernst Shackleton’s  crossing of Antarctica as support for his  painterly process (p6).  Thus framing Shields’s art between observation of his being in the world, and multiple sources of other people’s beliefs and knowledge, and the will to embody a visual thought  in prints and painting.

In this exhibition there are also five arte povera/brutalist low reliefs “Plaques”  made of found wood, white plaster, nails, rust and board. The one below assuming the appearance of a funerary relief, and all  related to one person each,  meant as  markers of their deaths.

“Plaques” For E.R., 2014/15, plaster, wood, iron on board, 60 x 60 cm

Death appears a powerful subject also in the large paintings, even if each  professes different subject matter.  Their surfaces are  tactile blind, after layers and layers of activities, as if caressed with whole  palms while gradually  closing eyes.

Sensitively- they hold that last breath – before closing  eyes for good.  Like found fossils  they hold truth and challenge  my power to unearth it.  I see only the last layer that is allowed to tell me very little about the life under its surface.

When We Dead Awaken, 2017, oil on canvas, 152x122cm

John Hutchinson  has contributed an essay  On Dust, Dance and Transcendence to the catalogue – a marvel of different associations and sources, pointing to sameness they harbour with Shields’s art practice: Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Tantraloka, Strindberg, Rilke, Kleist …

As one way to achieve the  state of grace/transcendence  he points out that”…for Rilke (as for his predecessors, the German Romantics), death presents us with a direct means of transcendence as it allows us to lose the self-consciousness and physical limits that separate us from unified existence.”  (p11)

And then he corrects any possible power of transcendence by citing  the end of Rilke’s Elegies  where the poet  thinks of more pressing task: to transform the sorrow and pain of human existence into an aesthetic experience. (p12)

I sense a parallel here to Shields’s resolve to make the existential fear mute and invisible.  His painted surface stays eloquent in a strange disobedience.  He may have freed consciousness from the visibility, but  not from a visual thought that zooms on hues, tonality, brushstrokes.   It is physical,  and it is wiggling out of physical means to be measured. Similar to Rothko’s paintings making people cry.  I hasten to add: it is not the story, it is a thought. Hence, I find  Hutchinson’s reference to H von Kleist’ On the Marionette Theatre to work as a valid  parallel to Shields funerary subjects.  Moreover, taking his penultimate paragraph leads to the rest of the exhibition:

“Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness.” (p14)

I have in mind  In Principio.

In Principio, day 1, image 1, 2016, charcoal on paper, 42x29cm



Shields adds The Poem of Job, its first line governs the set.

Where is the path to the source of light?

That question embodies one of the pathways through the seven days of creation, as Shields  moves images  from saturation by charcoal to  its vapourised state – as if.

path to the source of light”  not  ..of  the source of light. 

On day one of Creation, in the first of 49 images(above) the light is  somewhere behind the horizons. Blocked. Has it  not been created, yet ? …”how could I ever find the answer?”  

Then, the seventh image of the seventh day  introduces grace  of – what looks like  a dry tree, winter leafless branch, blade of grass, a dancer’s silhouette ( that Kleist’s Marionette?)   – ballet of resolution.


And the light – its white hue  relentlessly dominates  also the  largest two  paintings in the installation  The Tables of Law I and II.

The Tables of Law II, 2017, oil on canvas, 152x122cm


Naturally the progression includes the Tao – The Way, twelve small woodcut prints.

The Way, 2017, woodcut print, 35×27.5cm

Actually –  this particular image which I downloaded from the web page is not  exhibited.  A very similar one is:   what is on the left shifted to the right and vice versa.  A sign that Shields still feels free  to cherish a chance in preference to discipline.  My favourite from this set,  is the tri colour one for its anthropological association and sheer prettiness.

The Way, 2017, woodcut print, 35×27.5 cm



The frenzy of “divine love” gave birth to red set of energy boxed in right angles: twenty small abstract fields  are given an archaic title “ Revelations of Divine Love”. And no. There is no logical sequence or narrative order – each just confidently burst in a given rectangle as if on its own, privileged to share a secret.


Revelation of Divine Love, 2015, oil on paper, 20 , each 21x14cm

The Inaccessible Land is also  a summary name for 30 slightly bigger paintings, that cherish colours – multicolours, any colour. Even saccharine pink so loved by rococo painters appears above a mere guess of a landscape.


The Inaccessible Land, 2015, oil on paper, 28x21cm. 30 items

Hidden words, or just letters – how have they descended on that paper? How have they managed to stay on, and stay legible behind that milky mist?  It looks more like a watercolour than an oil – however, these light washes were nurtured by painters since Middle Ages  needed them for Nativities . ( And the white aperture in the sky looks  to me like a baby in nappies… …am I forgiven?)

There is so much more in this exhibition that feels like celebration of visual thinking.  The ideologies cheerfully gave way.


Images courtesy Mark Shields, accessed on



About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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