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SKILL AND NON SKILL

The Irish News October 2000


I am a firm believer that in art criticism, a pinch of schadenfreude is innervating, so I have a problem; this week I have only seen exhibitions that I have liked. However, even great art has its deficient areas. Sometimes the very success of the art lies in the juxtaposition of skill and lack of skill. I have in mind the work of Leon Golub one of America’s leading post-war painters whose retrospective exhibition is currently on show in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. In the 1950’s Golub reacted against the inward-looking, art for art’s sake aesthetic of the Abstract Expressionists. He believed that painting had to be connected to the external world in order to be relevant to the viewer and society.
Since the 1960’s Golub and his wife Nancy Spero have been involved in almost all the major campaigning issues; The Vietnam War, US intervention in Latin America, the Aids Crisis, Racism, Drugs, inner city crime and so on.
He believed that Abstract Expressionism hadn’t, or couldn’t, address these problems. Representational art, on the otherhand, had the immediacy to engage the public’s attention and possibly their support in promoting social justice. This exhibition of 39 paintings shows how Golub tackled these themes from 1950 until 1999. They are large figurative images, fiercely political, and almost all derived from photographic sources; Soldiers, Mercenaries, Prisoners Torturers Interrogations, Riots, they are all here .
I liked the work and I hated the work in equal measure. I sensed it had emerged from a combination of skill and non skill. Jon Bird says in his book which accompanies the exhibition that Golub;
“ never felt it necessary to acquire ..graphic and technical skills.”
This has resulted in what Golub calls a “quality of awkwardness” in his work; others might call it limited drawing skills. Any art teacher will recognize it. It is similar to the work of the student who meticulously copies figures from photographs. Every line, wrinkle, shadow and tooth that the camera finds is there on the surface but the life has been flattened out of them.
In Golub’s case the superficial, lifeless, linear framework is there, but the surfaces it encloses are full of life, animated by vibrant, gestural painting skills and dramatically unpredictable colour combinations. The limitations in the drawing emphasize the excellence of the painting. These
Remarkable works didn’t make me more aware of the international problems they depicted, but they did make me more aware of painting. This is an excellent Show and a curatorial coup for IMMA who have not only curated this major exhibition by an American artist but have been invited to take it on an American tour starting in Brooklyn’s Museum of Art.
A chance encounter in the Museum resulted in a sneak preview of a really unusual collection of twentieth century Irish art. George and Maura Mc Clelland invited me to join them and Senior Curator, Catherine Marshall to have a quick look at part of their collection which they have generously lent to the Museum. In the early 70’s George ran the Mc Clelland Galleries International on the Lisburn Road before moving to Dublin. This collection, amassed over 40 years, includes almost every name in Northern Art; Lavery, Conor Middleton, O’Neill, Nicholl, Henry, Craig, Luke, Scott; think of a name and it’s there. Add to this; Yeats, Le Brocuy, O’Conor, Swanzy, Keating and you have an exhibition worth seeing.
Back in Belfast’s Fenderesky Gallery is an excellent thematic exhibition entitled “Meeting Morandi”. Twelve artists were asked to react to Giorgio Morandi who was renowned for his simple, restrained style of painting, bowls, bottles and jugs. In this exhibition Stephen Mc Kenna’s painting of a cardboard box is a convincing reaction, to Morandi’s work. The cardboard is subtly and beautifully realized in paint. The sculpture however, is the star of the show. Bob Sloan’s galvanised containers have, amazingly, something of Morandi’s introverted detachment about them; their subtle, surface textures and colour changes reinforce their sense of marvellous isolation. Tom Bevan’s table, plate on top and billowing, inflated pig-like object underneath surprisingly combines attraction, humour and expectancy. Upstairs there are two more pieces by Sloan; Still Life with Nightlight and Still Life with Shadow. Two inventive, thoughtful bronzes. They made me think about sculpture as I drove home. I thought, isn’t it amazing that, in a country so famous for its horses and in a city so replete with bookmakers that we have only one equestrian sculpture; the bronze King Billy on top of Clifton Street’s Orange Hall.
I passed the shamefully vandalized Carlisle Circus where “Roaring Hanna” once stood, and I thought, what a perfect place for a Bob Sloan bronze.


Joseph Mc Williams October 2000©