In the eye of memory

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The story of the bushman told in rock and stone

In the eye of memory

Brian McAvera

Upon Viewing

As one’s eyes range around this exhibition, heat and light cream off the canvases, and an almost Mediterranean exuberance of forms, glimpsed perhaps through a heat haze, seen now from a distance, and now right up close, visualised in remembrance long after the act of looking - like an imaginary museum of memories - come floating off the walls. Just as one’s memory of particular places is often associated with a song that one heard at the time - the young girl and the young man, and they’re always young, caught in the sunlight, with a pop song playing on a bar radio which leaks out into the sunshine - the whole being an emotional attitude to the thing observed, so too do Eamon Colman’s paintings work upon us, for memories are not snapshots, rather an emotional freightage, rinsed with memories of place.

But there is always a yin and a yang. Look closer, and a whole panoply of signs and symbols emerge from the often succulent colour. Interior and exterior space, the cusp of a breast shape, the erections of a phallic shape, dark underpinnings of shadowy black, a rinse of magenta, a world in which nature in the shape of tree or rock, vegetation or the depths of blue-eyed water, all seem to exist in some slippage between the real world and the imagined world. Look long enough and we can persuade ourselves that we are viewing mountain or canyon, open or enclosed landscape or seascape - but this is a mirage.

It is connected to the ocular vision that we all have in common with the painter, but there the resemblance ceases and potent, dreamlike, slightly disturbing, often almost hallucinatory world of the painter begins. Strong rich colour and bold shapes draw us in and then the alchemy begins as the yin and the yang, the darkness and the light, the troubling undercurrents and the sunny surface sheen commingle.

Figuration is not an issue here. This looks like that….but isn’t. Abstraction isn’t an issue either, as elements from the real world are indisputably there. There are paintings about retinal impact leaching you into their world and asking you: do you really know yourself? Just what is going on below the calm cheery surface of your face? In a number of the works as in Storms River there is a calligraphic skirling of wide thin line, which plumes its way across the surface area, as if dropped down like an opera gauze. It disturbs the spatial dimensions, as one is capable of reading it, not only in a linear, frontal manner, but also as ‘sewing’ its way into an almost perspectival sense of space.

However, in The Whispering Song of a Bar-Throated Apatis (page 16), the calligraphy is thicker with the powerful directional lines in yellow seeming to demarcate the space like road markings, whereas the whirling, ovoid, and partially ovoid shapes, seem to suggest a sense of atmospheric disturbance. In almost all of the paintings the space is shallow, collapsed in on itself like a theatre set. This is an effect which is reinforced by the picket-fence like striations in a number of the works - defining enclosure and territoriality - one of a whole number of a card-index thesaurus of signs such as the loose, lime-green ‘smoke-rings’ which feature in Reed Valley home to the Spotted Bush Snake (page 14), the flotilla of green and brown circular patches, the arrowed span of grey-black lozenge shapes, the thick slightly curved circumflex shapes in pale blue, and so forth.

Patterning creeps into this world, as if memories of Klimt crossed with damask curtains, were silk-screened onto the corners of images. This is not an artist who wants to be pinned down. Is the patterning a decorative arabesque to keep the eye alert? A structuring device to contain a corner and rein it in? Or another entry in the artist’s notebook of signs and carefully impenetrable symbols? More likely, in this world of multi-tasking, nothing is singular but everything is plural.

After Interviewing the Artist

Much as many’s a Modernist would love to assert the opposite, no artwork, no matter what the medium, exists in its own hermetic space. Social and political factors, period detail, the detritus of a life, personal circumstances, current art fashions are only some of the possible contexts of a work of art, while another, often crucial factor, is whether the artist has bored his or her artesian well into a small corner of the world, or opted for a continual geographical refreshment.

Interviewing the artist will always illuminate the work. Technical detail will emerge, pertinent (or impertinent) background information will surface and, so long as the artist is a willing collaborator, patterns of intention, interpretation and design will unfold. Often, the most unlikely source material will emerge: what the artist was reading, where he or she has been on holiday, what works of other artists had been seen or studied, even what music was playing in the studio or what radio play was on in the background - all of this pot pourri of scents, sights and sounds will often coagulate into the sediment for a work of art. Good art is not instantaneous notation but rather a slow process of acquisition, absorption, exploration, interrogation of painterly surface and painterly idea and, if you are lucky, a honing down of excess baggage.

Eamon Colman went to South Africa in January 2004 for a two month sojourn which took him and his partner (the artist Pauline O'Connell) to Cape Town, then up to the Cederberg mountains, and back down along the East cape coastline - about 6,000 kilometres in a hired car. Everywhere they went there was a marked contrast between that of the ‘whites’ and that of ‘the coloreds'.

For the best part of forty years Africa, in the shape of his aunts, on his mother’s side, who used to send regular letters home from what was then Rhodesia - stamps as miniature paintings of an exotic world; envelopes with the postmarks of a far-flung world - were a part of the painter’s imagination, so much so that he can remember the awe-inspiring effect, as a boy, of pulling out an atlas and pronouncing the exotic names of places like Mozambique. So his real journey to South Africa had a Janus-like, pivotal effect, oscillating between the need to go and see the New Africa, and the need to tap into the Africa of his imagination.

However, other journeys, fictive or otherwise, take place in the real world, journeys which may run parallel to the main one, have no bearing whatsoever on the real one, or else tributary like, flow into it. Thus it happened that Colman had just recently finished reading two Nabokov novels, Lolita, and Invitation to a Beheading, both of which but especially the latter, in their own ways, are about repressive regimes. In the latter a condemned man in his cell starts to analyse the landscape of his imagination, as well as the reality of it. Where do the two collide?

In the book, for Colman, Nabokov makes clear that when any changes in society take place, then dreaming, as of a change of regime or life, is naïve. There is a sense of longing, of wanting….

At the same time Colman was ‘trying to read Pearse in the Irish’, noting that Pearse had ‘a beautiful sense of the language which doesn’t come across in English. He dreams of changing the Irish landscape’. The connecting factor between Nabokov and Pearse, is the notion of an interrelationship between the landscape of reality and that of the imagination. For most of the artist’s working life, he had been based in cities, making sorties out into the country, and then bringing the notebooks back into the studio. Just under a year ago he had relocated to rural Kilkenny. Most of the works in this exhibition were, quite deliberately, started in Kilkenny, before he left for Africa, and during a recent period of immersion in African guidebooks and the African novels of Ben Okri (a useful parallel source to the painter’s attitudes and methods). He was trying to paint a series of African works without ever having been there which, as he wryly noted ‘was a very European thing to do!!’ In Africa he photographed constantly and ‘wrote a lot’. Once back home, he then finished all of the paintings.

A case in point is The Story of the Bushmen Told in Rock and Stone . Colman had found fascinating the sense of a ‘divorced’ history in Africa. He’d been taken to see rock paintings but the guides were white men who had been educated to tell the stories of this art, but it was patently obvious that these were not their stories. There was a gap, a dislocation, a sense of distance…So far, so Nabokov.

When the painting was seemingly completed in the studio, an interesting development took place. Every day the artist would drive in and out of Kilkenny and he would pass one particular tree. One night he woke up at 3 a.m., went into the studio, and instinctively made a series of marks onto the painting. If you look at the middle top of this painting you’ll see what he added: the outline shape of the tree that he passed every day. The landscape that he was living in was becoming a part of his everyday vocabulary and the landscape of South Africa was becoming a part of the landscape of his imagination. As he puts it, ‘you don’t dream about something that you don’t know. You dream about something that you have an instinct for!’

Another layer in the palimpsest of confluences is South African art, which he considered to be at a very interesting stage as it was starting to look at International sensibilities and to put itself forward as a ‘world’ art. Much of the painting he found overly figurative and quite colonial, except for the work in an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, Cape town, where African Americans, and European Africans, who had left because of apartheid, had been commissioned to respond to the AIDS culture - what he found fascinating were the passionate responses. Equally the cave paintings from five thousand years ago to two hundred and fifty years ago, intrigued him. Figures, organic shapes and a sense of mystery led up to, at the latter end of the timescale, the San People’s first view of white man: carrying guns - ‘a wonderful record of how native Africans responded to the invaders’.

Another overlapping context is that of technique. In this exhibition there are oils on canvas, oils on board, and oils on thick handmade paper. Form follows, not just function, but the possibilities of paint on different surfaces. When he uses board, the artist coats it with oil gesso, sands it, and then repeats this process about ten times. Taking glass paper, he polishes the gesso until it’s a shiny surface that is almost as translucent as porcelain. The paint ‘slips’ on this surface, allowing the kind of light feathery delicate marks that are not really feasible with other surfaces: see for example the right upper hand side of the left panel of the diptych Sundays River meander it’s way past Yellow Milkwood (page 10-11). The studies however are made on the handmade paper, gessoed on one side only, and with rabbit-skin glue on the other side ‘so that it will last longer than me!’

A final context is that of the map reference on the route of the painter’s continual journey from exhibition to exhibition. In this case Colman considers that he ‘has really started to heighten the colour - full on!’ New colours are creeping into the palette like the green and the greeny-pink, though not as he points out, necessarily informed by what he saw in Africa, but rather informed by him trying to put down his reality on canvas, paper or board. The predominant colours are four in number. There’s lemon yellow with a little pink added to change the tone; Cadmium Orange with a little olive green mixed in; a light green combined with a grass green; and a Crimson Red, which has a glaze of Indian red over it to give it a depth of colour.

Previously Colman thought that his colour appeared to be too flat. There was not enough happening beneath the surface. In an interesting demonstration of the link between form and content, he noted that in South Africa at the moment, there was a surface veneer of ‘things are moving and changing’ but that when you scraped the surface, ‘apartheid was alive and well’. That was when he started looking at the under surface of the painting as he wanted some form of ‘tension’ to happen.

If you look at the world of the artist’s paintings over the years, you’ll note that the figure never appears. Instead there are myriad forms of landscape. Africa revealed to him the reason why the figure had never appeared in his work. As he observed, in Ireland we tend to forget that the land itself has a story to tell, though not in any romantic sense, about the human condition, in terms of its marks and its cuts.

So when you look at a Colman painting, you are given the pleasures of form and colour but you are also given a kind of story about the human condition of Ireland and its links to the human condition elsewhere. Tropes from fiction, painting and cave art commingle with the forward momentum of his painterly development, both in terms of content and technique. And the continent of Africa, that land of exotic blossom and colonial excess, that exotic country of the mind, slowly bleeds into the rather less exotic, but perhaps more quixotic, land of Ireland.

  Brian McAvera, playwright, art critic and curator, has published 11 plays, four books on art, including a monograph on Eamon Colman, and numerous catalogues, essays and articles. He is an Associate Editor of Sculpture (USA), and writes regularly for The Irish Arts Review.

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