Song of the earth

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Under a jewelled rock a dusky water snake

Song of the earth

Aidan Dunne

Gandon Editions 2006

As a painter, Eamon Colman is unmistakably a colourist. Not only because colour, often strong, bright colour, is a major constituent in terms of the formal pictorial construction of his compositions, but also because he expects the qualities inherent in colour to do a substantial part of the emotional work he sees as integral to the painting process. Look at practically any of his pictures, though, and it is clear that he is not solely a colourist. In fact he consistently uses the classical components of painterly language: line, colour, tone and form. To which one might add a pronounced leaning towards pattern.

As it happens, colour allied to pattern together make up a workable set of pictorial means. Just look at most of Howard Hodgkin’s pictures. Hodgkin is a painter who Colman admires, for several pertinent reasons. His faith in the emotional weight of colour, and his appreciation of the usefulness of pattern as a fundamental pictorial building block are clearly relevant, but so too is his commitment to pictorial narrative. Colman shares all of these attitudes and feelings. To a degree that might surprise many casual observers, Colman, like Hodgkin, is convinced that every picture tells a story, though not necessarily in the way, and not necessarily the kind of story, that we might expect.

Often in his work there is a sense of searching for a form, a shape, which implies an underlying conviction that there is an appropriate if elusive shape to be found. The search is very much part and parcel of the picture. With Sheherazade in mind, Walter Benjamin described storytelling as a way of postponing the future, and in the same sense the business of a painting, the story it tells, is a way to keep us guessing, to keep the eye interested. But the interest depends on the deferral and suspension of a conclusion. What comes across in Colman’s work is a moving towards, a shuttling, exploratory approach to something that remains ambiguous - but fruitfully ambiguous. When the shapes do become more articulated and defined, as they do in many paintings, we often find them repeated in a curiously incantatory, talismanic way, as though they possess magical properties. But they doesn’t give up their ambiguous status: a shape in any painting never quite becomes something that we can easily assimilate and, perhaps, forget.

It’s not unreasonable to use the idea of a journey as a metaphor for Colman’s restlessly composed paintings, given that journeys have formed a consistent thread of inspiration for him. In a sense, though it may seem odd or even terrible to say it, the destinations of these journeys do not matter hugely in relation to his paintings. This is not to deny the integrity of the places he has visited and the obvious personal value of the experiences wrapped up in them. His travels in Africa, India, Europe and the United States, not to mention local excursions in Ireland, have clearly been of huge personal significance and continue to resonate through the paintings. But in the same way that Saul Bellow’s protagonist Henderson, in his novel (itals)Henderson the Rain King(end itals), finds spiritual rebirth in the course of his travels, what counts most in Colman’s work is what one might term the Africa, or for that matter the United States, of the mind.

The paintings could be described as meditations on the experience of being immersed in the landscape. Because he is drawn to wilderness spaces, in this context the term landscape might seem to imply an absence of human influence and activity, but that is not the case. He is clearly interested in the profound human engagement with landscape, our complex and increasingly problematic relationship with the land. In his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez writes about the ideas of the American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. Tuan posits a dynamic balance between humanity’s experience of "familiar places and unknown spaces." We set out from the known places to "amorphous spaces." In vast empty spaces, Tuan suggests, we become vividly aware of the qualities of our cherished, familiar spaces - and vice versa. To a significant extent, you can’t have one without the other. The unknown puts the known into focus.

The land becomes known to us, Tuan says, largely through stories, stories relayed in various cultural forms. Practically any landscape, for those who know it, is dense with meaning, local knowledge built incrementally over vast stretches of time. Often, the familiar impulse to define a landscape by imposing a meaning - say a political identity - on it can expressly negate its cumulative, inherent history. Travellers, Lopez suggests, should not, ideally, impose meaning but arrive at a renewed, enriched understanding of their own terrain through experiencing the corresponding if different richness of an elsewhere. That seems like a pretty good description of Colman’s experience of travel. For him, the land enshrines not only its own history, in a conventional sense, but the complex stories of people’s personal relationships to it, a source of invaluable, hard-won wisdom. In that sense the meaning of any given landscape is built from stories, and Colman has consistently sought to experience landscape in terms of those stories. Although he obviously loves the physical fabric of landscapes, and enjoys solitude, in terms of his own accounts of his travels it quickly becomes apparent that, for him, people are inseparable from any consideration of landscape.

Tuan points out that even the most special places in a landscape are not likely to be apparent to an outsider. Stories are not visible, and Colman’s paintings can be taken as a bid to make them visible, to encapsulate something of how the interaction with landscape is something privileged and valuable. In part this aspiration derives from his own instinctive engagement with the land - with, that is, the rural landscape. Although he was brought up in the city, it is clear that the countryside and the natural world quickly became extremely important for him. So there is on the one hand this sense of personal learning and involvement, and on the other a wider appreciation of the role of landscape in all cultures and communities.

It is fair to suggest that the specific backgrounds to Colman’s travels are in a way irrelevant primarily because his paintings are not merely compendiums of, so to speak, local colour. While his titles often feature allusions to particular places and particular stories related to those places, he doesn’t intend that the paintings form a kind of anthropological inventory of such information. Yet, one is entitled to ask, what are they if not that? In his paintings he does draw on the particularity of place, and is inspired by stories, but rather than illustrating or rehearsing pre-existing narratives and scenes, he sets out to make his own narratives. However, they might more accurately be termed meta-narratives, in that they are always considerations of our (or, in point of fact, his own, individual) response to landscape. There is always that general level of awareness. That is, rather than a story about a place, he is trying to find a pictorial means to express the way we relate to landscape. It’s also a story about stories, about the way we make and perpetuate them. His gamble is that there is sufficient commonality of experience for us to understand his mode of description.

He is unabashedly subjective and lyrical in his approach. It’s important that we can never quite pin down his imagery, though equally important that we can discern viable connections with the world, that we can make out resemblances, echoes and general properties. Water, mountains, trees and other plants, houses, the ochre of desert sand, for example, as well as other, symbolic shapes are all recognisably there from time to time. But there is also the inescapable idea that what we are looking at is not a picture of something out there in the world per se, but more of something going on in someone’s head. The painting is aimed at the quality and tenor of the experience, emotion recollected in tranquility, rather than directed towards generating an equivalent of the experience through depiction.

The light in his work, he notes, doesn’t seem to have an external source. Rather it glows from within, as though each painting is built on a core of light filtered through layer on layer of colour. The term lyrical suggests music, appropriately enough, for there is a musical balance to the interplay of forms on which the compositions depends: it’s not a claim Colman makes himself, but it is certainly there. He does like the idea of comparing the individual pieces to poems or short stories, partly because of the way they are forms that usually exist in series or in collections. And certainly, to get a sense of the way he uses a painterly language it helps to see a body of work. One painting gains from the next. Once you’ve got a sense of what’s going on, of how they function, they are independently quite happy. They sing.

Aidan Dunne is the art critic for The Irish TImes

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