Cathal McNaughton: Rohingya, Belfast Exposed, Gallery 2, March 5 -21, 2020

The gallery handout introduces the photographer thus:

Pullitzer Price winning Northern Irish photographer Cathal McNaughton travelled to Cox’s  Bazar in 2017 to document the plight of the Rohingya people who were fleeing a deadly crackdown by Myanmar’s army on Rohingya Muslims, forcing hundreds of thousands across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh”

Rohingya refugees scramble for aid at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER – RC1865D90330

I cannot be sure that the similarity of the composition and viewpoint is deliberate reminder of a biblical story. However, even the distribution of light  echoes some well know paintings. Even if its authorship has been disputed,  the image still appears as painted by Hieronymous Bosch or his follower,  1510 -30.

Christ carrying the Cross, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent

The similarity is more in the feeling that both images represent,  the capacity of both the irrational hatred and the way to cope with adverse experience.

A Rohingya refugee arrives at a camp in Coxs Bazar, Bangladesh, September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton


Rohingya refugees shelter from the rain in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton – RC127A8FD6B0


A Rohingya refugee stands beside the remains of his father, whose family says he succumbed to injuries inflicted by the Myanmar Army before their arrival, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton TEMPLATE OUT – RC1AC00B2100


The last photograph is life size – covering the whole height of the  gallery wall, reminiscent of medieval and renaissance European frescoes.  The photographer said it was enlarged by Photoshop.

Cathal McNaughton stated “Documenting this crisis is a harrowing process. The thing you can’t appreciate in the photographs are the noises when thousands and thousands of people are fighting for their lives…. You see humanity at its most basic in front of you. Children fighting adults for food, adults stealing food and aid from children, it’s very hard to take in….  To see these people being beaten back from basic necessities – even though if the guards hadn’t done so there would be mass casualties – it’s a very surreal environment and not something you can be prepared for.”

And that is the substantial difference between these photographs and that older art. They are not born out of a “word” uttered and recorded  centuries ago. Instead, they document the failure of humanity now.

Vision to vision.

Eye to brain and vice versa.

Semir Zeki  devoted the whole chapter to give a sketchy account what happens in our brains when we look at works of art (see Inner Vision, 1999:99ff).  It is not significant whether these photographs are perceived as document or  as visual art, because they are, in the view of the institutional theory of art (Dickie et al) both.

Zeki claims that narrative art is a search for essentials and constants to build up knowledge about the world.  Even if the viewer does not know the data, the who, what and when, these images constitute a profound knowledge about human species. He points out that even  if a small part of the perceptive field is stimulated in the appropriate way, it results in a reaction of the cells in the brain.  Antonin Artauld  has compared art to a plague, that infects the body before you know it.

The reason why it does not matter whether the viewer think of these images as documents or art is rooted in that receptive field,  when stimulated.  When you look and see the images…

And then the viewpoint, colour,  composition, role of detail, in this case similar  to  passions of Christ painted centuries ago  matters. Together, it appears  as the  stimulus which conforms to the characteristics of the visual cells receptive field. Then and now.

A caveat: there are  many examples of the specificity of receptive fields. Zeki concludes: “It is for this reason that I speak of the art of the receptive field, because it appears to be so well tailored to the physiology of single cells as studied through their receptive field..”(ibidem 103). The significance of this  offers one implicit supposition:  that what happens in one brain (=artist’s) is pretty similar to what happens in another brain (=various viewers).

The caveat, to allow for differences in judgement, comes from the peculiar characteristics of the aesthetic function. Jan Mukarovsky(1936)  observed that the  stimulus that evokes aesthetic experience for everybody works, because the aesthetic function is fluid, it can appear either as religious, historical, political, poetical, biological etc  at the same time to different viewers.  In the case of photography this fluency is narrowed down (not erased) by the apprehension that the lens captures the truth.

Zeki concludes: ” It is true that we  cannot today relate aesthetic experience directly to what happens in the brain…and about the power of works of art to disturb and arouse us emotionally.” (ibidem 217/8) But the finding that what on elementary perceptual level happens in one brain happens in another,  is one reason we  can communicate about art and through art.

For a contemporary viewer, the  suffering locked in these lens based images- which are but fragments-  has power of truth about all humanity.

Slavka Sverakova

White Cottage 21/03/2020





Rong-Gen Yin: A Brush with Nature, Engine Room Gallery Belfast, January 2020


“Michael Rong-Gen Yin, originally from Shanghai, began painting in the traditional Chinese manner in the 1970s. During the 1980s he was a member of an artist collective and had occasions to tutor painting in Japan and Germany. Having come to Northern Ireland in 2003 Rong-Gen has continued to paint and teach traditional Chinese painting techniques.  Rong-Gen practises the two main techniques of Chinese painting – Gongbi, where intricate brushstrokes form detailed coloured landscapes, which can include narrative themes and Xieyi, which is much looser using bold brushstrokes and watercolour wash.  Rong-Gen currently tutors Chinese watercolour painting in the Chinese Resource Centre and the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast.” (

The exhibition is breathtaking for its sincere respect for tradition.



This artist feels no need to invent new ways of painting,  holding on to the two inherited techniques with discreet deviations.

Fish symbolising abundance

It is a different kind of freedom when you follow and respect your ancestors while making something that was not in the world before.  It is like growing plants from a seed.

Prawns having fun


On his website he has a comparison of  Gongbi

and Xieyi

Roses and Leaves

In comparison with the vast art market offers of Chinese art on ebay etc.,  this exhibition  offers commitment to poetic truth of the inherited themes, making the lyricism of the brushstrokes comfortable with absences.  Not so much a story – more reminiscent of Goethe’s Faustus selling his soul for the perfect moment. Yes, states of mind.

Fish of the good fortune

And economy of means.  From daring emptiness to noisily busy  composition the commitment to the just the right doses of forms, light and shadows, gets never betrayed.  Humour is allowed to puzzle the attention, here placing the singing bird into a  centre of the composition titled The Autumn Leaves.  Focus on the bird  may evoke the memory of a bird song, focus on the leaves, and the image evokes the smell of the wood in late autumn.

In comparison an image of man made habitat is saturated from edge to edge, cancelling  free space  that does not build the depth – all is a part of the utility  of nature. Anthropocentric motives nest in self-confident countryside.

Leisure Garden

Nature is to serve the mankind without getting completely tamed.

I appreciate this painter’s sincerity to deliver images that do not imprison the viewer’s habitual need for  detailed and complete story.  Instead he dares to outshine the beauty in observation with nothingness.

There is respect, discipline and wild flying away from both, in a superb harmony with empty ground.

Rong-Gen Yin gives demonstrations, teaches the how of his art.  The what  however is in the air settling on the paper with his first brush mark.  The why of his images has to do with his respect for his predecessors.  A very Chinese phenomenon.

The title A Brush with Nature is gentle play with double meaning:  art competes/brushes with nature or vice  versa; , or this is made by a painting brush and  observed nature.  I entertain both at once, with a smile.

The whole luxurious exhibition is on his website. In addition,  there is a charming pointed use of a green hue in otherwise black drawing/watercolour, on his contact us page; it would not let me copy and paste.

Images courtesy the  Engine Room Gallery and



Sharon Kelly: The Salt House, Golden Thread Gallery Belfast, Jan 9 -Feb22 2020

A Salt House is everywhere

e.g. it is a hotel in Bangor,  it is one of the exciting Scottish folk bands.

The significant one does not exist anymore, it is visible on one of the  black and white photographs taken by Kelly’s parents in the early 1960s. Visual perception has an immediacy that is absent from hearing. It also grants a freedom in which order an image is observed. The old photograph and its  translation into a drawing  disclose the image directly and immediately.

The interplay of presence and absence possibly sprouted intention to protect negative space  that manifests  in the above drawing as white. As salt. The trees do not respond to actual photographs. Kelly says she  made them up to obtain the dynamic contrast and believable space. That apprehends truth in the sense of awakening.

Salt has been, and is, a valuable commodity, associated with health and preservation.  Do you have in your childhood memories a story about salt being more valuable than gold?  Salt is deemed to be more valuable because living creatures (people and animals) need it more than they need gold.

At the Project Space entrance there is a salt on the floor as if getting there after someone emptied the cloth pockets on the hanger above. Domestic, functional pockets denoting a class of their maker and user, and making a fragment of memories physically present.   Note, how the salt lights up the wall and the floor, almost as if it mimicked a universe. The textile receptacle wrestles into any memory a viewer may have of old  domestic objects, that are lightheartedly disposed of and replaced by some plastic.


In an interview with academic and critic Carol Becker, Okwui Enwezor once stated:
“We are grappling with very difficult historical issues that concern not only how we live and produce art and culture, but also how we experience it and our place as citizens within the global community.”   The Salt House installation  manifests an honest and unpretentious embodiment of those thoughts while doing it with sincere respect for personal memories.  A chaste respect for memories to deteriorate or even disappear perhaps triggered the need to preserve them.

Sharon Kelly has made art about her life, as if art were the best receptacle for lived experiences.

The way the paper goes in and out of the mangle, empty in, with images out, the real found object assumes significance.  Mangle used to be every day object in European households – part of  prolonging use of clothes, keeping them clean for another use. Thus it offers here, in an analogy, to keep the memory for another day, for the future, also clean.  Mangle being similar to a printing machine also visually alliterates narrative role in memories, histories.

The sunlight coming from outside, although unplanned, by chance, connects  the drawings to the actual Salt House position near the rail track, memory of which metamorphosed into the ribbon of paper.  The mangle is like the train stop for the Salt House.

Detail by Ken Bartley with sunrays

Above, the sun rays added layers  of meaning – expected from art with lens based ancestors.

Without the sun rays… it is more fragile, just on this side of presence.  Drawings of shadows, imprints of remembered siblings, childhood memories. Sincerely private, yet open to sharing.


Art viewing is a private, secret process.

Many today share  the power of  sociology and history as a convenient tool to justify funding of  art.  However, history, be it personal or social, happens now as it did at Lascaux cave or in that new find in Borneo.

During her MFA students years, Sharon Kelly, focused on charcoal drawings of motives from her own life, creating in lens based media later on.  She used to draw on discarded linen, on men’s discarded shirts. Here, decades later,  she chose expensive paper as the ground and gave it a strong role of meaningful emptiness. Paper is everyday, drives out the artist’s self-consciousness – perhaps. The harder I try to nail this down the more it escapes. Picasso also shared the importance of paper, saying that ” it gives him high degree of flexibility. Paper is tear-able, relatively unimportant, bendable…  The figures in the Salt House vibrate with sincerity – yet keep their secrets resolutely intact.


The paper carries them from the mangle into the space, the charcoal hesitating between life and disappearing memory. Memory is not of this world. It floats between here and then.

The significance of the “empty”  in comparison with the “full” – has to do with the poetic tropes, as well as with an optic law.


The significance of black  hue (charcoal) in Kelly’s oeuvre cannot be overstated and overlooked.

She shares the trust that black contains all other hues, a belief which is not limited to one culture.  A search for light and the use of black is the driving force in  Mohammad Omar Khalil’s work (b 1936 Khartoum). He says: “In blackness, I see degrees and shades of rich, complicated colour, more intense than in other colours, roaring and loud.”  The use of black in  his etchings focused on definition of dominant object in the composition be it by contrast or graduation.

Omar Khalil, Petra V, etching,1995, accessed on

Twentieth century art replaced descriptive role of black on white ground  by “coming between the light and dark”(Donald Judd).

In the print below the white is both behind and in front of the burning black.

Felix Vallotton

That kind of “in-between”  is not occurring when Vallotton paints the composition in red and black under the title The Lie (1897), although the subject and composition  share appearance.

The Salt House is a tender attempt to accomplish resurrection of appearance without describing it, to re-create it anew as a new real.  It is more often used for invented motives like this Picasso.

P Picasso, Faune Musicien, 1942.

The Salt House shares with Picasso the ability and resolve to define the form (the subject) as absence enveloped in black.   It imprints itself in white as if on a black soft ground to guard the power of intimacy rooted in a belief.

Darkness has been described as a pregnancy of tiny articles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki in a 1933 essay, In Praise of Shadows, living in Kyoto at the time, worked from a low desk  gazing out the sliding doors toward the garden. “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.”  Hence the invented trees –  “making trees up”.

If black is given the role of creation,  the white is the memory, a pathway to memory. The black evokes nature, life,   while the white settles for the man made,  for absence, for intimacy of scrutiny what is remembered.

On the ribbon of the large scale paper flowing from the “misuse” of an old mangle,  the white becomes the “environment”, a ground, for each fragment of recalled past.


Only one drawing is presented on its own, in its own “frame”, possibly reminiscing on the found photograph.


In a short film by Éanna Mac Cana ( https://…) Sharon Kelly  reminisces on the respect for memory, that it needs protection:  if your memory is not shared it dies with you.


Slavka Sverakova,White Cottage, January 28, 2020




Royal Ulster Academy of Arts, 2019, Belfast. Oct 17 2019 – Jan 5 2020

Colin Watson, Summer, oil on canvas

The 138th Annual Exhibition was once more installed on the 5th floor of the Ulster Museum. The installation is always a problem, given the number of exhibits. While the installation is not a riotous visual assault, the quantity evokes fatigue that traps – in the words of John Updike – a certain breathing space for spirit.

Comhghall Casey, Lauren O’Neill, charcoal on paper

The current president Betty Brown writes in the catalogue: “From an online submission of 1604 works, our Selection Committee of five, work to whittle this down to what in their professional opinion are the top 425 artworks to be pre-selected. These are then submitted to our office on Hand-in Day…..The chosen works then face a second selection  and physical presence comes into play.” (catalogue p 6)

Nicola Lynch Morrin, The risk it took to blossom, aquatint etching

There are two limits: one is the rule that every Academy Member has right to exhibit two works of art, the other is the size of the exhibition space.  This time there were 388 exhibits.

Willie Heron, Yellow House (Inishlacken), painted wood

It is a kind of “Salon” for the members of RUA with generous invitations  to outsiders, namely young generation and chosen high achievers, e.g. Cathy Wilkes  and Abigail O’Brien as President of the Royal Hibernian.

Paul Seawright, She Continued to Weep, 2019, pigment print

Alongside the display  there was a rich program of events: e.g. Meet the Artist, Sources and Inspirations, Art of curating …  For the first time the exhibition will travel – to Enniskillen.

Ready for the public. However, raising the issue of the “refused” and of limits of the space available.  Perhaps – a comprehensive exhibition of all work submitted  in several editions installed in  different places deserves to be considered?

All installations can then circulate Banbridge…Portadown…Newtownards…Downpatrick etc etc…  well any  suitable place on offer.  After all many people live outside Belfast and in a not easy distance from the Ulster Museum.  It is desirable to make visual art accessible where it is not.  Also – refusing to exhibit a work of art of a living working artist is not desirable either.  Every selection is likely to mistake something unfamiliar for bad. I am enthusiastic about the work RUA has done so far – but the constraints they face are neither essential nor desirable condition for their work.

Celie Byrne, Portrait of the painter. oil on linen
A thousand different forces are killing  interest in the arts, and cultural interest in high culture, and both their preservation or recovery depend , at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent.  It often starts with manual work. At times it crosses over many established boundaries, playfully, spontaneously.
Scott Benefield, Colloquy, glass

The sample of the exhibits has been made available to me by Keith Wilson in  photographic documentation by Paul Marshall. They are equivalent witnesses of what appeared – not of my own value judgement.   Chris Wilson’s  fusion of painting and sculpture is crowned with  tiny houses, a motif from his very distant degree show.  The blue, which appeared much later in his landscapes, sparkled in the artificial light; sorry, the image does not show it. Some art is not photogenic.

This superb, highly skilled hyper-realistic painting,  transcends the mode of representation by becoming beguilingly hypnotic.

Caroline Ward, The single egg, oil on board

It reminds me of surrealism, and a statement by Leonora Carrington:

…we have art because there are things unsayable”

Not many exhibits matched it.

Indeed, there are submissions which made me cringe – as they screamed Me,Me,Me… rather than anything more substantially valuable. Male/female bravado has unbeatable impact on memory, but its visual noise forbids any aporia of giving. Excess does not equal intensity. They all seek  the same: to address a viewer  while not compromising their own priorities, which appears healthy until the schematic calculation stops you believing in those priorities. On one hand, it is expected that an artist matches her or his output with his sincere views about life, art and beliefs, on the other we have this suspect hierarchy of the best, good and bad art. I feel sorry for those three adjectives, they have no single firm ground – they depend on the sort of “power” game between aesthetic judgements. It is impossible to use them without naïve enthusiasm or cold calculation. Both useless in relation to aesthetic experience and its fluidity.

Vaida Varnagiene, Happy hour, intaglio etching

Aesthetic experience is a self-directed oscillation between what is made visible and expectation of what should be made visible. And how. And why.  The value of visual art is also in what happens when it subverts what you know.  Art at times is nurtured by the makers as a tool  not only to provoke attention but to evoke critical powers in the way people think.  Radical honesty coupled with humour serves well at times.

Dermot Seymour,On the Balcony of Brexitarium, oil on canvas

The flash of the  visual wit slips into the social, political engagement of the title.  Even without the words, it focuses the attention on absences, on unfinished process of understanding the rewards and obstacles of a change.

Jack Pakenham, The Mask Maker’s Studio 6, acrylic on canvas

A membership based exhibition  depends on respectable support for  “tolerance of differences”  in philosophy, aesthetics and among the artists, even if some artists systematically reject what is different to their preferred art practice. Just recall W. Kandinsky’s attack on figurative painting in Munich when he supported his choice of abstraction by thinking about spirituality in art.

Perhaps more helpful for group exhibitions like this one  is still Charles Baudelaire, his theory of correspondences.

Keith Wilson, Light Around Us, oil on canvas

Wilson’s colour scheme  corresponds to an older European canon, more French (Barbizon) than Italian or Dutch, while it and the composition come from walked observation and  drawing the “seen”.  The marks, be it by brush or crayon, harmonise effortlessly with shapes and space, in a melodic partnering of light and shadow.


Drawings by Keith Wilson not all in the exhibition.






The access to collections in  museums, galleries and online perhaps inspire visits to a historical precedent, older style, or re-working of a composition  e.g.  T. Gericault in one case and pointillist light in another. Even if it is a tribute to the invention of the technique, it still matters that another artist makes it alive again.  It is the matter of matching the how to the what.

Carol Graham, Dawn Shimmer, oil on canvas

Its sensual authenticity is sincere, not staged, believable and inviting.

There are quite a number of atmospheric landscapes and trees  displayed – I hope as a sign of our new  priority vis a vis climate change – presenting various takes on narrative, mimetic approach.

Simon McWilliam, Old Night Blossom

The poles supporting the blossoming crown signal humanity as caring for nature. Or manipulation?

The choice is with the viewer.

Visual art appears the last vestige defining the grip of manipulation of attention, in somewhat playful manner.  There is a radical honesty about staging composition as a critique of manipulation of thinking. The sweet touch of surrealism become its own truth: they both dance.

Neishe Allen,Tulip, oil on board

There is never too much of observation – the trinity of eye, mind and hand,  hailed by Leonardo as a condition for being  an artist still holds its power.

Niamh Clarke, Chapel, graphite on paper

While majority of exhibits were two-dimensional, some smaller sculpture, assemblage and relief made it in.


Willie Heron, Still Life, wood
Helen Merrigan Colfer, Altered State. bronze








These two are visually noisy assemblages of layered shapes with intense stimulation of the difference between the wood and bronze.  Each presents “own truth” about anxiety of being now and here while displaying remarkable attention to the medium. Actually- that faithfulness to the medium  could be perceived in all exhibits, whether they were grounded in scenic elements, historical valence or anthropocene’s impacts.  In summing up: an overall  impact of this exhibition on me  was the tension about the fragility of human condition gazed at through imagination and observation.

Anne Corry, The place with no Time, mixed media print on german etching paper (image courtesy the artist)

This essay is only a fragment of my experience with this exhibition – even so it is too long already!



The catalogue entries do not give dates

The images courtesy of P Marshall, unless otherwise indicated.

Sincere thanks to Keith Wilson for emailing  the jpegs to me.

White Cottage 16 Jan 2020


In her kind reply to  an incorrect point in my essay above,  the President of RUA  included this  correction:

“…a smaller collection of Members work travelled to Enniskillen and was exhibited at Waterways Ireland during the month of February 2019. Although an exiting venture which was well attended and well received, the associated costs make similar forays into far flung venues prohibitive.”


Fenderesky Gallery Belfast – Group exhibition, 28 Nov 2019 – 25 Jan 2020

Forty four works of art, the oldest Abstract Painting 81  by Charles Walsh  is a replay of sensitivity to shades of black, an ability  to recognise  quite a multitude of black shades noted by F. Engels among the workers in chemical industry. I compared once  the Walsh’s mastery to graduate the hue to a whisper in a nursery.  It also ages remarkably well, while turning into a classic.

Charles Walsh, Abstract Painting 81, 2011, oil on linen

The installation is airy, “minimalist”, allowing the privacy between the viewer and the viewed, not on offer in most current exhibitions of visual art.  The images do not rain on you, do not jostle for an aura, even if some were given preference for taller visitors.  That little speck above the row of three, is a small  Seed of painting by Natalia Black. It is her autograph, pastose layers of paints dragged across a thought of composition.  She is not alone in preferring this specific technique for its power to define an image by pushing out the ground and instances. I came across three more painters who are devotees.



Conrad Jon Godly  applies impasto  to mountains on large scale to reveal their “spirit”.

Uploaded from

Iranian Salman Khoshroo ( had made white on white series, switching now to hot hues charged with defining male nudes.  Joseph Lee  (  prefers portraits whose anatomy is masked by forces of emotion.

Downstairs, a tiny  Spiral Star by Dan Shipsides silently plays hide and seek well above the eye level, while the large Rattler and Badass by Ronnie Hughes command the whole space and attention with support of seven smaller  paintings. Small format is favoured by many,  by  Fionnuala D’Arcy, whose paintings appear both here and upstairs. 

Rigorous process feeds the variations on sensuality of the sameness of the format – akin to a musical fugue. The attention to the medium allows the sense of atmosphere to engulf sharp edges of  angular forms. I deliberately avoid to identify these images as made by female or male artist.  Instead, I hope the viewer to engage with it, with the painting, not with the maker, as is the habit in this culture.  “In 2018, male artists created 95 percent of the total value of art sold at major auction houses across the world. And from 2008 to 2018, only 11 percent of the artworks actually bought by major American museums were by women. The art world can posture but, where it counts, less is changing than it might seem, because the underlying idea of the Artistic Genius maintains its hold.”

Louise Wallace

Peter Burns prefers similarly hot palette to stretch, ambulate and contort his busy landscape.

Scenic elements hide a seek on a diaphanous layered surfaces  of David Crone‘s paintings. David Feely intoxicates the rule of right angle with letting the observed to hover between figuration and abstraction.

David Crone


David Feely

Reduced composition  intimates rather than narrate a story  in several exhibits. It appears as preferred mode  of Wilma Vissers   and Felim Egan.

Felim Egan, Prelude, 2010, above it is Vilma Visser’s Utitled, 2019
Installation view with Helen O’Leary’ Air Scale, 2019
Helen O’Leary, Air Scale, 2019

Languid misty high tones embrace the right angles with empathetic tenderness.

Tender delight with details keeps them mischievously playing hide and seek with  meaning, date and technique in the page manquee below.

Tjibbe Hooghiemstra, Haiku, 2018

When abstraction borrows enigmatic quality from an imagined story or performance, it contaminates itself with a narrative. The freedom of choice is left with the viewer’s imaginative habits.

Sinead Aldridge, Sermon to Stones, 2019

Holding the imagination to revoke the real, is often assisted by illusion of space, depth, here between the figure absorbed in contemplation of the cloud and its reflection in the water while that illusion is targeted by the red tree.  It is poetic  to the point of sweet illusion,  perhaps hence the smirking right angle  to subvert it a little.

Paddy McCann, The Cloud in the River, 2017
David Crone, Garden Objects,2015
Top: Helen Blake, Blush, 2019, below Walker&Walker, In Between  o and r

Installation shots.

Shrinking the world to a table op scale is a pre-eminent part of growing up while playing, or playing while growing up. The value of play for cognitive powers is well understood but not often respected. Art has the eternal power to object on its behalf.

Peter Hutchinson, Rounded Square, 2019

Visual art shrinks not from being decorative  while it distances itself from similarity with the observed.

Patrick Fitzgerald, Coast, 2018

If only rarely, the fear of the end of the world visits people every so many hundreds of years – and the humanity’s impact on nature  at present triggers our take on it. The metaphor of darkness,  of a night for end of life is not out of date yet.

James Allen,The last bird in the world leaving, 2018

As if not facing the predicted impact of people on nature, art still potently flirts with  freedom of thought,  be it as a nod to predecessor or to the enigmatic quality of colour.

Tony Hill, Light, 2019
Tony Hill, After Georges Braque,2019

It is perhaps telling about human condition  when the  Shelter, 2019 by Zoe Murdoch  has no opening, no entrance. A closed box on a pedestal.

Closed form also governs  Bill Saunders’s Hide Tide, 2019


Visual art often partners ethics, even if it not exactly follows the kallos agathos…

Images courtesy of Helen G Blake on Facebook.  Without you, Helen, I could not do this essay. Thank you.

MICHAEL HANNA: LOOKING BACKWARD, PS2, Belfast, November 30 – December 21, 2019

I write this while the gallery is moving once more,  above is a photo of a new place in Rosemary Street. Below – ready to move?




Mimicking a threatened organism the PS2 moves and moves to survive. It feels like an omen, that Hanna’s theme of utopia was the final work at its ground floor showroom in the Royal Avenue.


I missed the HIVE choir performance in response to the exhibition.

The lights zoom on some words  of the cut and pasted text from the romantic novel set in Belfast, the notorious Mills and Boon editions. Its hall mark –  a happy ending is a sibling of utopia.

Monument VIII, 2019, Paper on dibond, 142×142 cm

From a distance -when the details merge into rhythm of dark and light grey, it  is reminiscent of Rothko’s grey on grey (I saw it in a Deutsche Bank collection, no image). Viewed nearer the surface, its aesthetics hurries up to be nearer a newsprint,  anxious to let the eye to read words. That difference pulsed like a  life energy determined to cross over mysterious layers of imagination, quickly evaporating.

Hanna decided that the closure would be entrusted to the video, at the end of the walk among the exhibits.  As if premonition of HIVE’s use of light he called it “INDOOR SUNLIGHT” (2019)

It is 16 minutes long  – feels longer in its lento tempo… It offers no  linear story – instead various fragments of various levels of being, found, arranged or constructed, the video offers a flow of appropriated or recorded footage of whatever arrested Hanna’s observation on his journeys  here and across Europe. Nothing is identified by place or name. It constantly provokes and disappoints search for meaning, for some stable identity.


The gallery handout  issued for the viewer of Hanna’s installation gives the statement of intent:

Looking Backward is an exhibition of photography, text, painting and moving-image works by Michael Hanna that considers ideas of promised futures and the relationship between utopia and the local. The exhibition takes its title from a utopian novel written in 1888 by author and journalist Edward Bellamy. The book, which was a bestseller at the time, was written in the midst of great wealth disparity and economic and social turmoil. After over a century of sleep, the narrator awakens in his hometown of Boston in the year 2000 to find himself in a world of post-capitalist harmony. As the story progresses, he learns about the differences between the two periods and eventually recognises the faults of the nineteenth century.

Like much utopian writing, Bellamy uses fiction to navigate his ideological world; however the vast majority of the novel concentrates on detailing its structure. In Bellamy’s future, wealth is shared equally between all, and there is no hunger, poverty, political parties, advertisements, banks or money. The works in Looking Backward respond to this imagined and impossible ‘future-now-past’ state and some of the central themes of the novel through re-worked familiar formats, such as the neon billboard and the romantic novel, and images that employ as well as deny the inherent optimism of utopian world-making…

I have not read theat book, I have not listened to the curator’s ( the talented Alissa Kleist) talk,  I have not joined the vernissage’s crowd. I only spent time with each exhibit.  I prefer and value this freedom for its similarity with listening to a brook in the forest.

First part  near the entrance was displayed to be visible in daylight, the last part followed the now ubiquitous projections in a dark room at the back of the gallery.

The first part was tacit and static. Even the text escaped legibility by preference for minuscule size.  The second part, the video was demanding and refusing to give out its raison d’etre.  Hanna offers in his notes to the exhibition, available as gallery handout, that it “…incorporates, and expands on, the central theme of the exhibition”.

Consequently,  each of the other exhibit ought to partake on that theme.

View from the outside the PS2


View towards the entrance

The neon word  on the PS2 shop window corrupts its spelling by NI pronounciation  in a typeface designed in 2004 ( according the gallery handout), making visible the  vulnerability of utopian optimism about the role of the computers. In my experience, we were promised the world with less paper if switched to the new tools for communication. Well – the opposite seems to be the case forty years on. Hard copies of everything in case the internet or software seriously malfunction.  Hanna’s choice of tying it to NI (via pronounciation) is neither true nor helpful. Nevertheless -it appropriates its subject in a kind of playful illusion smeared by an irony.

The walls carry unassuming pictures.

The Diagnostic View IV(2007) 

is a copy of Der Diagnostische Blick IV, 1992, by Luc Tuymans in the same size!

Reviewing this Tuysmans’ paintings, Peter Schjeldahl observed a value pertinent to Hanna’s appropriation of it.

>>Tuymans discovers in the very humiliation of the medium a vitality as surprising as a rosebush on the moon. He does so with nothing-to-lose audacity, in terms of subject matter. If painting has nothing significant left to say, he seems to reason, it might as well say nothing about significant things….He told Artnet that in his initial hours of work, “until I get to the middle of the process – it’s horrific. It’s like I don’t know what I’m doing but I know how to do it, and it’s very strange.” Now, that – uncertain ends, confident means – is about as good a general definition of creativity as I know.<<  (

Utopia is a confident means with uncertain ends – and everlasting dream of humanity to put things right. Consider just how many medieval and Baroque painters worked that theme, whether they called it Golden Age or a Silver one or a Paradise…

Hanna’s instinct in his little painting is truer than the laboured collection of strings in the video  Indoor Sunlight, where,  the irony and sober intelligence fight their  corner. Plato’s Republic, Thomas Moore’s Utopia are more known than hundreds of other philosophers grappling with the fact that utopia is as old as the entire historical epoch of human history.  

The two images of plane flying low  share one title “The Ones Who Walk Away” (2019). One was found online, the other is Hanna’s photograph of the plane near an East Belfast school.



Ownership and use of land  significantly contributes to utopian dreams for freedom and equality.  Increasingly, water and air, are coming under the same controls of ownership. Hanna photographed  Lagan Weir (2012) – a man made structure to control the nature.  That control is not visible.

This appears to be the key image. It connects us to the 19th C  with its inventions of water and steam power. Then several Utopian ideas arose, often in response to the belief that social disruption was created and caused by the development of capitalism.  One classic example of such a utopia was the book Hanna names as his inspiration: Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward (1888). It gave title to this exhibition too.

The title of the 16 minutes  video  Indoor Sunlight is the most direct and ominous characteristics of utopian wants and needs.  Whereas sunlight can enter rooms via glass windows, the reverse does not exist, except in a phantasy, or as  a disaster in our universe.  I think of these  two co-ordinates as necessary condition for the variety of utopia and its stubborn survival.  Fear and imagination are willing bedfellows.  Hanna avoids apocalyptic tones – the video is almost “sunny”  through gentle humour that cuts, contorts, reverts and speeds through the various motives. It is a bazaar of  wants and wishes, one undermining the other by simultaneous multiplicity (open-endednes). As EH Gombrich proposed:  the correct (i.e. intended by the artist) reading of an image is governed by variables: the code, the caption  and the context. (The Image and the Eye. 1982: 142)  If, however the viewer ignores any or all  while preferring the “power of the visible” – an experience similar to moving through nature, the meaning shifts from that intended by the artist to that preferred by the viewer. This is glorious and so rare a freedom, that it needs to be protected. I am certainly guilty of departing from Hanna’s intentions as described in the gallery’s handout, i.e.”…attempts at utopia building and how technology  shapes affective experience and future visions…”.  Instead,  I experienced what Italo Calvino refers to as “rain of images” (Six Memos….,1996:81). Of Europe and NI – appropriated and taken –  making up a sort of rain of images that were reluctant to admit identity or a reason to have one.  My freedom to construct my meaning occurs in relation to the visible  recognition of objects and situations.  And I think that is the crux of why people entertain utopia while knowing that it must fail.  That freedom  exists only in  thinking, imagining, in poetry, visual poetry included. A work of art affords the flow of the meaning between the artist’s free intention and the viewers free response. The freedom creativity craves is worth preserving over and over.  And yes, it is a kind of utopia to aim at one complete account of indissolluble synthesis of L’Etre et le Neant (JP Sartre).


Images courtesy Michael Hanna.





EXPANDED STUDIO PROJECTS:Belfast 19-30 Aug, Nottingham 23-28 September 2019

Peter Mutschler calls himself director/caretaker of PS square in Belfast, while he could be also an honorary white witch or that proverbial  Phoenix capable to go on and on in spite of Arts Council withdrawal of financial support.

“Since 2018, we are one of four recipients of the Freelands Artist Programme, funded by the Freelands Foundation, alongside Site Gallery, Sheffield, England; g39 in Cardiff, Wales and Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. This new programme will provide funding totalling £1.5 million over a five-year period. Each institution will curate a series of two-year programmes with five artists annually, allowing those artists to receive much-needed support across both creative and professional development. This will enable us to work and support 20 Northern Ireland based emerging artists.”

The Expanded Studio Project is grounded in responsive collaboration between 30 artists from two different cities, Nottingham and Belfast.

As such, it is an interesting case of bonding across and above the aura of authorship. To co-produce an object of art, rather than just one of practical use, requires a mind that can, first, consciously discern beauty in the world around it and, second, see that the shared material (idea) can be imaginatively transformed to hold that value.

This essay follows two cases:

Linguistic Ambiguity involves the transformation of matter by  Sinead McKeever (Belfast) and Kashif Nadim Chaudry (Nottingham) in relation to a simple command, e.g. Cleanse and Stain and Transition.

The haptic exploration of metal and clay by  Christine Stevens (Nottingham) with Sinead McKeever(Belfast).

Linguistic Ambiguity started with McKeever receiving three metres of muslin and a word Cleanse from K N Chaudry.

Nadim Chaudry sent 3m silk muslin and a word “Cleanse”. McKeever applied sage cleansing



She selected the sage cleansing ritual, then folded the silk between two blocks of wood.


McKeever then sent to Chaudry 3m of Irish Linen with the word STAIN. He infused the fabric with Tandoori Spices and added the word Erase. McKeever housed in in Perspex cube on a plinth, placing the Cleanse part on the top.  The plinth is covered with found material.

Linguistic Ambiguity,135 x30x 30, smudge stick, raku pot, wood, perspex cube, plinth, silk, linen, spices

These illustrative images keep silent about the visual elegance of this object, its absolute unity of materials so different that the likelihood of their togetherness was null until the imagination of these two artists overtook the real and the found. The insouciant object elegantly overcomes aporia of otherness by making visible the hospitable values of personal freedom and openness to the other. It started with materials and words. It ended near a philosopher’s remark: “Words are for meaning: when you’ve got the meaning, you can forget the words. .” (see  Zhuangzi). When I viewed MvKeever -Chaudry’s Linguistic Ambiguity  in Belfast – it was its mute poetry, it was a closed object and dark. The choice of haptic values on the surface of the pedestal and the resolutely closed perspex cube that offered unconditional hospitality: reflections of the surroundings.

At the Nottingham exhibition the command was Transition. Chaudry’s cleansed silk appears as too heavy for the slim support, and McKeever’s linen becomes a cloud with multiple threads preventing it to escape out through a window.

McKeever and Chaudry are operating a sense of transcendence that offers a bond, whose coherence admits that visual art, tacit visual art, is a spiritual wellspring. It inspires a feeling of wonder of an immersive transformation of one material into something else. Like in a Magritte’s paintings, but here, accessible not just to sight, but also touch and smell.  The current research in related fields proposes that aesthetic qualities exceed functionality and are thus part of strategies for survival (Augustin Fuentes, 2019).

The two artists named their intention as “addressing ritual, identity and cultural heritage.”

Haptic Explorations  have their roots in drawings and conversations. The inspiration offered by Viral Landscapes  McKeever made decades ago is easily recognisable in her metal sculptures. Inspiration by older work could be thought of as inhaling its memory, artists are often converted to art by art itself.

While both responded to that inspiration each used their usual materials.  Christine Stevens preferred porcelain,  Sinead McKeever metal, namely mirrored Dibond, aluminium and wing nuts.

Haptic Explorations

The optical softening of the ceramic piece elegantly evokes the remembered haptic sensation, born, as it were, from the ecstasy of welcome influence. Martin Heidegger called the task of re-situation of an object  “enframing”.  Stevens frames her material by echoing the poetic charge of the metal curves.  She makes familiar and capable of becoming convincing a kind of “useless ” objects. They are containers with no opening or too many openings.   The bulbous objects are still as fragile as any porcelain cup or plate, but optically they deny that they can break.  The humourous interaction softens any possible doubt you may have that the porcelain sphere can collaborate with metal loops.  It is also convincing.

Both artists treat influence as a gift, as an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration.  It became more visible in their work for Nottingham.

As the metal loops cradle the squashed clay or broken shapes, they insist on the magic power of one to protect the other.  The openness to the other, the ecstasy of sharing, are values made visible and tangible, and without a doubt seriously needed in contemporary societies.  Rarely an ethical and political statement has been made visible with greater grace.   The poetry of the Annunciation by  Fra Angelico comes to mind, its supposed (believed) healing force.   In the gallery handout, Stevens and McKeever name the healing of trauma as their leading subject.

Stevens and McKeever achieved aesthetic oneness while respecting the materials differences,  like Plato’s Demiurg making the world from circles of similarity and difference (see Timaeus).  After the western world and its art plunged into the dreamscape of commodities any attempt to find the way out ought to be hailed.

McKeever, Stevens and Chaudry offer an aesthetic experience that includes the emancipation of senses, the spell of the sensuous, creating intimacy that deflects anxiety born in the world around us. The aesthetics of silence offering freedom from quotidian efforts.

What happens when what you see subverts what you know?

Images courtesy Sinead McKeever.

Note:   Expanded  Studio Project included art by:

Declan Proctor and Rhiannon Jones; Rebecca Gamble and Sinead Breathnach -Cashel (twice); Marek Tobolewski and Grace McMurray; Hannah McBride and Paul Weber (twice);  Heather Wilson and Sarah Tutt; Alex Brunt and Ines Garcia; Tom Well and Louisa Chambers; Zara Lyness and Sarah Tutt; Christine Stevens and Zara Lyness; Chris Lewis-Jones and Esther O’Kelly; Gerard Carson and Roger Suckling; Dr Jacqueline Wylie and Mik Godley; Heather Wilson and Pete Ellis; Declan Proctor and Pete Ellis.






Mark McGreevy: Flop Sweat, Tall Gallery, MAC Belfast 19 July -13 October 2019

The calm of the display invites intimacy between the viewer and the viewed.  Conspiracy even, to make what the gallery notes call visual conundrum into an intimate gamble to implant a meaning.

Observing the Cezanne’s faith into a diagonal some colours disobey as if intoxicated by the uncertainty of abstraction (e.g. yellow, blue) while others decisively cumulate into stubborn volumes, e.g. the boat and the kneeling figure while disregarding the visual logic of the receding planes. The pink smoky celestial body and foam are both behind and in front of the yellow horizon pierced by the blue silhouettes of skyscrapers. Reminiscing on Andre Derain’s  Charing Cross Bridge, 1906. The city importance is dwarfed by two vivid multicoloured birds resting on an unbelievable round ground from which an incomprehensible stump reaches to the boat to become its part. The capture of the birds’ attention is mastery.

Bustrucket, 2015-19, oil on canvas

The diagonal of blue slivers on the dress and tree crowns succeed in denying the blue foreground (water) and the sky between the parting trees to flatten the space.  Instead, there are the classical three distances, and sudden intoxication with volume – except the left bottom corner appearing like a forgotten canvas. The tree trunks feel like a homage to Maurice de Vlaminck and Andre Derain.

Cold caller into the nature, 2019, oil on canvas

The diagonal composition allows a flow even if irrational and threatens with breaking down.   Perhaps that determined the title of the exhibition Flop Sweat.  Would central composition support that dynamics between observation and fantasy?

The soft tenderness of the brushmark manoeuvres between heavy illusion and ironic detachment as if the drama of the hues aimed to disable the risk of sentimentality. Subverting Paul Henry through a precarious integration of opposing pictorial energy of keys like in a Kandinsky’s  Murnau paintings.

It was good while it lasted, 2016-2019, oil on canvas
Wassily Kandinsky, Winterstudie mit Berg, 1908, PC, oil on board







Someone, like H Bergson, thought that art never simply is, it is always becoming.

Measuring up the curtain, 2013 – 2019, 0il on canvas

The clumsy, wooden,  figure is modelled with instinctive care to let the caressing light bring it to life, visible in close-up.  The messy ground competes with the figures chance to live –  as if a quasi -Titian like maniera of patches failed openly to tell the grounds apart and remove the cartoon facial definition. The resulting sense of restlessness leaves also the landscape undefined between observed and imagined and ignored. Composed in a high key the composite landscape can not survive without demarcation lines and outlines, and the apparition of the man with a moustache becomes more defined and humorous.


Wig cleavage, 2019, oil on canvas

There is a clearer resolve and control in drawings that form a part of this exhibition, thirty of them.






Some embody the memory of  19th C verism, others are flirting with Twombly’s whispers, both harnessed to deliberate distortion of the observed.

I hesitate to conclude that drawing allows this painter some defence against anxiety, yet they embody what I see in the assured historical Chinese brush drawings: to give value what looks like of no importance.   And yes, McGreevy’s are talkative versions of the decidedly western idiom.

(The following four images taken  kindly by a visitor Joen from Denmark on my mobile to illustrate the brilliant flow between the observation and free imagination)

Quizzical images aspiring to confirm the value of imagination made visible.

All other images courtesy of the curator Hugh Mulholland, MAC, Belfast.



Noise of Silence: Japanese Art Now, Golden Thread Gallery Belfast, Aug 10 – Sept 28 2019

The Buddhist monks from Namgyal monastery in India engage in a ritual that involves the creation of intricate patterns of coloured sand, known as mandalas. As large as three meters across, each mandala requires a couple of weeks of painstaking work, in which several monks in orange robes bend over a flat surface and scratch metallic vials. The vials extrude sand from tiny spouts, a few grains at a time, onto areas bounded by carefully measured chalk marks. .... After the thing is completed, the monks say a prayer, pause a moment and then sweep it all up in five minutes.  ( Alan Lightman on

The concept of the curtailed duration of a painted image, the use of materials located in nature,  has thus a long history, and not just in India. It is a strategy that occupies the territory between time-based and all other image-making.

In the GTG pop-up space at the  Castle Court shopping centre, 

the IKIRO by Takahiro Suzuki included low relief od a set of squares defined in dark soil and writing of that word over and over on sheets of paper, thus combining performance with floor installation. 

This work metamorphosed during the two weeks into  this:

Courtesy of Sinead O’Donnell

The writing of a word IKIRO/Be Alive is grounded in decades of the artists’ doing this particular performance. I believe he developed it while living in New York and made it all over the world: eg Dingle!

 It is simultaneously similar and different from mandalas. The time, duration and choice of materials, as well as the aura of the original authorship, are adapted to the western art system. (see the essay on  

The naming of selected  Japanese contemporary art as Noise of Silence has triggered link to poetic tropes, to one in particular: an oxymoron. It highlights the discord of a kind and encourages thinking about paradoxes. It appears in Shakespeare when Romeo cries about loving hate, it appears in pop music: Simon and Garfunkel have a song The Sound of Silence  that includes

And in the naked light, I saw Ten thousand people, maybe more/People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening.

The oxymoron, in relation to this exhibition, signals looking without seeing,  absence of aesthetic experience while looking, while it is the fundamental aspiration of visual art to make visible the invisible thoughts, memories, and intentions.

Working in front of the audience, a strategy similar to that of  Yves Kline in mid 20th C , was applied to one of the paintings made during the vernissage by  YUSUKE ASAI. While the audience was watching and moving, and leaving and adding to the present group he painted with coloured soils on a panel, possibly,  finishing it that afternoon.

Reminding me of the legend that Giotto di Bondone made a perfect circle spontaneously,  also of Jackson Pollock’s dripping,  Yusuke Asai placed thrown wet soil by free movement of his hand  or transporting the clay on a long stick, or throwing a handful aiming at a higher up area, to the hard to reach  places . And then smudged it into various details that do not live in geometry, yet borrow from it (circle, ellipse, etc) The white marks are the masking tape, which he used also on the floor and across to another painting in an impromptu performance.  He is highly skilled in making marks by the whole hand, or just fingers, while the soil is still wet.  The wet in wet technique has been cherished by many significant western painters, enough to make it familiar. (To name but few: Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden.  Diego Velázquez and Frans Hals,  Jean-Honoré  Fragonard and many Modernists like  Soutine, Van Gogh, W. de Kooning…)

Onto the longer gallery wall (Peter Richards the director of GTG says it is 17 m long)  Yusuke Asai painted  Nobody dies forever -narrative repetition”. 

It includes diverse elements from Japanese culture, including reference to Manga.

Delicious freehand details remind me of the virtuosity of medieval scribes. This detail is tiny in size.

 Painting in front of the audience slipped into a genre of durational performance. Both links to the western idiom are not dictated by any failure of the tradition, or by servitude to the younger cultures.

As Peter Richards noted in his curatorial statement, this art reflects on similarities. Nozomu Ogawa raised the crossing over the boundaries between cultures to the highest value of this art: ” …spectacular visual impact, exhaustive research, an indirect metaphor”… became a way to protest the absurd in life and to challenge the received view of Japanese art.

MARICO AOKI presents an installation of attire with a mask on the wall and a video, in which she wears those items. 


Spirit Disco (7 min video) is a disjointed narrative mirroring our inadequate concepts of the universe, perhaps our arrogance too. I could not follow what she read while addressing the invisible audience in one of the episodes.  Her mask, her out of norm duster, the appearance of the grazing goat inject irony as a smiling reminder of our inadequacy.




  presented three art techniques:  drawings on plastic in Items for storytelling (2016), colour inject prints Who is This (2015)  and nine albumen prints Invisibles (2016).  Different techniques, different motives, yet, I sensed familiar similarities.  Perhaps it was the tonality that did it, between sharp vision and the misty one.

The headless figure, masks, ceramics, land, sea, insect, legs, appear holding important message each, an impression negated by a closer look.  Freedom to interpret is both enjoyable and off-putting, the choice while inevitable is not forced. It provokes a search for the meaning when that is very slippery.

The visibility kept between being there and ready to disappear, adds timelessness to the deliberate bleaching of details. 


 With a stronger role for irony, the story, the narrative, forge the tenor of the video The Village’s Bid for UFO (2017, 24 MINS)) by


The subtitles are often undermined by acting in order to accentuate the absence of thinking and critical judgement. The three central characters chat about UVO they claim to have seen or heard of, or not, inviting some other villagers to celebrate by dancing.  Humour and ridicule are acted by hand moves, words, facial expressions and clothing. I feel that they do not act, but live their comic story. 






In the small separate gallery room, SHIRO MASUYAMA presented his mixed-media installation that connects a significant past event ( Great East Japan Earthquake) with a future one (Olympics 2020) hence placing the visual art as a link between them. It is accompanied by a catalogue made in relation to the  Tokyo Landscape 2020,  a mixed media installation, 2018  (in co-operation with cooperation  Tara Ichikawa) being exhibited at two venues in Japan: Contemporary Art Factory, Kyoto, and the Art Centre Ongoing, Tokyo in November/December 1918.

 Ren Fukuzumi and Hiroyuki Arai republished their reviews of the installation.   Fukuzumi thinks of it as of an ecosystem, ‘because human figures are included’, covering their eyes, ears and mouths. Those gestures he connects to statues of three monkeys that “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil”  ( 

Is this art so disappointed with mankind that it is not only without hope but already presents the figures not quite alive? In my European context, they wrestle to be associated with the mourning monks on the catafalque of some significant person, e.g. see Dijon 15th C.

Hence the installation is not a radical gesture, instead, as the light bulb climbs up or down it makes each viewpoint equal, it is reminiscing on all people being equal after death.  An aged idea. The transposition of a natural disaster and Olympic games is possibly intentionally incompatible.  Measuring peoples achievement against the power of the Earth?  Besides attacking the judgement of what is essential?

In the second re-published review, Hiroyuki Arai makes a similar point with greater precision:” In the contemporary age, it is possible to see the proliferation of art directed towards society and defined as ‘socially engaged’ as being driven by the motivation to compensate for a weak raison d’etre.” And he hails Masuyama as someone who sweeps the way clear for political art.  I accept to the extent to which polis means people. Not just the power over them, but also their own power. This idea led Masuyama to work with and about sheep farmers, knitters, weavers etc.

Kyunchome: Making  perfect donuts, 2017 -2018, video 

This is a political art laced by self-irony. It consists of two deeply significant substories: the two artists visit an older man, collector and maker, who built his own house and the protest against the presence of the USA army in Okinawa. The link is the intention of two artists to make an ideal doughnut by filling the hole in it with local bread.  Thus joining the two cultures.


Photo Sophie Daly

The young artists’ pair asks what the older man thinks about their art project of making a doughnut, whether it will work.

The camera holds his face as he stays silent as if searching in his consciousness for an answer. I adored the genuine honesty of: I don’t really know. I don’t really understand what it means”.  The artists repeat their intention: ” We want to know what people think about our art project”. He, after a pause: “I can’t say anything on it…”.  The chastity of the judging mind moves me.

The first part of the story is the clash between the self-appreciating confident artists and the earthbound man, between assured intention and an experience fashioned out of life.

Irony appears in the second part of the narrative: a perfect doughnut is made and offered to the occupation forces in Okinawa as a part of the civil protest against their presence there. The hope is they will go home.

Instead, the artist is taken away by the police, still holding the “perfect doughnut”, which as an embodiment of a perfect idea fails, about to be thrashed. The scenes are visibly arranged, with the makers leaving all pretensions that it is a document.  The freshly pressed uniforms and acted expressions betray a setup. The video is referring to the SACO agreement on making Okinawa into an American military base. Japanese settlers feel it as an occupation.

Making donut is not a problem -it is who will eat it. 

The last gallery room houses an installation saturated with green light.

Caressing and irritating in equal measure. 

The three green bulbs simply make reading details of landscapes on walls deliberately difficult.  MIDORI MITAMURA: Green on the mountain contains light, copies of photographs and old records creating an immersive installation, you walk in and out of it, and a small suspended dark wreath, slightly moving in the centre.

Photo Sophie Daly

She offers a poem that explains it on her website. ( It is calm like a just-opened Egyptian tomb. Treasures around, not easily deciphered.

More videos accompanied Takahiro Suzuki’s IKIRO

 at the Castle Court pop up gallery,   gently adding different visual experiences.  Something not belonging, yet part of the meaning of the words being repeated: Be Alive. 

   Atsushi Yamamoto: An Asian Giant goes to the Japanese restaurant, 2014


 Hikaru Suzuki: Michiko, 2018


Felt like an unnecessary addition, yet, even on quick and superfluous sampling, in the limited space and inadequate light, each confidently offered sensitive visual poetry appearance in their study of the ordinariness. Two artists were both standing on their own and still accompanying the performance, also as its first viewers. 

There is more on

I did not watch the videos but in passing. I appreciate their investigative aim at ordinary, and even personal, life.

The self-documenting work features also in Hikaru Suzuki’s videos.  More here: › Artist › Hikaru-Suzuki.

The Golden Thread Gallery scored with this exhibition high points for many obvious reasons.  One, in particular, stands out for me: the confidence of the artists that they work for mankind, not just for regional audiences with some invented social need. Their work stands against nationalism – even when it does not deny having roots in the experience of particular peoples. It that sense, this exhibition is a political statement about aesthetic experience, of its liberating force to balance differences by similarities. A duet between real and hoped for. Between order and disorder – similar to those traditional mandalas. 

Images courtesy of GTG via Shiro Masuyama and Sophie Daly.



Micky Donnelly: The River As Not, 20 June- 26 June 2019, Fenderesky Gallery, Belfast


The River As not No 11
The River As Not XI

If you cannot afford a Monet, get one of these.

Clemenceau  writing about Monet’s Waterlilies argues against Louis Gillet: Trois Variations sur Claude Monet thus:

“When we see Monet’s brush-tip breaking the natural world down to such elemental particles, it is enough to delight in these transfigurations, so much like those revealed in the modern sciences. I won’t pretend that Monet is showing us “the dance of the atoms”; I affirm only that he has helped us take a great step towards an emotional comprehension of reality through heightened awareness of the dispersions of natural light—in line with what physics has discovered about oscillations, frequencies, waves. If our scientific understanding of the universe changes again, Monet’s achievement, this progress for us all in our intuitive response to nature, will always merit our respect, no matter what the future brings.” (

The River as not VII


The younger artist, born in 1952 , claims to be inspired by John Cage while he applies a sophisticated twist to what appears similar to the above.


On his website ( it reads:

“Micky Donnelly’s art practice is exploratory and multilayered. His paintings, drawings, and installations are notable for their innovative and slightly ironic reworkings of familiar genres. They concern themselves with the poetic possibilities of everyday perception and often include playful references to art history. His work resists a signature style, but employs various ongoing threads and connections, along with elements of chance, to maintain its distinctive momentum.”

The claim offers a thread to consider, a sort of trinity of values: irony, play and chance. At first – none seems applicable to Monet until you experience the installation at Marmotan museum ( When looking at any of the paintings of waterlilies or of the Japanese bridge from near – it is messy energy of brushstrokes with incompatible hues.

Searching for an example  I found Jaclyn Rayman’s close-up online, she does not state what painting it belongs to. It may be either from Marmottan installation or Orangerie.  From a distance that messy cosmic force becomes one of the waterlilies. Monet achieved that in the garden at Giverny. He placed his easel on the small platform from where he saw both the willow on the right and the Japanese bridge on his left.  Embraced by his subject, he embraced it in turn, in the now-famous waterlilies. (I stood there, and vouch that it is possible.)

Claude Monet, Waterlilies, 1906, Art Institute of Chicago


Another example of  Monet’s “abstraction”  is even more confident. Viewed from a distance the sensuous values return to represent, they heighten the joy of viewing.

Viewed from half the length of the gallery, all fall into an optically correct rendering of what is meant to be visible.


I sensed another link – the sincere joy of seeing  one Monet’s painting  in two versions, and playful recovery how that older artist worked the tonality by mixing two primary hues into the “melange optique” ,e.g. Waterloo Bridge, 1903

Waterloo Bridge,1903
Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, 1903


In Donnelly’s “melange optique”  the divided brushstroke is charged with defining the moving water, everything deliquesces.

The River As Not XII

The aesthetic of silence called for a move away from the possible narrative to time defined optical differences.  Both Monet and Donnelly replaced earlier practice focused on contemporary subjects by a timeless one: “One instant, one aspect of nature contains it all,” said Claude Monet.  Donnelly echoes that.

The River As Not 5

Is Donnely activating the fashionable appropriation akin those practiced by Jeff Koon and Damien Hirst?   I am not convinced. Rather, I see a similarity with a long term interest of a number of artists who huddle around a Facebook page run by a painter John Crabtree:


Happenstance has its roots in psychogeography and the indeterminacy of Cage-it embodies the idea of purposeless wanderings and happenings. It is about the incidental and the democracy of seeing -I often think that the biggest obstacle to ‘art’ is the word itself as it presupposes /conditions and structures perception. This is obviously a Yes/No statement at best as art involves the contemplative and cognitive aspects of perception and meaning. It is often said that we all work out of tradition but must not be hidebound by it and in my view and approach that looking/seeing and beholding is a local and intrinsic activity. If you can’t see it in your local bus-station you won’t see it in Tibet -the wonder is before you and within your own heart. The aspect that I like about this process is almost a Taoist way of seeing -what appears ‘found ‘ is almost like an ‘alert’ that awakens a mode of seeing that is not a forced or focussed way of perceiving but arise as a natural event in oneself and environment 

The River As Not X

Donnely elegantly entertains that concept in a statement  on his website:

Happenstance And Celebration: A Way of Working                                                                                                                   My work has always relied on some notion of ‘cultural memory’ as part of its momentum. There has been regular use of references to things known and half-known that condition our thoughts and feelings in all kinds of ways…..….The more recent paintings have gradually moved into a different area of ambiguity. They have now progressed to the point where they can be said to manifest an attitude towards their making that corresponds roughly to John Cage’s ‘music-as-weather’ analogy. Cage said that he wanted to create ‘music-as-weather’, meaning simply that he didn’t want to control what was happening in the production of his music; that it should unfold by its own means, just like the weather. Thus, he often relied on apparently random processes.

 The current series of Donnelly’s River as not stands as twelve painting of the same theme,  format, colour scheme, divided brushtroke and rendering of space,  they all share evocation of Claude Monet, whom Pontus Hulten (1924 -2006) included in five parallel exhibitions in 1992 as one of the “key work of 20thC art”.

The River As Not IX

I cherish his challenge to the dictate of the new, to the endless craving to possess what is available only to the rich, to the insecurity of individual aesthetic judgement, i.e. to the art establishment’s power over individual aesthetic experience. Donnely charges the viewer with one condition: have the courage to value your own taste and judgement. In that, he sends his work to the world on rays of trust and courage.

The River As No VIII.

The installation at Fenderesky did not use all twelve parts of this series, only 1 -7,  adding three from Enclosure Series, one Untitled and nine Overley Series.

The River As Not VI

Donnely’s painting series forges support to  Henri Focillon (1881–1943)  who describes how art forms change over time. He argued that the development of art is irreducible to external political, social, or economic determinants.  Instead, he worked out a concept of autonomous formal mutation within the shifting domain of materials and techniques. His Life of Forms in Art emphasizes the presence of nonsynchronous tendencies within styles that give to artworks a manifold and stratified character.

In this series, Donnelly offers a splendid variation on Monet’s concept of visibility.

In addition, I recognise a significant difference:  I do not need to move away from the picture plane to perceive distinct definitions of forms – there are none, just short solitary abstract tones of one hue at the time. Each hue touches the surface briefly and disappears. Except the pale blues that define the water and sky.

Something else is at work. You may recall  M C Escher virtuoso constructs of figures and ground.

M C Escher, Sky and Water, 1938

Birds and fish -black and white.

It is not possible to see both the black pattern and the white pattern at once. This shortcoming of our visual perception is invited to play, a little,  on Donnelly’s series of river views.  The eye focuses either on the illusion of the depth (be it sky or water) or on the floating brushstrokes, the debris of reflections and objects that sit on the river surface. Not on both equally at the same time (  see M D  Vernon, 1954,  The Psychology of Perception).


The River As Not III




The River As Not II








These vivacious brushstrokes are augmenting spontaneous reveries.

Images of the exhibits are downloaded from