“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.” (https://www.ronggenyinartist.com)
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.
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.
On his website he has a comparison of Gongbi
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While majority of exhibits were two-dimensional, some smaller sculpture, assemblage and relief made it in.
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.
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.”
I do not need to know the data, the exact time and place. The arms and hands are those who work with them and who are undernourished. They come to the foreground through green wilting vegetation. The blue tonality replaces the normal skin tone. The yellow and pink explode above the people’s heads in front of smoky grey tones. The diagonal composition divides the cause from its impact as an indication of the sequence that caused the demise of life.
In her notes, Melaugh refers to “theory of affect” by Baruch Spinoza. I do not know that passage. In relation to his statements in The Ethics, I sense that it may be near to his thinking about “mode”.
“ID5: By mode, I understand the affections of a substance or that which is in another through which it is also conceived. A mode is what exists in another and is conceived through another. Specifically, it exists as a modification or an affection of a substance and cannot be conceived apart from it. In contrast to substances, modes are ontologically and conceptually dependent.” (Book One, Ethics accessed on https://www.iep.utm.edu/spinoza/)
Spinoza makes it central to his theory of knowledge that to know a thing adequately is to know it in its necessity, as it has been fully determined by its causes. In the Bhopal painting, the need to work and the need to use volatile materials are present in the careful identification of hands and industrial barrels, both ontologically necessary and sufficient. The descriptive mode ends in the diagonal of wilted plants with a partly hidden warning that reads “hazard” on the yellow ground. The surrealist element of hands growing out of one barrel and of deadly vapours escaping from another indicate the connection to the explosion rendered in buoyant energy of wilful abstraction.
Both painterly modes are cherished for their singularity and conceptual dependency on the subject. No doubt where the meaning has its cause.
The decision to evaporate the figure and not the three hands as if still engaged in some normal activity is an image unimaginable outside some disaster. The collapse is not yet complete, the perfect seat for no one to sit on screams visual ” j’accuse”. It does not address a particular perpetrator thus making its reason somewhat commonplace for humanity. The price? Everything else disintegrates, evaporates, changes its substance. Apocalypse now?
The paintings on a smaller scale invite methods of surrealism and of the informel to forge strong compositions capable of holding together accidental occurrences of negligence. And of different time and speed.
Green is slower than the red.
In reference to her grandfather experience during the WW2 this painting exchanges the human fragility for the destruction of the seats for the gunners. See-through seats are reminiscent of sheets of papers on which the various decrees, calls to arm, and agreements may have been written. While the (still) living naked male appears both safe (the modulation of the muscles) and evaporating (the ever-receding tonality turns his volume into a ghostly plane). The female leg shooting out of some roofs on the horizon – could be just a wooden model for selling stockings. Or not. Seats and houses are crumbling. And so is the control of our destiny in any war. The case for peace is ever present.
Icarus? A sexless nude body as if calling in distress moves away from a tiny religious sculpture detailed in the lower region. That headless statuette is silent and as if protected from the troublesome accusation by the purple body. The tone is ordered to be between life and death forever… akin to the belief in Purgatory? Or eternal life in hell? The red ground above could suggest that precipice. A pale variant of the gesture appears on the right-hand side, in front of the two columns lit up by the light from outside. Behind it something like a bookshelf, volumes of documents? A revelatory moment?
The right-hand side of the Tuam describes some earthly conditions: the power of the architectural order preferred in churches, thus power of the church. And the flowing habit invites association with nunnery. Or with actual evidence:
The painting – mute and timeless- accesses our innermost conscious responses directly, not subject to logic or grammar or correctness. Perhaps that is what Melaugh had in mind when she recalled Spinoza.
The gallery calls it a “simultaneous solo exhibitions” connected to “the current themes (….) explored by the GTG 2018 – 2019 programme of approaching ways of looking” (Gallery handout). Like Humpty Dumpty I – you- GTG may give those words different meaning. One is that the gallery programme aims to present some distinct ways of looking. But – by who? The curator? The artist? The viewer? Is it not always the case? Seduced by the 20th C obsession with “la différence”, often that becomes the main value. However, these exhibits allow for sameness to enter.
Painting or drawing a person transmutes a sentient person into an inanimate object. Nevertheless, verism holds on to more of the “soul”. Nothing new about that. Look at Gentile Bellini’s self- portrait, how similar his way of looking at the live body is to that of Somerville above. I am not suggesting the debt of the younger to the older artist. Rather, a comparison of pose and modelling illustrates that the ways of looking do not depend on temporal context. Whereas, using vintage cotton pick sack as a ground, does, as do references to a Soviet gas mask and bag.
Bellini also added accessories in a portrait of another: In line with the trends in European portraiture of the time, Bellini depicted the sultan in resplendent detail, his three-quarter profile framed by an illusionistic archway.
Mehmet is also represented by the trappings of Islamic authority: His red caftan and luxurious fur mantle are accompanied by a headdress (a wrapped turban over a red taj) that indicates his rank and religious identity; a piece of jewel-encrusted Ottoman embroidery hangs down the front of the frame; and the three crowns of Constantinople, Iconium, and Trebizond flank him on each side.
Quite a few “samenesses” between the then and now.
I am not sure that the double meaning is intentional in the terms GTG prints in its handout: “approaching ways of looking” – from where? to whom? by what? Are ways of looking distinct from ways of seeing?
The verbs seeing, looking and watching, situate each activity in subtly different realms of attention and meaning. In life and in art. Yet – what I see I perceive as a process to make visible – even, particularly, the invisible, e.g. empathy, fear, insecurity. Human condition.
Drawing and painting, both have near hypnotising capacity to find correspondence between a fleeting perception and the unmovable marks on the ground. Between seeing and naming. Between observed and made up. I recall Paul Klee: “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.”
Therefore, thinking of the art, I tend to replace the words “ways of looking” with “ways of making visible”.
In the above drawing, the fatal experience of being “lost at sea” between escape and arrival arrests the retrieval of that experience in one moment. While the reality is inherently fugitive. As is generally the case with visual perception. It may imprint on memory if my eidetic memory is good. The rest is, as Balzac pointed out, indéfinissable.
On the image immediately above – a challenging 8-part painting by Travis Somerville that echoes Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, with its political charge. The Raft, 2016, demands to fragment perception into a stream of many partial views, resisting offering one all-embracing one.
It successfully transfers to me the impossibility of grasping it as a whole. Like any of Breughel’s “tableaux”. The event’s dynamic is not susceptible to one dominant view. This ragged composition mediates an experience of being inside a story. There is no sign of the order of Alberti’s disegno. Instead, the colours weep, accuse, make hope not to be swallowed by dark waves. The darkness of what it is they collectively make visible.
The choice of painting it in fragments removes the narrative from sliding into sentimental historical drama. Instead, it revives a mechanism of restraint akin to Zola’s “j’accuse”… and hits hard the central issue: the tragedy strikes and unfolds, strikes and unfolds … its duration unpredictable. Homeland Insecurity mirrors the experience as it would be lived, a part after a part.
Mediation of reality by subverting the convention by control and absurdity appears in a display of the five exhibits by Ian Cumberland in Gallery One.
The title A common fiction appears both ironic and wondrous. Is it a futile literalism that turns a portrait into a genre, à la Pieter Breughel the Elder? Just with one person, not as many as the 16th painter would do. Or is it turning a portrait into a still life?
The first “tableau” includes a carpet covering the floor, also painted on the panel with a fallen man. Suspended from a rough wooden support on the painting’s dorso, the body is seen from its back, moving its head slightly now and then, movement afforded by the virtue of lens-based media.
Higher up on the wall, two video screens run information about various health issues.
The All Consuming Selfie (2918) presents a tromp l’oeil of the carpet around the hyperrealist (photorealist) rendering of the body. The painting and its support are the mute, unmovable parts. The faith in the power of the painted image is immediately undermined by screens with words on the wall and projection of the pose of the man seen from the back. Is it a pleonasm? Is it needed because the trust in mute poetry is waining? Matching up the two modes of representation cannot escape the dominance of “la différance” in the perception of visual images and text.
Adrian Navarro (Boston, 1973. Living and working in London) pointed to a paradox inherent in painting practice.
“Man is an alienated being who thinks he is free. The same thing happens with painting, it is a free and expressive medium whose aim is the communication of a view of the world, where that freedom is not possible. This is the paradox I try to represent. “
Cumberland also explores the dichotomy between confinement and freedom inherent in painting and by focusing on a figure, extended to the human being.
To a certain extent, the installations are similar to still life. The presence of the human being does not violate the terms of still life, as formulated by 17th C Dutch paintings. Hypnotic ambivalence erases any chance of hebetude. Like Paul Cezanne, the painter is first true to the motif, but after that he plays with omens of impermanence. Spark -germinate-unravel. There are clues in brushtrokes and in attachments of real objects: flag, cage, wood, neon, carpet….
Quiet confrontations of representational accuracy and installed objects create less dissonance than the sudden “blind” gris-en-gris divided brushstrokes. Could be intentional or not. Make me think of decay.
Objects are there as if the painting needed them. As if without them it would be incomplete. Their “reality” results in estrangement of the painted part. The question arises – what kind of alienation is that?
Marxism defines alienation as hiatus between the worker and the product of work. That’s not the case here. Bertold Brecht established that estrangement enhances criticality and awareness.
That is applicable to these exhibits. The caged painting and the woman’s gesture align to indicate a court procedure. Only to be undermined by the domestic setting behind her. So this alienation is both similar and different from Brecht’s proposition.
Handwritten over the above painting is the cost of each item in GBP, e.g. material, the model, etc.
Listing the model is a significant marker, that the painter works in the European tradition – not the newer way of using photographs or video or cinema stills.
That leads me to conclude that this painter defends representational figurative painting by wishing it, letting it, win a competition with real objects. That is, what I sense to be foregrounded. Through exposing it to estrangement, alienation works like Shklovsky’s foregrounding or defamiliarisation.
In his 1917 text Art as Technique he distinguishes poetic language from ordinary language :
“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” (Shklovsky 16)
Cumberland moves in the world of common reality, such as the animation of inanimate objects, but evolves defamiliarizing the viewer and provoking an uncanny feeling.
The slowing down of perception ( like the smear of the blind blue-grey of the pills onto the hand) injects energy into a physical system of paint to “originate” difference, change, value, motion, presence. Making painting strange (e.g. both by tromp l’oeil of the carpet and confrontation with real carpet) motivates comparison and recognition of “la différance”…
Images courtesy Simon Mills and Golden Thread Gallery.
Fenderesky Gallery (Belfast, August 2 – September 7, 2018) has displayed paintings from 41 artists, the larger ones on Gallery Ground Floor, the small ones upstairs on two walls facing each other.
Good eye and sense of adventure allowed the diagonals to stutter, turn back on themselves, make room for other lines of vision or just be confident to keep their initial direction. Visual melody effortlessly issues, insisting that each painting submits its difference to connect to the others. I see it as an installation, as a chorus of different voices harmonizing with the others. Polyphony – mute and visible.
Compare the confidence of Dan Shipsides application of golden section
with Helen G Blake patiently breathing spirit into a pattern and repeat and willful red destroyers of the sameness. That hers is twice the size of the enigmatic three tones above seems to undermine the popular understanding of scale as determining aesthetic value. Both deliciously private, to the point and without fanfare.
The majority of paintings upstairs are the size of a postcard or a little less or little more. They all are full blooded compositions, confident not to ask for more support than a holding palm.
Barbara Freeman feeds the hues with energy sufficient for a larger size of canvas. Yet – these are not miniatures.
A miniature refuses such promiscuity, insisting on the chosen small scale.
Anja Markiewicz makes contemporary miniatures, which, like butterflies or flowers, are faithful to the determined size. I noted few of the small paintings on either wall heading in that direction too but stopping just there.
It appears to me that the eye zooms on the size of the “brushstroke” to become convinced that the size is right. The onscreen reproduction removes that certainty.
The intense open-ended scale allows intoxication by playful promiscuity. In the sense and to what extent mute poetry belonged to the audience, numerous of these small paintings are sedulous.
And immersive. Evocative like medieval portable small paintings can be.
The promiscuity of scale in abstract paintings allows access to enjoyable insecurity – it is not threatening. Does it work differently in narrative, figurative mode? Possibly – the scale is internally bound to the size of the brushstroke in its descriptive mode. If the canvas were bigger – the marks would need to be bigger – like in a fresco. I recall that Goya preferred to use a sponge instead of a brush while working on the fresco at San Antonio de la Florida.
Whereas abstraction sits comfortably with brush strokes or stains of any size.
Whereas – when Sharon Kelly combines stains with writing the image gets locked in the small size.
It is representational as well as autonomous.
In the space of several yards, the distance between Fenderesky and Engine Room galleries, there were around 130 paintings on show. Some harvest! Some trust in the mute poetry.