All cognition is recollection boldly claims the title of Eoin McHugh’s solo exhibition at the Kerlin Gallery, Dublin. With twelve, predominantly small-sized oil-on-canvas paintings and watercolour-on-paper drawings from 2009, the young artist elaborates this hypothesis and research on the psychology of imagery itself. At first sight, the paintings and drawings seem randomly compiled and more united by their size than their motifs. The gathering of a kitten in a fantastic fish tank, a little girl smiling, a dreamlike seascape, some deserted rooms and images of everyday-life items like a simple watch, a razorblade, a string or a spoon, together with an abstract painting of some powerful light phenomena emerging from the dark, appears to be rather surreal. Together with the second-hand working material McHugh uses, like old and found paper, the assembly of images reference the past. The rather dull colours and undistinguished situations may even represent a deliberate striving for the uncanny.
caption: Eoin McHugh: Watch, blade, string, 2009, watercolour on paper, 30 x 25 cm; image held here
What do kitten, watch, room and spoon have in common? The exhibition’s title suggests the missing link: “all cognition is recollection,” it says. McHugh’s show is the sensitive visual confession that the blank canvas in the artists’s mind does not exist and that it is difficult, if not impossible, to create a piece of art which is exclusively original. McHugh works with the question of where the image, which later takes shape as a piece of art, comes from, and even more prominent, follows and documents the ways that it takes. He wants to explore the creative space between ‘the image, the object and the idea’, which is seemingly also the place where the surreal and dreamlike, the memories of the past and the undistinguished uncanny are settled. Creativity is fed by most various sources.
One of those sources is the material. Apart from canvas, McHugh works with found or old paper, paper folders and ripped-out sheets. Those working materials already contain a history of their own, like the previous owner’s memories related to them or even the artist’s own recollections. And, judging by their second-hand look (see for example the bleached-out colour on the crinkled edges of Sensitisation which is painted on a red folder cover), a past of being used, touched and moved.
caption: Eoin McHugh: Corrective, 2009, watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 25.5 cm; image held here
But it is not only the material that carries the idea of cognition as pure recollection; it is the motif as well. The oil painting Corrective (2009) shows the portrait of a young girl, smiling but looking past the viewer. The focus of her interest lies out of bounds for the viewer and the dark, homogeneous background gives no hint of the situation the girl could be in. Although forming an appealing contrast to this very background, the carefully collected colours of the little girl’s blue pullover, her yellow hairband and even her rosy-tinted complexion itself are a little toneless. A faded memory? Maybe some indistinct images of Balthus paintings, like Therese (1938), come to our mind. Or we might think about other representations of girls, like the ones in Soleil – noir – string – trauma (2003) which New Leipzig School protagonist Martin Eder paints from time to time. It all depends on our own visual background. All three artists, although having a completely different approach, deal with similar techniques, motifs and moods. While I am watching McHugh’s girl, their images just pop up in my head, without asking for permission, but in fact, McHugh’s girl is much too innocent for those comparisons. It could also be the memory of an illustration from an old book we used to read as a child, a family photograph, or even the last time we saw our niece playing, that the painting makes us think of.
Corrective is undoubtly an intriguing painting. What is that girl watching, why is she smiling? And yet: it is not about answering those questions. It is not the task of the viewer to find out if all those references we have in mind are truly related to the painting or the subject it shows. It is rather exactly this inability to say for certain, to be sure, that brings the viewer full circle back to the exhibition’s underlying theoretical concept. What the painting does to the viewer directly relates to McHughs artistic approach: he wants to illustrate that the artist’s mind works likewise. It selects images out of personal memories, experience, art-historical predecessors and the myriad of influences the world offers. Our minds are filled with these images and for the artist, they form his source of inspiration.
But how do these images find their way onto the canvas? To search for an answer to this question in an artistic manner is not original in itself. McHugh continues a line of positions that seek to explore the ‘space between the image, the object and the idea’. The Austrian painter Maria Lassnig, for example, tries to investigate that space by accurate introspection. Ruthlessly she tries to ‘feel’ the dimensions of her body, measuring them by her own perception. Lassnig also produces self-portraits not related to her outer, but her mental appearance. Alternatively she simply tries to draw what she ‘sees’ in her mind behind closed eyes. Symptomatic of that way of working is her series Dog (1978), depicting dogs purely drawn from memory.  Oswald Wiener, author, linguist and friend of Lassnig, rejects that attempt. The image of anything, and it may only be such a ‘simple’ thing as a dog, is much too complex and too detailed to be completely memorized, he states in his theorising about the appearance of inner imagery.  Try it yourself.
So there must remain blind spots to could be filled by creative work. But as McHugh attempts to illustrate that problem, he thematizes it and, rather than covering them, involves blind spots in his drawings and paintings. Thus, the yellow blossom in McHugh’s New orientation is not finished and expires in a sketch, significantly placed next to an actual sketch of a blossom on the same sheet, as if the image could not have managed to slip out of the the artist’s mind at the first attempt. Blind spots literally appear in the watercolour Reconstruction (2009). Probably painted out of the artist’s own memory, we can see one side of what appears to be a student’s room. The chair, the table and some photographs come relatevely detailed from the artist’s mind onto the paper. But interestingly enough, some of the pictures on the painting’s wall remain empty. Likewise the fact that Reconstruction is in black and white could be a hint that the artist’s memory does not hold the precise colours, or that they were simply not included in the original idea. The dark, undistinguished backgrounds of Romantic science or Theme support Wiener’s thesis as well; obviously it is not possible to remember all the details of an inner memory and maybe sometimes the visual execution of what we call an idea is stuck within certain boundaries. Some things remain in the dark.
Another interesting approach to compare is the portrait method of Francis Bacon. Early in his career, Bacon gave up portraying from living persons, only to paint them out of his memory and from photographs.  The result is less and more than the memory of a person. Although the depicted people are still recognisable, their images are distorted and fragmented. They are mingled with all the other visual influences, newspaper cuttings, photographs and catalogues, that Bacon used in his working process and filtered through his own consciousness. Bacon explained that he “longs for new images and new ways by which reality can be created. After all, man wants invention, he doesn’t want to go on and on just reproducing the past.”  McHugh does something very similar to Bacon, working with numerous sources of inspiration, transforming them and using them for his own purposes. In Sensitisation, old and found working material gets a new twist by combining them with imaginative, sketchily drawn drawings and both elements together, supported by the suggestive title, form a completely new output. The illumination in Hermetic image, delicately exploring the interaction of form, colour and light, could be related to Dutch Masters of the seventeenth century, as suggested by the gallery’s hand-out. But it could also be seen as a paradigmatic image for the whole exhibition; the bright idea forming out of the dark.
McHugh’s illustrated journey along the paths of creativity in All cognition is recollection is successful, almost in a didactic way. Moreover, his works are simply beautiful. McHugh manages to work without shocking effects or a loud voice and his drawings and paintings are quiet, poetic and delicate. They withdraw themselves in support of the general idea and gently ask the viewer to think about them. I did, and I am sure I will remember them.
Katharina Guenther is a German art historian.