Last week saw the openings of Paul Doran in Green on Red Gallery and Brian Henderson at Taylor Galleries in Dublin. One teemed with people, the other was rather empty, though I suspect location has much to do with this. Attempting something new with a tradition such as painting is always difficult and the sheer amount of work shown by both artists was admirable. Green on Red showed no less than 20 new pieces while Taylor filled its walls with 34. The paintings in Taylor had to contend with the massive queue for wine; the post-drink Shelbourne crowd pulling no punches. I love openings; all levels of social decorum are usually left to one side. I have witnessed red-wine glasses left on glass-topped display cases; sneezes directed politely away from friends and straight onto the surface of a painting. In this case heads hair-sprayed (to the tensile strength of steel cable) were dragged along the surface of many of the paintings in a bid for a re-fill. What’s obvious in painting is a social divide, one that the rest of art does an admirably better job at disguising.
For the most part the atavistic challenge was great; the work of Henderson was modernist in scale and technique. Doran’s, though diminutive, was a fine example of contemporary abstraction. Yet here is the problem: modernist technique, now hackneyed and farmed out to home-ware patterns, has removed subjectivity from this style of art, because of conditioning. We as viewer are too couched within modernism to objectively appreciate new takes on it. Recently there has been a distinct move toward the referencing of modernism in contemporary art. Such a move is especially treacherous in the pre-eminent modernist medium of painting.
Anyway, why go back to modernism in art? Modernists are bores; I should know – I am one and chances are you are too. It makes socializing extremely awkward: guests have to be regularly stripped if they don’t harmonize easily with the pale grey walls. Shopping is also a problem: I can’t go into a department store now as I am very easily visually confused. What I am saying is that the proliferation of modernist design has regularized visual culture to the point of our houses’ now matching our clothes and kids, and because of this anything verging on modernist style in art is extremely tough going. If nothing else, the naming of pseudo-modernist paintings is also a fine reason for moving swiftly on. Naming a work of course is never an easy job, but attempting to name 34 very similar nonrepresentational paintings becomes the stuff of nightmares. Brian Henderson came across this problem but dealt with it with artistic stiff upper lip; Patina perfume and Tangled under rust were amongst the 34 works. Paul Doran wasn’t so brave; Untitled 1-20 were on show.
Why are we rehashing a style that is currently strangling us? How can one look at a diffuse cloud of pink or yellow and not see Rothko? Or view a chaotic frenzy of texture and not see Pollock? It is precisely because of these conditioned comparisons that judgment of such works is nigh on impossible and I am not going to attempt it here.