In all of Conor Walton's work a transformation takes place. He recognises immediately, as he says himself, that this transformation is the common denominator of all painting. Of course a change must take place, between the object and its representation on canvas. That is what painting is about. There is a conscious act, between encountering and knowing what is seen, and interpreting this through paint; between the visionary idea and the degree to which its force and meaning is recognised in a physical representation through pictorial detail. But as with the poets of the early seventeenth century, metaphysical intensification is the painter's primary objective, and is bound up with his sense of self, as this is represented visually. It is his conscious determination of this, as a central force in his artistic thinking, which gives cohesion and strength to Conor Walton's work. His still life paintings often carry an overt message, through the use of classical imagery, written and printed detail, the inclusion of texts, which lift them beyond the brilliant rendering of material reality. His fruit, bowls and bottles are part of a dialogue of taste. His kitchen scales, set upon a copy of Kant's Critique of Judgement or a volume of art theory, deliver a commentary on what we are being invited to see.
Conor Walton confronts the obviousness of art. He accepts its specificity. Visual art is the most universal art form of all. Its currency is common to us all. Culture may define reasons for religious art, the painting of the nude, the representation of classical myth, or the delineation of famous people. But the access of human beings to what is represented has no immediate barriers. This in-built facility, in Conor Walton's view, invites a magisterial determination of the terms of reference, of the conditions by which those who see his paintings will gain full access.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Conor Walton is the author of more than one academic investigation into the nature and purpose of art and language, aesthetics and criticism. After school in Bray, at St. Gerard's College, he entered the national college of Art and Design in the city, doing a joint course in painting, and in the history of art. Like a quattrocento artist in Florence, he plunged into the maelstrom of intellectual thought, disciplines handed down from master to pupils and visual representation which involved architecture and design, he devoured the purposes of art along with its practice.
He moved on to a Master's course in the University of Essex, in Colchester, where he took the remarkable step into late seventeenth-century cultural politics, dealing with the massive, interminable issue of “The Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns”. Focusing on Bentley, Wotton, Swift, Temple, as only part of the picture, he approached the perpetually fascinating problem for all art, which involves the burden of the past upon the creativity of the present. What is our debt to art history? What do we owe to the centuries of religious art which came out of Italy between 1250 and 1700? How much does the craft and technique of the past matter? How do we understand and absorb it? How de we avoid being swamped by it? What price do we pay if we ignore it, and pretend everything is starting right now?
His work is inspired by this questioning. After the intellectual stress of investigating what was largely a debate about literature, and not art, he moved on. The debate in which he had researched weighed heavily on visual art then, and was to continue to do so in generations to come. Still considering the implications of his studies, Conor Walton moved to Florence and worked in the Charles H. Cecil Studios there, using the time to paint, and to research the methods of the Old Masters. He pursued no formal course of studies. He was effectively embarked on the pursuit of transformation through the hand and eye, and the growing body of work was attracting the attention of critics and artists.
One is perhaps tempted to see in his winning of the Taylor Prize - the first important recognition in his career, given in 1993 - as an obvious reflection of his purpose as a painter, and a reward for stylistic elegance and concentration. But in Ireland, not unlike other countries during this and the previous decade, a “battle” not unlike that between the Ancients and Moderns in the seventeenth century had been going on, and Walton's place in it was defined by this and at least one subsequent award. This was the Don Niccolo D'Ardia Caracciolo medal and prize, given through the Royal Hibernian Academy in Ireland, in Memory of one of the finest realistic painters of his generation, tragically killed in a motor accident in 1989.
The affinities between the two painters, and indeed with other Irish artists of the period, was part of a rejuvenation of vision and technique that was taking place at the time. Concentration of thought, paralleled by dedication to skill in composition and the application of paint, was central to the development of Conor Walton's output during these years at the end of the last decade, and led to his outstanding, and outstandingly successful solo exhibition in March 1999 in Dublin.
I spoke about him on that occasion, warmly commending the intensity of his vision, the intellectual authority of his conception, and the richness of his output. His brother, Martin Walton, wrote about him from a closer personal point of view, referring to “an angry lucidity” and “a kind of vertical sadness”, and the message being delivered by these epithets seemed to me to explain some of the strength his appeal as a painter has. He is loaded with promise, burdened with an excess of what, in the seventeenth century, was a term of admiration - conceit.
Bruce Arnold is the author of fourteen books, including a history of Irish art, and biographies of three Irish painters; William Orpen, Mainie Jellet and Jack Yeats. He has also made five films on Irish literary and artistic subjects. This essay was first published in New European Artists, edited by Edward Lucie-Smith, Amsterdam 2001.