Not about painting; painting itself, a relief.
And yet, not the inspiration of one bright sunny morning last week.
Rather, the business of reworking, all windows open to the salt
air of the European Renaissance, Italian Flemish, calmly assimilated
with a medieval care that commands respect.
A new preciousness. Rationally at war with the machinery of rationalism.
The objects re-occur. The masks.
(Are they death masks? No, life masks actually.)
As with Vermeer, the appreciation of one painting is enhanced by
an interrogation of the others. We become familiar with the enigmatic
interior, mask, scales, antique illustration or text, books, drape....
vision, in homage to the absent 'Astronomer '?
Fruitless or fruitful, each mask an echo of girl with something.
Girl with Violin, rather than Girl with Lute.
Girl with Dead Fish instead of Girl with Turban?
and dummy. In these paintings the mask is both object and dramatis
persona. An object for painting like any other, but selected by
the artist to figure within a 'nature morte', it becomes an
emotional emblem, as personal as the portrait of any face somewhere
between death and life.
Now something. Now someone.
Moving, how, or why, I cannot say.
Here a hybrid form born of 'nature morte' and 'portrait'.
For, as I recall, the human face at its most individual, the sleeping
face of a child, does not traditionally figure among the domestic
fruit and culinery display.
Facing us then, neither life nor portrait, and yet, portrait and
life, still, together. And in each work, the mask object seems to
underline that stillness, life stilled, distilled into an elegy
for the little left, the Face of Things.
the fruit is pervaded not by any pre- or post-digestive satisfaction,
but by a sense of post-life, a sort of plastic verticality where
no movement is possible, each colour, each text, each title mounting
to a monochromatic silence.
Still life, wherein 'still' were adverb more than
In these paintings, Nature is dead. With acute ecological prophecy,
painter-poet William Carlos Williams used the 'nature morte' mask of
a widow to lament that loss of 'natural' feeling, loss of feeling for
Nature, loss of feeling, loss of period, loss, period:
The plumtree is white today
with masses of flowers
Masses of blossoms load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I noticed them
and turned away forgetting.
And just as in Vaughan Williams' 20th century 'Fantasia' we can hear
the theme by Thomas Tallis, who doubtfully had any magnificent English
landscape in mind (let alone for two string orchestras), in all of these
still life paintings, we hear the tolling of the allegory of Vanity
The reoccurrence of objects. The kitchen scales, for
example. Not the Middle-aged St Michael weighing the souls of the dead,
with mature Christ in Last Judgement. Nor as a detail. In Conor's first
memorable portrait tableau, a wide evolutionary Velasquez space of humans,
monkey, ape and domestic dog, just out of the light, a cat is about
to be weighed.
Here the scales reoccur centrally. Just one hand clocking up the surface
deadweight of a face. Parody of Time and Progress, of Science, Measurement
and Gravity, of crab-apple Newton and his colonial Empire of Empiricism,
the bitter dawn of Judgement in a pocket calculator. In total opposition
with the Euro illusion of Cartesianism and the Age, don't you know,
of Enlightenment. With the bitter dawn of Psychology and the Human Species,
God help us.
Unlike the two Williams, here is war with the 'modern' occasion itself,
with no apologies to alia et Cezanne, Dali, Warhol. There is even a
bouquet of sunflowers without any apologies to Van Gogh, readily unmaking
what papa Duchamp himself would have despised as plugging in cheaply
to his machine à puissance timide. But the future of
art, hence the Future itself requires no collective interview for a
task, defined ad hoc on the basis of some evolutionary novelty. Here
is merely accelerated matter as blue and as real as the provisional
electrons of space that flow in through the atmosphere, falling into
the oceans, to be washed up on the dunes or out onto the canvas, victorious
over the corrosive sentiment of Surrealism.
The futurist scent is equally strong in all the larger paintings.
Over the sands of European ikon it has now been personalised,
without the usual superstore spaceship bargain giveaway, or the waxy
smell of the parishioner's candle of artistic devotion.
The contemplation of the future invoked in the 'Ophthalmos' image
of the child regarding the dark heavens under the maternal, almost
ecological gaze of the woman, has all the blue peace and quiet of
a Yeatsian Madonna and Child on the dim, dechristianising stage of
the old Abbey.
But the work has been done. In the dark.
We know only too well what this child, this woman,
what the artist himself, are regarding.
There is a also a dark breath of the Dark Ages in this painting of
the 4th century Croat. With copyright on only the whole of the Latin
Bible, St Jerome was patron saint of translators until the 1960's
when Hiroshima 2 (correction, Vatican 2) relegated his writings to
the local vernacularium.
It may have taken time for Dublin to have a 'modern' Jerry of its
very own, but it is, at least, one in which the giant Translator has
not been confused with Gerry the legendary Lion Tamer (St Gerasimus),
a different desert hermit. This has been frequently the case where
St Jerome was given a Trafalgar-sized lion to pet, along with his
Madrid cardinal's hat.
What's more, Dublin's latest J (and not G) would appear to be correctly
listening to the trumpet sounding the Last Judgement, and taking notes
As a life study, it re-echoes the elegiac desolation of the still
life group, but up in volume here, in full frontal profile,
a kind of noble 'sean-nós' sadness.
The startling nakedness of age!
who had scrapped their scapulars may be pleased to see the return of St
Christopher, who otherwise might have required no introduction before
being purged from the calendar by his present Holiness. Rehabilitated
is the responsibility of guardianhood, bearing upon his shoulders, not
only the child, but also the weight of the world. It combines a personal
portrait with Christian legend in a futuristic if somewhat anxious light.
That these paintings form an 'oeuvre' and a personal code located
somewhere between vision and language makes it no easy task to disconnect
one image from another, nor indeed each from its own textual enigma.
In directing images to book, title, quotation and European ikon,
this artist may be guilty of tediously intellectual nicety, if his
priorities are more with the image he is seeking. He is clearly distancing
himself from last Sunday's art, a code with little or no concern for
the ikon-omics of the whole shining history of Western Art and Science.
The absent astronomer-physicist of the mind?
It may not just be a matter of restoring the explicit role of scientific
thinking to the visual artist, and thus doing the visual arts a service.
It may not just be a matter of restoring thought to the eye. It may
also be a matter of integrating the business of knowledge into any
Vision - the word that reoccurs.
For in the simplicity of these images and these words, a dialogue
emerges: with the onlooker. Between them is a code where 'words' become
objects as silent as the heavenly skies or the earthly shelves, as
mysterious and still as the masks and human figures, all looking into
distant text. Longitudinally or latitudinally, there is a fascination
with the business of looking at Time, at Text, at the capacity of
both to deaden.
The pan-downward Apocalpse crowd of 'Then we upon our globe's last verge
shall go', a strikingly spherical return in the night to that memorable
first evolution tableau. The artist, Conor himself, is represented in
this painting looking into a textbook held open by a modern high priest,
tutorlike, at some science fiction liturgical occasion. Vision is yet
again presented as a glimpse into the textual sense of Time.
like Boethius in prison awaiting to be beheaded, the artist has not
looked at Christianity or at any faith, but at his own text in the mind.
In this allegorical painting, Philosophy herself seems to offer a cold
hand of blue Consolation to the onlooker, reflecting (on) a very
deadening view of Time, as, out of time, we look at what we see.
STILL LIFE WITH TASTE
Five elements arranged carefully, giving the impression of a spontaneous
setting caught negligently on the ledge of a study.
High up in the familiar long rectangular frame, a single tack pins a
single delicately-creased old-edition print to a flat brownish monochrome
surface.This enigmatic print, as if torn out of a book, mishandled,
has been pinned up like a note on a wall, a wink at some intellectual
exercise in the past, or a reminder for the future, to compete with
the flat and endless spatial surface of that wall.
The words 'DIALOGUE' and 'TASTE' are quite clearly legible.
Well below, as if crowding the narrow ledge, a central child's mask
leans, almost melts into the wall, hemmed in by the bunch of grapes
and two fruit, a bright green apple and grapefruit. The whole setting,
is imbued with the pale light of the text, or under the influence
of the same ochre light coming from off-canvas left, to judge by the
shadows thrown diagonally upward
terms of pure geometrical arrangement, in their dim-bright contrasts
and colours, the objects themselves as painted are fascinating. Even
the texture of the page more than adequately challenges the delicacy
of the traditional drape.
Space is everywhere, a wide-rimmed square around the page in the upper
thirds of the rectangle, and a fallen multi-surface triangle of mask
and fruit massing the base.
But language and painting at odds with each other.
The page draws the reading eye in to get the 'words'.
Yet the soft oval of the facemask is speechless, lifeless, inhumanly
hemmed in, surfacefully flat. Threateningly flatter than rich rounder
apple, than elliptical grapefruit.
While the fruits will satisfy the eye of any vegetarian, mask and
page desalivate any watering palate into contemplation of a somewhat
dustier, Presbyterian dessert for the soul, to close all mouths and
silence all tongues into a sepia stillness.
a metaphor in the Leyde genre of 'Vanity of Vanities', as an allegory
in the painted sense, this 'nature morte' opposes De Heem's 'Nature
Morte á la Rose' . As I recall, pink roses, one fading fast,
lie horizontally in the dark with, disorderly, horizontal goblet,
thimble and two glasses on a table, the whole dominated by
a half-discarded richly crumpled white table napkin.
De Heem's meal is over. Equally, the fleeting pleasures of life,
save what is saved in stillness by the artist.
Everything here, however, points to a more vertical sadness, an
angrier lucidity, where thought is at the mercy of pure colour and
chemistry. Each object more speechless than the next.
Hyper-elegy alone, sparseness without the sneer, sobless.
Walton, Conor's brother, is Senior Lecturer in English at the Université
Montesquieu, Bordeaux 4, France. An earlier version of this essay
accompanied Conor's first solo exhibition in 1999.