Triskel Christchurch, Cork
16 May – 31 August 2013
Time was, when oppositional writers in the West during the Dark Ages (which corresponded with the full Renaissance of Arab culture) investigated happiness in a profusion of writings. Happiness was topical when serfdom and slavery were still normal. If this review could have a title it would be ‘In Pursuit of Happiness: a Painter’s Journey’. That the pursuit of happiness, or affirmative art, is not a mainstream concern of contemporary art – too often issue-bound, topical – is something the philosopher Alain Badiou has criticised (Manifesto of Affirmationism, 2005).
‘Scattered Showers’ is a festival of saturated colour, in the form of scumbled, layered, glazed, distressed pigment, coaxed, dragged or gently wiped across Somerset paper to form abstracted landscapes. These bright colours hardly evoke the desaturated colours of ‘soft’ Irish mornings. Rather, the rebellion of colour defies the real with the kind of palette you can only find in a travel brochure or under a microscope. I don’t know how it is that these 12 landscape paintings, almost poster sized (60 x 90cm), hold their own in the Christchurch gallery space despite the stained glass and dark pews.
It seems to me that ‘Scattered Showers’ and indeed all the work by Colman I have seen is a work of resistance, expressing, in a difficult craft, mostly rejected in favour of lens-based media, what the experience of being happy, vital, grateful to be among the living – something which eludes us most of the time – might look like. Replace, if you will, the word ‘happiness’ with ‘beauty’. There is no sign of minimalist grids or logocentric dogmas of meaning here, so the eye is led to enjoy Coleman’s painted surface and the mind to ask more and more questions. This gaze of mine combines with my personal visual archive, summoning shapes, colours, marks and moods; I see the boldness of Abstract Expressionism, the lyric paintings of the forgotten (Gastone Novelli, the best of Afro Basaldella, and many other gestural, drawn, scribbled, feverish, mark-making moments, especially of European Art Informel). But just before this neat categorising has time to crystalise, my mind remembers Samuel Palmer’s intimacy or the mystical landscapes of Cecil Collins, an unfashionable painter who would get his students to draw blind, directly from the mind.
How does one explain this paradox: that other painters are present, yet no one but Colman is there? TS Eliot’s Tradition and The Individual Talent (1920) suggests the idea, transposed, that modern painting too has its vital – impersonal – legacy, which never loses its relevance. This is very different from postmodernist eclecticism. Colman’s are image marks, intensely personal yet entirely impersonal layers of material experience. A painting is a cultural artefact, something which neo-formalist approaches fail to acknowledge.
These observations about language and poetry might seem out of place, until you notice Colman’s long titles. They’re so long as to become more than a discreet form of signing or primeval marking of territory. They read as aspirational, a rope flung across the void of sense, across the gap between private studio and public space.
Colman’s titles evoke, like poetry, rather than describe or narrate. Visual poetry? Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility? Well, the hints of sky and land, tree or cloud, remind you of the natural world, so memory plays its part in sifting and abstracting from phenomenal experience, paring it down to stark shapes, geometric patterns, bold marks, daring juxtapositions. It is someone else’s Never Never Land – here, now and neither.
The connection with poetry, as all these titles suggest, has more to do with rejecting a narrative idiom, which Craig Owens once picked out as a new feature in contemporary art, whereby visual art was allegorical (but, I think – never acknowledged then or since – also didactic) (The Allegorical Impulse October, Spring and Summer, 1980). The way a painter might pinpoint a feeling, however slight, or a passing thought, however ill-constructed, can also be conveyed by naming. Names give shape to things, including paintings, attempting a correspondence between empirical experience and the mind’s interpretation of it. But Colman’s titles don’t really name. That is why I’m tempted to call them anxious titles.
Maybe his words are superfluous after all. A phrase from Sam Beckett, “the fragment of fragments”, the sheer impossibility of telling, settling for suggesting instead. Titles which sketch out a story the painter is not going to tell you because he wants you to imagine it for yourself. That’s how he avoids today’s didactic art, so dependent on the artist’s statement that it fails to make (its own) sense.
Dr. David Brancaleone is lecturer at LIT-LSAD. His writing has appeared in Circa, Vertigo, Experimental Conversations, Irish Marxist Review, Enclave Review and VAN. He is also a filmmaker.