“The Assumption of Painting” 2016 charcoal and acrylic on canvas 1730 x 1380mm
Brendan McGorry by Warren Feeney
‘The past,’ thought he, ‘is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of happenings, each flowing from the other.’
Anton Chekov, The Student, 1894
Brendan McGorry’s work shares much in common with the short stories of Anton Chekov (1860 – 1904). One of the Russian author’s favourite novellas, The Student, tells the story of a young theologian visiting a widowed mother and daughter, and discussing the story of Peter the Apostle’s denial to the Romans that he is a companion of Christ’s. The elderly woman and her daughter are distressed by the story. It seems all too relevant to their immediate lives.’ Touched by their response the theologian ruminates that the nature of human behaviour and brevity of our lives has been shaped through all time past, by the sincerity of truth and beauty.
The circumstances and situations in McGorry’s art are instilled with a similar consciousness of the transitory nature of the lives of the figures that inhabit his paintings, sculptures and drawings. Yet, McGorry is not unsympathetic to their predicament, providing a companion, a history of art that is close to the artist’s heart and mind, that may also be of assistance to them.
“Frances at the Folie Bergere” charcoal and acrylic on canvas 1500 x 1200mm
When McGorry reconsidered the lives of the French Impressionisms in The Belle Époque Project,2014, a series of paintings that responded to works by Manet, Renoir and van Gogh, he retained their subjects and compositions, but in paintings like Frances at the Folie Bergere After Manet, the contemporaneous nature of the artist’s narrative assumed a greater presence. Updating to the present day, the central figure and customer reflected in the mirror behind the bar, McGorry reminded us of our presence in similar circumstances and that the experience of such moments, like the subjects in Manet’s painting, will eventually be consigned to history.
Stellar, an installation and series of portraits in 2017 of European painters and modern masters from the Renaissance to Abstract Expressionism introduced influential and favourite artists of McGorry’s practice into the space of the gallery. Adopting the Tondo, a circular form for portraiture that has its origins in the Renaissance, he populated the gallery walls with portraits that included Mantegna, Caravaggio,
Barnett Newman and Toss Woollaston, all suspended in the sky with an expansive landscape below, inscribed and defined in charcoal with two figures at the furthest distance possible from one another – a Piero della Francesca’s angel on the left and a reclining David Hockey figure on the right.
Yet, it was not merely the passage of time or a story about the history of art that McGorry was detailing through this series. Spending a year in Italy, studying frescoes and the context in which this medieval and Renaissance method of painting was realised through a consideration of the space and environment it occupied, the installation for Stellar was similarly about communicating directly with the gallery visitor, placing them within the artist’s world just as McGorry is drawing attention to the principles and iconography of those artists who surround him as a critical part of his universe and experience.
In The Death of Painting in 2016, McGorry responded to the surprising proposition of the possible demise of painting, referencing the work of the English Pre-Raphaelites, (19th century romantics who could not get enough of the subject of death), acknowledging the morbidity and pleasures of their work through John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, 1851. Yet, in his choice of the Pre-Raphaelites, McGorry again highlighted the connectedness of the visual arts and artists from one century to another and the way in which this continuum sustained and cultivated their work. In the 1850s, Pre-Raphaelites’ artists, Millais and Rossetti had looked back to Piero Della Francesco and Uccello for inspiration, Renaissance artists who predated the High Renaissance, yet in doing so, created a distinctly Victorian response to their own world that encapsulate the materialism and spiritual aspirations of 19th century England.
McGorry’s interest in confronting and openly commenting on the subjects of his work is equally evident in his use of materials and working processes. The subjects of his charcoal drawings are conceived and defined in contour lines possessed by an economy and frankness of observation and expression. In his paintings, he reveals the linen of his canvas surfaces as colour to complement the gestures of his paint and its colour, exposing the qualities of his materials and the tools of his trade.
His paint may be scumbled over the canvas, thinned to translucent washes, pointalist dots or built up in expressive impasto strokes. Whatever the methodology, McGorry’s paint on canvas shares the space on the picture plane with figures and objects defined by an animated exchange between drawing and painting. A vitality constructed on the premise of tensions and potential alliances between the delineation of his subjects and the sureness of his painterly surfaces.
McGorry has commented that ‘there is a lot of research that goes into each series of works before beginning to paint, and then I pull it all together. Offering up the evidence of a history of art and its potency to speak over an immeasurable passage of time, his work documents the particulars and the possibilities of human behaviour, personal histories possessed and haunted by an unending continuity.