The Molesworth Gallery

The F-Word

Jennifer Trouton ~ Memorial ~ oil on canvas ~ 9 panels, each 30 x 30 cm


Our November Exhibition

The F-Word - Contemporary Figurative


Sheila Pomeroy


The F-Word

by Aidan Dunne
There was a point, around the mid-20th century, when the state of modern art could be summarized in terms of one broad assumption: that abstract art was forward-looking and progressive, and representational art was backward-looking and conservative. Perhaps that assumption still has a certain currency, even though it wasn't true then and it is not true now, either. One of the signs of the end of the Modernist era was the resurgence in figurative painting that began at the end of the 1970s and became known as Neo-Expressionism.
It had considerable impact in Ireland as elsewhere.
The problem with Neo-Expressionism, as a term and as a phenomenon, is the implication that figuration is synonymous with expressionism. The vast majority of the work that flourished under the Neo-Expressionist banner emphasised unbridled emotion, willful subjectivity and sheer irrationality, and was based on the old romantic idea of the artist as a wild, impassioned - and usually male - outsider. It was as if the only way to be a painter was to discard much of the formal and intellectual apparatus usually permissible in artistic endeavour. Figurative painting was associated with and supposedly celebrated a “primitive” sensibility.



Patrick Redmond ~ Boy ~ oil on canvas


When it came, the reaction to this lurch into expressionism was quite vicious in some quarters, and took the form of yet another in a cyclical sequence of declarations that painting was dead. This time around, the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, among others, gleefully announced its passing. But, as usual, reports of the demise of painting were greatly exaggerated.
Regardless of the vagaries of art world fashion, there have consistently been painters fundamentally interested in exploring and expanding the potential of figurative painting in a contemporary context. Not, that is to say, in terms of the nostalgic preservation of a notional, academic Golden Age. Such an approach tends to fix everything in aspic
- subject matter, technique, even the social order that shaped its rules. It is at heart a form of hidebound pastiche, and has, essentially, nothing whatever to say to us today. Of course it goes on, and it certainly has a market, largely because of the ersatz sense of reassurance it promises.

Mercedes Helnwein


Much contemporary figurative painting is interesting and relevant because its makers take on board the changed circumstances in which they operate. One of the most important developments, related to the demise of Modernism, is an awareness that there can be no one, authentic, authoritative, all-encompassing style. Styles invariably embody cultural values that are not immutably fixed either geographically or historically.In addition, such significant international figures as Jasper Johns, Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans - to take three diverse, relevant exemplars - have, in their different ways, come to terms as painters with a world that is not simply a raw material ready to be moulded to their aims and stamped with the sheer force of their artistic personalities, but is to begin with a realm of representation. That is to say, we habitually encounter the world as framed and represented in various ways, and that is our starting point whether we like it or not.

Blaise Smith


Many of today's generation of figurative artists are acutely aware of all this and, more, their work actually derives a great deal of its impetus from this awareness. They know that images are never pure and unadulterated but are elaborate and loaded constructions. Even apparently simple images come freighted with layers of preconceptions and conventions. It is also true that we live, as never before, in an image-saturated culture. So, for a contemporary painter, to set about making an image is to enter into a highly charged arena of systems of representation. The artists' aim is usually to negotiate a workable space for themselves in what might be described as this fraught context. Hence a critical distance is built into the process, a certain wariness, perhaps a degree of skepticism but also, when things go right, an unmistakable vitality, and the sheer excitement of discovery.

Blaise Smith


All of which could sound fairly daunting. To recap, our contemporary figurative artist has to find a path through a dense forest of existing representation, to evade the traps of stylistic convention and the lure of facile pastiche, to fend off the arrows of art world prejudice, and somehow find a clearing that offers a view of the way ahead.
One of the advantages of figuration is that it is, by its nature, a language we all understand. This is not to say that figurative painting does not inspire a rich and illuminating accompanying literature. It clearly does. But at the same time, as the graffiti artist Banksy has observed, you generally do not need an explanatory essay to see what a figurative artist is trying to do. This doesn't make the work any less valid, but it does have the effect of prising it from the controlling grasp of the art world theocracy. And it often seems that, while paying lip service to the idea of accessibility, many within the art world would prefer a situation whereby contemporary art depends on the exegesis of a specialist elite of critical theorists.

Cian McLoughlin


The artists whose works make up this exhibition do not form anything like a single group or movement. What they do share is an interest in pursuing strategies of figuration in paintings and drawings that display a keen awareness of the world they inhabit. In all cases their work is thoughtful, intellectually engaged, richly allusive and skillfully made. It's surely a bonus that it is also readily intelligible.
Aidan Dunne

Maeve McCarthy





Eoghan McGrath





« Return to Exhibitions Home      Back to Top