The Sensuality of the Shade
Colin Watson is one of the purest young artists to have emerged from Ireland in recent years. The seeming simplicity of his work, however, belies the powerful intellectual effort which has gone into its creation. He comfortably straddles artistic divides: between formalism and symbolism, figuration and abstraction. While some other Irish painters of his generation have explored the world of dream and myth, Watson takes the humdrum, the everyday and seeks to give it stability and generalized significance without recourse to extraneous interpretation. His is a vision of exquisite purity of space and shape, rendered at each working, closer to the Platonic Form. As in The Republic, however, the perfectibility of form is cast in shadows and this shade is perhaps the keyhole of the current exhibition.
In his last one-man show Paintings of Mood and Place works such as Head of a Woman seemed to subtlely allude to Pliny's myth of how painting originated from the silhouette drawn around a head cast in shadow. Individual heads, viewed from close up emerged from the canvas only to disappear again into large areas of lovingly painted shade. Landscapes such as The Ante Room abstracted a group of typically Moroccan architectural motifs into an exploration of inner and outer space. The geometric composition and sharp contrast between the bright passage of light and the negative space of the darkness made for an image which seemed to capture a truth far from the elusive reality of the everyday scene which was his starting point. The same technical and intellectual concerns are again on display in the group of works assembled for the present exhibition yet the artist examines the tensions inherent within them in a much more direct way than previously. It is as if his travels through North Africa have not only provided him with inspiration for subject matter but are symbolic of an ongoing journey towards the realisation of his artistic goals. What becomes increasingly clear the further one examines the recent developments in Watson's art is the unity of artistic purpose across the range of subject matter he paints. He brings the same dispassionate eye, intuitively geometric in its reducing to essential shapes, both landscape and the human form.
The attempt to eternalise the mundane moment through the medium of paint has been one of the great goals of Western art. As with Vermeer, many of Watson's figures seem lost in thought, occupied with their own internal lives, an innerness which continually evades the viewer. However, the everyday poses of the models, the limited range of subdued colours and muted tonality make our viewing a more complex negotiation of the difference between actuality and artifact. At the same time reserves of mood are opened up in some fundamental way requiring our involvement in the pictorial space. In the catalogue essay accompanying Paintings of Mood and Place, Sarah Wilson acutely noted that the artist's "work is a kind of painting down to essentials, such as one finds in Beckett, a search for silence and even invisibility". This process is continued here. The Attic, Colin Watson, 'The Sensuality of the Shade',2001, (Catalogue No. 03) Gone are the large-scale multi-figured compositions which formed such a striking aspect of the last exhibition. Interestingly Watson had begun work on a similar series before becoming dissatisfied with them and destroying some four months work. Perhaps the element of anecdotal narrative within them was a distraction to his pursuit of purity of form. Alternatively he can be seen as acknowledging the fundamental difficulty for the modern artist in producing convincing multi-figured "historical" paintings without lapsing into artifice or whimsy. Instead Watson sets his figures in nondescript interiors without the props of moralising or didactic painting. The serpentine line of the human form contrasts sympathetically with the the simplified shape of chair or radiator. It is perhaps noteworthy how in most cases the model's face is hidden, removing the element which may, more than any other, give the viewer an insight into the figure's thoughts and distract from the examination of mood and form which is the artist's main concern. Although the artist eschews rhetorical gesture the model is monumentalised. Indeed the figures for all their manifest humanity at times recall sculptural archetypes. In Evening the pose echoes that of the Spinario while Portrait of a Girl (right) has the static, hierarchic feel of Egyptian sculpture.
It is in his Moroccan and Egyptian landscapes, however, that the reduction of form to suggest the eternal is most apparent. There are echoes of another Belfast-born painter John Lavery who was inspired to the "development of a spontaneous sense of abstract relationships" by the "slab-like architecture" of Tangiers. Watson at the same time shows himself to be a master of the depiction of light. He has revisited North Africa several times seeking direct inspiration for his work while at the same time clearly being aware of the nineteenth-century tradition of artists such as Corot and perhaps particularly Thomas Jones. Watson is not, however, a plein air painter, only sketching on the spot and working up the landscapes in his studio. This editing process allows him to order his initial impressions into more generalised, even universal images. This working practice recalls the example of Giovanni Costa the leader of the Etruscan School: "the study which contains the sentiment, the divine inspiration, should be done from nature... from this study the picture should be painted at home." The simple forms of North African architecture appeal to his painterly delight in shape and the landscapes often seem as much meditations on the nature of form and colour as depictions of actual places. Certainly compared to his earlier landscapes they verge more and more on the abstract. His work, however, is always grounded in the actual. Unlike artists such as William Scott it is difficult to ever see Watson entirely dispensing with figuration.
Unlike many artists captivated by the North African sun Watson uses a generally subdued palette of no more than four colours. The mystery of the shade, of the dark hidden place appeals to him more than the burning sun which inspired twentieth-century artists such as Matisse and Kandinsky. Describing Lavery's Moroccan landscapes one critic noted: "it is as though the artist...loved best the quiet hues of his own mist-wrapped land and sought to find them, or their equivalent, everywhere". For Watson, memories of the Mourne Mountains are never too far away from his vision of Morocco. Instead of seeking after the exotic he relishes the ordinary and through the alchemy of paint renders it magical. Essential to his North African landscapes is the motif of the door cast in shadows. Doorway, Tailouine, Colin Watson 'The Sensuality of the Shade', 2001, Catalogue No. 27 Prefigured by the powerful Ante-Room in Paintings of Mood and Place it is here perhaps most evident in the almost abstract Doorway, Taliouine. The centrally placed arch dominated the schematic composition with its narrow bands of sand and sky. The coolness of the shade is tangibly sensual while the ordering of form gives universal significance to a simple scene. This is not a gate but an attempt to paint the Form of the Gate. Watson acknowledges the symbolic connotations of a doorway as the portal to different stages in life and it is tempting to see the repeated motif of the gateway cast in shadows in these strangely unpopulated landscapes, as emblematic of the lonely search of the artist, lonely in the world of forms which have the potential to disintegrate as much as to reveal.
William Laffan, October 2001