Marina Vaizey Review of Felim Egan
A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time
We are at a time which is one of extraordinary conformity, yet which praises
At the end of the century successful Western man is often referred to as a 'suit',
with non-conformity at the BBC or the Tate Gallery signified perhaps by the
wearing of Armani - but still a suit.
We need hooks and handles to describe, so everybody and everything has to be
fitted into ideas of tradition, chronological evolution. We look at our history, mostly
semiconscious of so doing, as a kind of incredibly dilute and watered down
Darwinism, and thus at art not in terms of change but in terms of evolution,
And progression is also perhaps defined: it has to be, in the words of a famous
occasional column in The New Yorker, (home as we used to think to the
modernism of the post-war world, and thus international Western modernism)
Onwards and Upwards with the Arts.
So how, in a society dedicated to categorising, to define the paintings, the
watercolours, the prints, the books, the sculpture, of Felim Egan? How then to
perform that peculiar feat of translating and transposing something of the visual,
something of the visible, into words? How to try and hint, in a few sentences, at
the effect, the feeling, here, of Felim Egan's work all wallhung: no three
dimensional sculpture free standing and unattached to walls here, as he has
shown at IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, last year.
Why mention sculpture then? Because a group of Felim's work acts as an
installation, cannot help having a conversation with the other.
I know that myself: I live with a silvery, almost incandescent, translucent,
luminous Felim Egan painting, almost always the last thing I see at night, the first
in the morning; and it often has a conversation with the other Egans' that I have
seen, and with the Felim Egan books that I look at from time to time, unpacking
them the way one does with Oriental art, carefully unfolding poem and image
from their boxes.
Felim has not travelled east, I don't even feel that he has looked that long at
Oriental painting, but there is that feeling of the integrated thought, the
calligraphy of imagery, that is so crucial to Chinese scroll painting.
Elusive, allusive, evanescent, iridescent, atmospheric: mist, cloud and fog. And
yet solid, constructed layer upon layer, integrated on wood, plaster and stone
admixed with paint on linen and canvas: solid as a brick, a rock, a megalith.
'Shifting brilliancies' in Seamus Heaney's phrase in a book called 'Squarings' that
was a collaboration between the painter and the poet, Dublin dwellers both.
Oh, contradictions and paradoxes and riddles and teases: Felim Egan's new
paintings, watercolours and prints play with all sorts of notions - and emotions.
But it is serious play, the play that stretches, teases, coaxes, persuades.
Felim Egan has had a long apprenticeship, from drawing and being absorbed, he
knows from whence or why, as a child, in seeing and making marks to record that
seeing, inner and outer.
He was born and brought up on the border, in Strabane - as far in Northern
Ireland as you can get from Belfast; and almost as far as you can get from
London or Dublin too ... a world of its own perhaps but shadowed by borders.
There has been an extensive art education, in Northern Ireland, in London, in
Rome, and geographical moves. First from a province, Northern Ireland, and its
capital, Belfast, then across the Irish Sea to art school in Portsmouth, by the
Channel, then London, Great Britain's capital, to the Slade School of Art in
Bloomsbury, adjacent to Jeremy Bentham's mummified body in University
College, London. Then to the British School in Rome, the riverine capital of a
catholic state, noisy and roaring, and a pause in another Celtic and at times
fretful country, Scotland, notably Edinburgh, within sight and sound of the Firth of
Forth, the estuary of the North Sea, and now what is certainly home, Dublin.
And Dublin facing out to the Irish Sea, to Sandymount Strand, no less, in a house
full of light, and a silvery studio.
The dogs get walked extensively on that strand, on that flat beach, with its beds
of mussels, (which they eat) and other dogs, and a power station, and echoes of
swimmers of the past. One of Felim's dogs swims; the other but wades and won't
set out to sea.
The sea here is tidal, the strand changing with each sweep of the sea in and out.
The sand drifts and moves, bearing for each tide only the marks of different lives
on its surface, and underneath. So too the paintings: is the pictorial space deep
or shallow, is that glint of colour the flash of something below, tossed in the
depths, or an echo of the sun or moon on the shifting water surface?
There is an element in Felim's paintings which does seem to me to be part of the
art of these islands: Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland.
It is a kind of lyrical abstraction, influenced inevitably by the changeable, watery
light of these island skies, flat, overreaching. Felim sees colour sometimes as
geography: the east is desert and sand, the west is blue, the north is grey and
green. Earth colours, sea colours, sky colours: what is absent perhaps is the
cultivated garden. There is structure here, but no formality. Yes, there are
painters with whom we can make links: perhaps compare and contrast. But in
fact for me Felim is like no one else. There is perhaps a hint of minimalism, in the
gesture standing alone; and a constructed abstraction, softened by light.
What we have here is a cast of characters: freehand, the square, the triangle,
sometimes the circle, the rod, the stick. We have squares imposed, and squares
embedded, we have surfaces built up with pigment strengthened with bits of
stone, with plaster. Underneath there are layers of stained-in-all-over-colour,
which may emerge, or may simply be subtly dormant, hardly visible, but affecting
the whole. The surface is primed all over, and then parts scraped back.
Paradoxically, the sturdy stability of Felim's paintings is built on shifting sands,
the colours catching the light and catching light. There is the sheen of wax too,
built into the pigment. The final surfaces have in part a silky feel, a sheen, and in
part, with thickened pigment, a roughness like earth or sand.
The characters, these free hand geometries, float in rich layers of colour. Or are
they submerged: not waving but drowning? It is this ambiguity which is so
beguiling: and so true to life - is the glass half full or half empty? The same
painting can seem to me in different moods and lights exhilarating, optimistic, full
of joy; or sombre, deep, the bell tolling under the sea in an underwater cathedral.
The titles Felim finds reflect the tensions between dreams and reality, the
unending cycle of the strand at his doorstep, the incessant, relentless inevitability
of it all, every day the sequence of invariably changing weather, and so every day
different and unexpected.
Eastern Drift, Blue Fall, Crossing, Boundary, Sounding, Divide: here are titles
which hint at that which is elusive and ephemeral, and yet simultaneously every
day experience. Those characters, emblems, pictographs, hieroglyph, as several
commentators have irresistibly been impelled to call them, that free hand
geometry itself a contradiction, how can geometry be free hand? are often
anchored at the whole painting held by a faint white line, a hint of the horizon,
and not done free hand, here the draughtsman has held a ruler.
Going back to the notion of evolution and development, there is one thing to be
said in general: it is the notion of abstraction, the framework say from Kandinsky,
he of the musical dreams, to Ben Nicholson, and - say - William Scott that does
provide the concatenation of idioms and languages which touch on Felim's
paintings. In terms of Felim's own painting, there has been a paring down, less
turning to more, as the characters become stronger but fewer. What we don't
know is whether these gleaming squares, delicately glistening rods, are floating in
a void, or free as air in the sky, or swimming like camphor candlelit leaves in a
sacred river, or a scatter of shapes flung every which way. They are migrating too
from the near centre to near the edge to at the edge, and sometimes they do not
now even fully emerge. The painter plays with our, and his, peripheral vision. The
largest paintings are little larger than the embrace of our outstretched arms.
It is especially appropriate that these new paintings, on canvas, linen, wood,
these watercolours and prints should first see their London day in a gallery near
the Thames, filled with tidal river light. They are wonderful to look at for the first
time; yet it is their changeability, the impermanence of their permanence, their
robust physical character underpinning and perhaps even making possible the
continual mutations and transformations they undergo before our very eyes.
© Marina Vaizey, March 1998