Richard Gorman’s abstract art is a dance between colour and form.
It’s a challenge to know where to start with a Richard Gorman exhibition; abstract art of this kind, ‘pure’ abstraction, is resistant to being characterised with words, concepts, or narratives. In fact, in an early and widely disseminated treatment of modern abstract art, Wilhelm Worringer wrote that the “urge to abstraction” was the result of “a great inner unrest inspired in man by the phenomena of the outside world.” By which, the German historian meant that abstract art was incompatible with any kind of “happy” or “unifying” story; it was an expression of the feeling that the universe is utterly disordered, chaotic and meaningless.
But let’s not be too pessimistic, and instead, begin with the artist’s background. Gorman, born in 1946, the eldest son of a Dublin family who owned a garage, is now a major figure in Ireland’s pantheon of living painters. Gorman’s success was not an inevitability: despite a clear penchant for drawing and sketching at an early age, he was dissuaded from pursuing art and elected to study business at Trinity College Dublin instead. After graduation he worked for Ford in England and travelled through Europe and America, finally returning to Ireland to work in the family business. This homeward journey precipitated a personal crisis, however, and the then 30-year old decided to study art at the Dun Laoghaire School of Art and Design.
A number of years later, as art school drew to a close, Gorman displayed yet again the courage that empowered him to leave his career and family profession behind: he sold his house in Dublin, moved to Paris, and began working in printmaking under the watchful eye of lithographer Jacques de Champfleury. According to the artist, this period rendered a key insight about what he calls “harsh problems,” or deep questions addressing the purpose and function of art. These thorny issues can be creatively engaged so long as one didn’t fixate on them; by throwing himself into the process of resolving the technical difficulties that printmaking involves, where “everything is back to front and black and white,” Gorman was delighted to find that something unexpected was given birth in the work, something that, in the process of its emergence, released him from the demands of those harsh problems. Cut to almost fifty years later, and Gorman has enjoyed an enviable measure of success; group and solo exhibitions in a plethora of international galleries, membership in the RHA and Aosdána, and a working practice that involves regular visits to Tokyo and Milan, where Gorman resides for half the year.
But why abstraction? The answer to that question lies in Gorman’s commitment to a non-cerebral form of art. He articulates this point in varying ways across a number of interviews and articles, but his meaning is always the same: Gorman’s paintings don’t represent a concept or illustrate an idea, but rather, each work is the evidence of a process that happens in his studio. Gorman’s approach to his artworks points in the direction of a radical materialism: his paintings don’t harbour secret messages or signify something else; instead, each painting only refers to itself and the time and attention Gorman has spent in manifesting the painting, in bringing it to life.
And that life, the essence of Gorman’s paintings, consists in the interplay between colour and form. The artworks at the Hugh Lane are typical of his output: bright combinations of geometrical blocks and curvilinear shapes, speaking to one another across a series that appears as soon as your eye picks out the common motif, only for the series to disassemble as another takes its place: Gorman’s work is not monadological, but multicellular, interacting with the whole.
Valeria Ceregini, one of the co-curators (along with Michael Dempsey), echoes this thought, writing that Gorman’s style transforms paintings into a “spatial art, made by outlines, fragmentations and overlapping, creating the illusion of a space constantly taking form and coming alive through colour.”
As this suggests, Gorman’s colour-fields shift and mutate from one work to another. Some are flat and two-dimensional, contrasting with the three-dimensional, background-foreground perspective at work in paintings like Derravaragh from 2022. Some blocks of colour within the compositions are feathered inconsistently, giving them a textural variability, whereas others, like the green and black in Corrib, are formed by careful and even brushwork, presenting to the viewer as sheer, uniform monochromes. Some compositions seem to deliberately suggest movement, as in the trio Victor, Victor, hum and Victor X-ray, where a square turns on its axis, spinning, and blooms of primary colour appear outside its centre, like visual effects produced by the speed of its turning; momentary tricks of the light, refracting from a wheel. This trio collides head-on with angles only, from 2018, which as you might have guessed, is a Tetris-like arrangement of static, rectangular shapes.
Ceregini met Gorman in 2019 and has had several opportunities to see the artist at work in his studio. She describes him as “very disciplined,” working every day for hours at a time. “Paint,” she says, “is the beat of time in his life.” His practice is to continually work and rework new and in-progress paintings, seeking “to find the best colour and shape balance.” The Italian curator noted that observing Gorman was “almost a mystic experience,” and she describes the feeling of being surrounded by his paintings as being like an actor in the background of “a sort of harmonic opera, where all the works were playing a note and composing together a symphony of colours.” Ceregini’s brilliant account is highly indicative of the experience many visitors to the exhibition will feel: as one passes from room to room, the greater the sense of immersion in a new world, of being saturated by Gormonian pulses of primary-colours and vibrant bodies.
Indeed, two works in particular create their own environment, folding you into their atmosphere: Charlie Charlie from 2020 is the only double-painting, or two-framed painting, and it has, uniquely for Gorman, a touch of landscape about it. Sitting in the quiet of the gallery floor, alone, I stared at the work and immediately identified traces of the traditional seaside resort; I saw impressions of sand, summer dresses, sunshine, buildings with white facades and Northern Atlantic seaspray, like St. Ives as described in a Virginia Woolf novel. Another is the penultimate work, untitled, that stretches floor to ceiling and features 12 circles on handmade echizen kozo washi paper, from 2023. Gorman frequently travels to Japan to make this paper, a practice he established over 30 years ago.
According to his interview with the National Gallery in 2021, the name of the material reflects its origin (a plant named Kozo) and location (Echizen). Washi is the generic name for the paper type, a type that is “extremely strong: you really are hard pushed to tear it. It’s got very long fibres, wood fibres.” This covers an entire wall in one lowly lit room, its size and curatorial position lending further to its immersive quality.
As I said at the beginning, Gorman is a major Irish talent and this exhibition gives you everything you need to understand why. Highly recommended.
Words: Tom Lordan