The art of abstract solutions

Charles Tyrrell was an undergraduate forty years ago when the abstract paintings of his first solo show upset the college hierarchy. His latest show, New Paintings, is at the Taylor Galleries, in Dublin.

Forty years after his first solo show, Charles Tyrell has introduced etched lines to his customary abstract grids, says Tina Darb O’Sullivan.

ARTIST Charles Tyrell’s new exhibition, New Paintings, at the Taylor Galleries, Dublin, is taking place 40 years after his first, in the Project Arts Centre. Tyrrell is known for his large, abstracted, grid-based paintings, but this exhibition is entirely oil-on-aluminum works of a smaller scale.

The paintings diverge in containing etched line and a layering of paint. “I won’t say it’s a complete departure,” says Tyrrell. “I’ve been working on it for about a year. I’ve worked in aluminum before, over the years. But this is the first time I’ve done a really concentrated lot. It usually complements the work on canvas — it was playing with different notions, but now I’m completely focused on it.”

Tyrrell attributes his work to his relationship with the materials. “The core of these pieces is that I work with metal spatulas and lay on paint,” he says. “It’s a very particular engagement with the paint. Laying it on, scraping it off. Laying on a lot and pulling back, and allowing the metal come through. It’s a constant process of laying on and removing paint and, very often, just leaving these very little thin, residual lines. It was like drawing with paint in a very particular kind of way, using these metal spatulas.”

A marked difference in this new work is the speed of its completion. The paintings revealed themselves in a near-frantic manner — the artist says the movement of the metal tools against the aluminum and the maneuvering of liquid paint were factors. “They have a pace to them that is almost unnerving and I don’t know if I can continue with it,” he says. “A lot of this painting was nerve-racking, in some ways. There was a huge tension in trying to keep some sort of control of the way in which I was painting and, very often, I found myself wishing I was working on the slow, more grungy canvases, with the slow, steady build-up. I’ve no doubt that I will return to that pace and those materials again, and see where they take me.”

The grid has long been a foundation in Tyrrell’s painting. “With the subdivisions,” he says. “That’s what I always do, work to very pure and simple sets of divisions, which I’m happy with, and within which I think something can happen. It’s a pure, geometric logic that I start with and then the dance takes place within, and around, that structure,” he says.

Tyrrell’s works of pure abstraction have been read as landscapes. Having lived outside Allihies, on the remote Beara peninsula, since 1984, Tyrrell says the surroundings have seeped into the work, but he refers to the quote ‘I don’t paint what I see, I see what I paint’ to illustrate how he removes himself from a literal study of the land. “I’m fully aware that, with this sort of painting and this sort of drawing of lines and free movements, that very often they end up echoing the lines and forms that are in the landscape. Particularly the landscape around here. I don’t respond to the landscape at all in a conscious way. I do regard what I am doing as entirely self-contained, within itself, beginning and ending in itself. But I do want them to reach out and I do allow my experience of the world to come in.”

The National College of Art and Design was on the cusp of reform when Tyrrell attended it in the 1970s. He was among the students loosening the grip of the old school of thought. Four decades ago, the Project Arts Centre hosted his first solo exhibition, while Tyrrell was still an undergraduate. This didn’t sit well with the ‘powers that be’, in part due to his abstract expressionism, which jarred with their traditional preferences. “It didn’t go down well at all,” he says, “and when the day came for me to remove my work and bring it to the Project Arts Centre, on South King Street, there was a bit of a stand-off between me and the authorities. They told me the works belonged to the college and not to me, and I didn’t have the right to take them out without their permission. I can’t remember the details of it, but there was a hold-up for a day or so, until they finally relented and reluctantly let me go ahead.”

Tyrrell was the first student at NCAD whose degree exhibition was made up entirely of abstract work. This again put him at odds with the college authorities. “Very luckily, my final-year external assessors were the late, great Pat Scott, who is very much in the news now, having departed this life, and William Scott, the painter. Pat Scott asked me, years later, when I got to know him, ‘do you remember I was your external assessor?’ and I said , ‘of course I do’. Pat said, ‘if it wasn’t for myself and William, you mightn’t have got through, because they had a jaundiced view of your submission.’ But they gave me a distinction. In fact, they insisted on it.”

Since then, art has changed to encompass all sorts of media and technology. But Tyrrell says painting will endure. “There’s always this talk that painting is dead. There’s something very fundamental about painting and it’s just down to fundamental mark-making that is very fundamental to our expression and I think that will always be there. It will develop in various ways, and painting is developing and changing all the time. I think painting won’t be knocked off the shelf by new media work. I don’t see it as one or the other. I think there is room... the field has got bigger in terms of modes of expressions. Let it all happen, there are no hierarchies.”

New Paintings, by Charles Tyrrell, at the Taylor Galleries, Dublin, until May 3.


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