Essays by James Hyman

Hughie O'Donoghue

Hughie O'Donoghue


James Hyman
Burlington Magazine
November 1989


Hughie O'Donoghue's recent exhibition, his first in London in three years (at Fabian Carlsson, London, 15th September to 28th October) confirms him to be one of the most powerful of the younger artists now being associated with a `School of London'. His new pictures represent a distillation of themes and ideas that were already evident in his earlier work. These include an exploration of the elements of earth, water, fire and air, interest in both northern and classical myth and concern for what man does to man as symbolised by the respect accorded to the human body. The exhibition's title, Fires, referred both to the artist's continuing exploration of the elements as reflected in the titles of his works: Fires, The Irish Sea, Terrain, Chasm, and also to what enthuses or `fires' the artist.

In the most successful of the pictures, such as the painting Sleeper VIII (Bruised) of 1988-89, the artist's increased mastery of his medium is clear and his statement personal enough to transcend the stimulus he has received in particular from Bacon, Titian and Ammannati's Fountain of Neptune in Florence - this last providing the source of O'Donoghue's latest series of large drawings. In these works, which are the result of concerns parallel to those of the paintings, although not directly related, the elements of figuration have become increasingly ambiguous and there is sometimes a sense - such is his facility with charcoal that the images are not always fully pushed through. However in paint, a medium that he has found more difficult, the struggle required increases the potency of the final image.

The catalogue superbly reproduces the works included in the show in addition to other recent pictures. These include a large painting Porces and Chariboea (1986-89) inspired by the Laoco and by El Greco's treatment of the subject in the National Gallery and two of O'Donoghue's superb charcoal studies of Crows inspired partly by the Icelandic myth of Brodar who, on the way to battle, was attacked by crows with iron beaks. The catalogue text emphasises what a `knowing' artist O'Donoghue is, strongly aware of the history of western art (aided by his 1984 period as artist in residence at the National Gallery) and with tremendous ambitions for his own work. He hopes for accessibility of meaning and for work that uses description, ambiguity and symbolism in addressing painting's tradition as well as recent history and man's treatment of his fellow man.

A key to these works is the tension created between description or particularity and the desire to suggest or evoke generalised, symbolic forms. Thus, in depicting the human body, O'Donoghue admits to lack of interest in life drawing or the study of a model, seeking instead to make something that is more general. A painting such as Terrain alludes to this ambiguity. Despite its title the subject is a nose treated as though it were a landscape. This produces what O'Donoghue calls an `anti-portrait' one that is all about the general and reacts against portrait personality.

In this reaction against the specific or overtly descriptive, O'Donoghue's work benefits from his pre-1981 period of abstraction which sought to exclude any elements that could be considered representational. This has resulted in a strength of composition that owes much to colour-field painting and allows the subject to emerge from its pared down background. This is particularly striking in the continued treatment of the body in his Sleeper series. In Sleeper VII (Fig.47) trees blow on the hilltop while below a writhing body sprawls, its ribs or spine bent awkwardly and its head rearing upwards as it meets the base of the picture. Interest is focused on what is happening to the body and finds its most explicit treatment in the pictures related to Bruise (1988-89). Here, despite the elements of landscape which situated the bruised head, one is left in no doubt that it is with the damaged body that the artist is concerned.

Over all these works represent a new confidence and maturity in the artist's handling of paint and evocation of his subjects. His ambitions for painting as a carrier of meanings which are accessible to all are perhaps an impossibility, especially for works which are based on a tension between abstraction and representation and which rely on ambiguity for much of their strngth. Nonetheless the attempt is a brave one and has resulted already in some poignant and memorable works.

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