New Paintings 2011

A new collection of paintings by Colin Watson is always a cause for both gratitude and celebration, not least because it offers us an invitation to embark on a journey of the imagination and to travel beyond the mundane boundaries that often curtail our lives. The places the paintings take us to in this accomplished new body of work are beautiful in their mystery and whisper seductively of unchartered worlds that seem shaped by the spirit but yet are rooted deeply in the human.

Perhaps the most striking element shared by all this new work is an almost overwhelming vibrancy of colour that combines to produce an intensely sensual pleasure. These are surely paintings conceived in colour and tone and which are held in a perfect balance between the eternal blue of sky and the grounded ochre tones of the earthly. It is this dramatic use of colour that allows the paintings to generate their own dynamic synthesis of spirituality and sensuality. The presence of water in paintings such as ‘Sojourn by the Waters’, ‘Repose by the Fountain’, ‘Song by the Pool’ and ‘The Pool’, resonates with the idea of purity, mercy and blessing and echoes the central imagery of cleansing at the heart of many religions. Similarly the depiction of luxurient gardens conjures up thoughts of paradise. However, these spiritual references are never heavy-handed or intrusive and the perfect synthesis they establish with the physical is to be found in the human frailty we also encounter – the weariness, the loneliness, the uncertainty with which all flesh is imbued.

In his past and present work Colin Watson has drawn on his exploration of other cultures and his rich knowledge of art history. This knowledge has often been gained first hand through travel and a fascination with the antiquities and artefacts produced by former civilizations. In this present collection, and particularly in paintings such as ‘Morning Invocation’, we have the sense that we are looking at an ancient frieze, a decorative wall fresco discovered in some long-lost Egyptian tomb. This impression is accentuated by the painter’s use of casein tempera that manages to suggest the techniques and appearance of those ancient creations. In the painting the five women lift their arms in a ritual entreaty of the morning sun, its strengthening rays almost subsuming them in its breaking light. This work also illuminates a wider characteristic of the work in the skilful way that Colin has employed a deliberate use of repetition which is simultaneously rendered with subtle differences. We sense perhaps the mystical influence of Sufism where all things are a shadow of an archetype. Again and again the figures of these paintings seem almost fused into a single living entity but yet each retains a characteristic sense of separation. This carefully plotted relationship between the characters imposes its own mysterious and resonant rhythm. The perfect balance of the women seems frozen in time yet paradoxically eternally blessed with life.

There are other visual influences at work in the collection. It is possible to see something of Poussin in the figurative compositions and a work such as ‘Song by the Pool’, for example, has perhaps conscious, or unconscious references, to ‘The Dance to the Music of Time’. In the smaller paintings we may also see echoes of Persian miniatures, both in their bright purity of colour and the placement of figures, or even to the predellas – the small paintings, mostly narrative in subject matter that often decorated the lower frame of Renaissance alter pieces.

The drawings on exhibition – executed in pencil, ink, charcoal and watercolour – offer us a rare insight into an artist at work, as he plays, experiments, and tries to solve the problems of composition, colour, tone and shape that will be resolved in the final work. That they are objects of beauty in themselves is a bonus.

As a writer I am drawn inevitably and inexorably to the narrative of the work and in its dream-like mysteries find a constant source of fascination. The paintings refuse to offer any prescriptive or predetermined reading, and in the imaginative freedom offered to the viewer, there is an unspoken invitation to step inside these worlds and explore the very essence of that mystery. I am also acutely conscious of the emotional resonances that permeate the work. In paintings such as ‘Girl Fleeing a Storm’ and ‘Unquiet Dream’ we are encountering a darker perspective, where the stiffened intensity of the limbs and the use of a more sombre colour range signal the disquiet and uncertainty of the unconscious. The black doorway of this latter painting fills us with apprehension as we ponder if it is the ultimate destination of the figures that almost involuntarily rush towards it. But despite the power of these images the emotion that reverberates through this collection as a whole is one of joy. This is a body of work that is celebratory, life enhancing and which offers the viewer a privileged glimpse into the transcendent. We want to walk in these gardens, bathe in the pools, even for a moment experience the regenerative blue light of these dreamscapes.

The sublime beauty of ‘Morning Invocation’ that speaks of the birth of life and hope is counterpoised by the equally beautiful ‘Evening Invocation’. This is the journey we all must make. The sadness of this inevitability, however, is tempered and softened by the quality of this new work which allows us to believe our allotted journey can be coloured by a richness of experience and achievement that is able finally to free us from the constraints of time itself.

David Park

David Park’s last novel, ‘The Truth Commissioner’, was awarded the 2008 Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize and in the same year he was awarded the American-Irish Literary Prize for his contribution to Irish Literature.