Adrian O’Connell – “Interstice” at The Engine Room March 2017


From time to time a body of work appears that makes an impression beyond mere liking or admiration. Work that stimulates some core region of thought and image that hovers, semi-conscious, in the mind of the viewer. I find such a body of work in the paintings of Adrian O’Connell on show at the Engine Room Gallery from March 2nd 2017 to Saturday April 1st.

Although Adrian has in the past concentrated on video and sculptural installation, he has more recently turned to paint for the conceptual and visual development of his artistic practice. It is the output of this painting practice that resonates so deeply for me.

The show in the Engine Room displays a series of paintings developed and executed over the last three or four years. The paintings are large, some of them almost heroic in scale, and very physical – in fact they are deliberately and intentionally sculptural. Adrian regards this body of work as being firmly rooted in his development as an installation sculptor and as being an extension of it. He is keenly aware of the material presence of the canvas plane and its relationship to both its supporting stretcher and the surrounding space. His way of making finished pieces by bolting canvases together (using hidden engineering bolts) speaks to his awareness of the paintings as physically assembled objects.

The paintings in the show combine three quite distinct and distinctive pictorial elements. First, we have the flatness of the coloured rectangles that form the bolted-on 'keys' or 'controllers' that influence the emotional tone of many of the smaller paintings. Each ‘controller’ is a resolutely level and pristine coloured plane - a trope that is carried on and reflected in their morphed descendants, the bars of the bar-code pieces.

Then we have what I would call 'projections' – painted Euclidean frames of reference that are marked out by films of dragged pigment and translated/rotated relative to each other. In these ‘projected’ frames the shapes seem to float free from the fixed aether of the background impasto onto which they are superimposed.

Lastly (and most importantly) we have the drawing itself, deeply incised into a thick layer of monochrome paint – more carved than drawn - and accentuated in places by the dragging of lighter paint across the peaks of the incised impasto.

The paintings present a solidity and presence that springs from their substantial physical form –  and they display a composed permanence that downplays the contingency of arrangement that the practice of installation embraces. However - it is also possible to regard this body of work (or at least a significant portion of it) as a sort of repository of installation components - a sort of personal installation kit with the individual pieces being capable of permutation and combination in ways that, in any given exhibition, can blur the boundaries between installation art and thoughtful self-curation.

I can't help thinking that Adrian quite deliberately makes use of painting's relationship to time. In distinction to the control of attention that is characteristic of film and video (its dictation of pace and time) painting allows the viewer’s attention to set its own pace, its own rhythm of awareness. We have in this body of work a division of surface that, for me anyway, embodies a more human image of time within its intricate, organic geometry. And it is organic, even though many of the paintings show obvious grids, the grids are not allowed to dictate or control, the ground is not a regular geometric grid or network but a hovering woven matrix of human motifs that come and go as our eye traverses. The visual rhythm is not that of a metronome – more like the dappled beat of a flow-of-consciousness narration.

But Adrian does not allow us (or himself) to stay lost in the intricacies of the drawing. It would be easy to mistake the mark-making as a version of the high-modernist gestural expression of a Jackson Pollock, or perhaps of the abstract spiritual calligraphy of a Mark Tobey, and indeed the drawing is expressive and exquisitely calligraphic in places – but the attached monochromatic bars and the superimposed geometric ‘projections’ act as ironist devices that bracket-off any hint of expressionism. These devices form a cognitive curtain, an epoché, that cools the work down and encourages us to interpret the marks in a more dispassionate way, as carrying abstract meaning. Adrian’s painting (carving) method is interesting in this light. He draws multiple layers of personal motifs by incising deeply into the thick base layer of monochrome oil paint. This superimposing of content upon content progressively subtracts from the discernibility of the motifs that are already there (and those that are being created). The adding of layer upon layer to produce a sort of unrubbed palimpsest acts on us like the blurred murmur of a waiting audience that suggests the presence of a thousand conversations but allows us to hear not one. It is figuration hidden in plain sight – suggesting the anonymity and camouflage of the crowd.

In the bar-code pieces, we see a reference to one of our most ubiquitous contemporary cultural tropes. The concreteness of the bars, with each bar capable of acting either as an independent painting or as part of a combined piece, becomes a sort of gravity-well that pulls the concreteness of classical minimalism into close contact with contemporary cultural reference. The Judd-like minimalism of the bars refers us to a technology (both hard and soft) that exists to automate and algorithmize our individual economic transactions. It is not too hard to see barcodes as part of the inexorable replacement of direct human intercourse by the sort of impersonal virtual interaction that is made easy by computer technologies. It occurs to me that each beep of the checkout scanner in a supermarket is a version of the spit and handshake of the horse trader, or an electronic chirp replacing the physical crack of the auctioneer's hammer, or even as a punctuation like the animated striking of one hand against the other in the stylised disputation of Tibetan Buddhist monks - deal agreed, contract formed, point made - done. It can be an equivalent for any of these, but one that is sanitised and depersonalised – standardised efficiency at the expense of personal contact.

The ‘projection’ pieces, some of them reminiscent of searchlight beams playing horizontally across the heads of a milling throng of people, suggest arbitrary division – perhaps the fateful division of those caught in the glare from those who are safe in the shadow. Or perhaps they suggest a different sort of division, a conceptual partitioning due to a strategy of rigid categorisation – a partitioning that, like the bar code, permits efficient stereotyping and thus facilitates social prediction and control. Either way, the rigid Euclidean shapes pay no heed whatsoever to the carved marks on which they are imposed. Just as each of the bolt-on monochrome rectangles could simply be unbolted and replaced with a different and unrelated monochrome, so we can easily imagine each of the Euclidean projections being painted out and replaced by an alternative.

This show is unashamedly abstract, the work is formally beautiful in a way that has been sniffed at for decades and is still only provisionally acceptable even in our pluralist art world. But it is abstractly meaningful.  In it Adrian works indirectly, abstractly, with ideas of control, influence and alienation. He works with a purity of intent, a single minded (but not simple minded) commitment to an intuitive but rigorous process of research-through-making.  It is an abstract visual realisation of pre-verbal ideas that are more socio/political than spiritual or expressionist. These paintings are essentially conceptual, but emphatically not an attempt to illustrate some pre-determined concept. They are the outcome of ongoing investigation that, to use philosopher and critic Arthur Danto's distinction, embodies rather than illustrates. This is work that, though it might seem strange to say given the intricacy of the drawing, shares much of the immediacy of minimalism, but it is also work that manages to inject a richness of reference that most minimalist art missed.

Des Edwards

Feb 2017