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The Tyranny of Ambition


Mr Bayfield, I am a serious

pianist. I have ambition. I…

ST. CLAIR BAYFIELD Oh, you think I didn’t have ambition? I was a good actor. But I was never going to be a great actor. It was very hard to admit that to myself. But once I had, I felt free from the tyranny of ambition. I started to live. Is ours not a happy world, Cosmé? Do we not have fun?

Florence Foster Jenkins, Dir. Stephen Frears, 2016

My intention as a practising painter and curator of this exhibition is to share with a wider audience some fascinating, delightful and not so-well known recent and contemporary painting from Ireland and the UK. Work by painters with whom you may or may not be familiar making the kind of painting that attempts to challenge orthodoxy and frustrate – if not subvert – expectations. The kind of painting that doesn’t rely upon celebrity approval or box-ticking thematic curating. Paintings that I, as a painter, regard as genuinely ambitious. Ambitious for the work, that is.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Samuel Beckett

The title of this exhibition was confirmed whilst watching Stephen Frears’ remarkable biopic Florence Foster Jenkins. The signal moment came when one of the central characters declares that once he

had confronted what he referred to as ‘the tyranny of ambition’ –

only then could he truly start to live; to be happy. A sentiment with which, as a painter, I heartily agree. Age and experience have

caused me to abandon my search (conscious or otherwise) for approval, I’ve learnt to ‘set my own agenda’ – to acknowledge my intentions and pursue them diligently.

At the height of the late modernist movement ambition in painting was measured (literally) in metres – the larger the painting, the greater the ambition. That these paintings now only exist in corporate foyers or airport lounges testifies to their ultimate purpose as the visual equivalent of ‘elevator music’. Some ambition.

The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.

Robert Hughes

This doesn’t mean surrendering to complacency, but the realisation of the importance of intentions; and an acknowledgement that

they will differ profoundly from ambition. And differ they do; ambition is broadly regarded as a manifestation of ego, a desire for acknowledgement, approval, status and material wealth. Intention on the other hand is an expression of a very different and more profound desire that signals a shift in values. A shift that involves a rejection of the dominant market-driven model. Replacing it with a more enquiring, generous and intelligent form of discourse.

As ambition drives us to do the things, we think we ought to do, so ambition drives artists to be the kind of artist they think they ought to be – or WANT to be. Intention invariably transcends ambition because it has the potential to enable us to become the artist we NEED to be.

A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer. Seneca

Ambition is invariably strategic, calculating and acquisitive. Many years ago, the art market colonised the art world and now it is ambition – as defined by the market – that drives much art. As a practitioner I have to accept this. Nonetheless, I’m constantly striving to acknowledge my intentions – to reach a fuller understanding of

my practice. It’s been my experience that ambition has invariably hindered that process.

This exhibition is an attempt to address that predicament. To move away from ‘brand’ – what the Australian critic Robert Hughes

referred to as ‘People buying with their ears, rather than their eyes’. Another aspect of this shift is recognition of the place that generosity should occupy in art.

I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Which brings me to an important factor in this exhibition and a

key aspect of the selection process. Some years ago, I wrote an essay entitled I don’t LIKE art 1 . In short, I want everyone who visits this exhibition to take the time to look at the work in the show and instead of asking themselves whether they like it or not. Instead – to ask themselves ‘What do I think about this object? And why?’

Looking at painting should generally arouse curiosity, refection

and empathy. It’s of no consequence whether I or anyone else approves, disapproves or even ‘likes’ it. Painting and art more widely should impact our consciousness and not simply be a mirror for our ignorance and our prejudices – or an expression of our approval or disapproval.

1 – and click on Texts

Almost two hundred years ago at the height of the enlightenment, painters like Turner, et al. reinvented painting. It would no longer be merely a state of affairs but a state of mind. Thirty or forty years later photography would cement this cultural shift.

You should listen to your heart, and not the voices inside your head.

Marge Simpson

Intention and its problematic sibling – authenticity – have been absent from debates about contemporary art practice for too long. That’s due in part to the uncertainty and irony that accompanied much postmodern culture; causing a temporary retreat – if not abandonment – of notions of authenticity. The emergence over the last twenty or more years, of what has become referred to as post-conceptual painting, challenges that.

The dominance of the art market has fostered a moderately

sophisticated yet insidious form of censorship to flourish. Which along

with a systemic decline in academic standards has encouraged the

idea that painting is no different from illustration. Strange as it may

seem, no one goes to painting to be informed. Painting may have

the potential to be transformational; but seldom, if ever informative.

To ignore this is to ‘miss the point’. Some of the best painting can be simultaneously fascinating and irritating; even downright disturbing.

As far as I’m concerned certainty has no place in any discussion of

painting – let alone art. I think Ludwig Wittgenstein had it about right

when he suggested that art is an ‘open concept’ – meaning that

any attempt at a definition is futile.

Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity. T.S. Eliot

The paintings that I have selected for this show vary wildly in intention and appearance and is an acknowledgement of the healthy

pluralism that characterises so much contemporary painting.

Nonetheless, as a painter, I’m convinced that all the paintings in the exhibition are in one sense or another distinguished.

And one of the most distinguished is the painting of the Carrigfadda Forest by the painter and archaeologist Paul Ringrose who died in

2019. Paul’s painting depicts in a powerful and uncompromising

manner the damage sustained by Carrigfadda Forest in West Cork

during Storm Ophelia in 2017.

In his moving testimony2 to the destructive power of nature which

Paul wrote shortly before his death, he manages to avoid what John Ruskin referred to as the ‘pathetic fallacy’. Paul leaves us a profound and poignant legacy in both image and word.

Tracy White Fitzgerald’s painting of a designer bentwood chair is a seemingly effortless mixture of languages; that of image and pattern.

In this joyful painting Tracy has created the illusion of a plausible but fictitious space by directly combining the patterned, naked linen

and the illusionistic chair – to startling effect.

Sarah Dwyer’s sensual and extravagant paintings appear to be wrestling with appearances. Elements mingle in a way that’s tantalisingly ambiguous; but somehow never vague. Colour is unbound and unattached, drifting amongst the various forms. It’s as

if the boundaries between the experience of the body and sense of place have collapsed into each other – and become one.

Jack Hickey’s photorealist Hicksville exudes a wonderful stillness – and so much ‘air’. This is one of those remarkable paintings that makes the invisible – visible. As we look up, what do we see? Not

just a water tower. But a water tower immersed in light, space –

and time. The illusion of light and time of day are palpable – you’d

imagine you could ‘set your watch by it’.

2 Paul Ringrose’s essay Carrigfadda and Me.

The paintings of Susie Hamilton are visually stunning. Her paintings represent a rare and precarious synthesis. They also exhibit a startling immediacy that’s endowed with an acute intelligence. I think Susie

puts it beautifully when she says of her paintings ‘I encourage paint

to curdle, ooze, creep and flow in order to undo or corrode the

image.’ Isn’t that why we love painting?

David Wiseman manages to produce sumptuous paintings that are simultaneously celebratory and contemplative. His brush strokes

appear to float and tumble around each other in a luminous

arabesque. His is a rare accomplishment, one that transcends

common notions of beauty by creating the illusion of light – and air. Visual alchemy.

John Stark’s exquisitely executed paintings bring a contemporary sensibility to the meditative and the esoteric. I’m fairly certain that

few ecclesiastics ever received neon messaging. Echoes of Omar Khayyam’s epic poem The Rubaiyat – ‘The moving finger writes; and, having writ: Moves on:’

Joanna Whittle confirms in breath-taking fashion something I mentioned earlier; that when it comes to ambition, large paintings must be regarded with a degree of scepticism. Her utterly

compelling and highly wrought miniatures speak volumes – an illustration of exquisitely judged intention. Tiny jewels.

Niamh Porter’s wonderfully still and thoroughly compelling

monochromatic ‘bathroom’ painting is a brilliant mixture of

the exquisite and the ethereal – the parochial and other

worldly. Her painting delivers one of paintings eternal and finest accomplishments: to present us with the familiar rendered thoroughly unfamiliar, as seen for the first time. Exquisite.

Gabhann Dunne’s painting of his daughter is sumptuous. He has managed to get the paint to become an active partner in the

process of painting. One moment the paint is opaque and the next

it’s so transparent we can see the drawing beneath. Gabhann

captures the spirit of the painting when he describes his daughter as

‘left alone in her thoughts, opaque and independent.’ Spot on.

I’m pretty sure that if Samuel Beckett were still around to see Manar

al Shouha’s shifting, transparent paintings he would have approved. Manar’s apparently prosaic scenes put one in mind of not only the demimonde of Beckett’s Watt but also the rather ethereal works of Louis Le Brocquy which were much admired by Beckett.

Judith Tucker’s gloriously luminous, crepuscular paintings of the Humberston Fitties are sympathetic depictions of a marginal place in failing light. But although they may be sympathetic, they exhibit an uneasy and tense quality. Beneath the surface of Judith’s paintings

lurks imagery that when it emerges is tenuous, partial and brittle. The Fitties is one of those places that carries the weight of identity – and attendant memories. Brilliant.

Mollie Douthit’s paintings are thoroughly intimate and utterly

unassuming meditations upon selfhood. States of mind. A delicious

mix of reflection, confessional and wry humour. It takes courage

to make something so tentative – so spare. Mary and Barb is

marvellously incongruous – simultaneously witty and moving. Quite stunning.

Eileen O’Sullivan’s A Room of Possibilities is just that, a fascinating cornucopia of beginnings – of things partial: gestures, daubs, propositions and proposals. A frenzy of false starts. This is the sort of painting that embraces its gestation. Anyone who’s ever attempted

to paint will immediately understand this remarkable picture.

The late Ken Kiff’s barnstorming Talking to a Psychoanalyst: Night Sky is probably one of the most important and influential paintings

of the late 20th century. Touched as it is by allusions to Freud et al channelled through Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

– and much more. What also marks this painting out as significant is

the way in which Ken employs elements of expressionism in such a tender and understated manner.

Maria Emilov’s remarkable and precarious painting appears to

echo something of the post war ‘Ecole de Paris’ movement. Maria explores an improvised and edgy sort of painting that echoes

the kind of angularity and dissonance synonymous with the

music of Ornette Colman and Pharoah Sanders. The paint seems simultaneously atomised and animated – as if dancing.

Geraint Evans’ wonderfully perplexing painting depicts a familiar
yet parallel world in which men and women are involved in some
faintly familiar but unspecified activity or ritual. He painstakingly
portrays a society – that simply isn’t. Geraint’s world is one in
which even light behaves unpredictably – a world that’s as utterly
compelling as it is opaque.

Stephen Dunne is a truly remarkable painter. His paintings are
among some of the most joyful and life affirming I’ve seen. He
manages to balance an air of wonder with a cultivated knowledge
of our wider culture. It takes more courage to display genuine
sensitivity and generosity of spirit than it does the desire for
sophistication. Stephen’s is an effortless synthesis of the classic and
the romantic. Absolutely timeless.

Claire Kerr’s paintings are utterly mesmerising. They lure us in by virtue
of their seeming modesty. But their apparent simplicity is deceptive
and ultimately disarming. Claire, like Joanna Whittle, employs a
studied form of understatement to great effect. Her paintings allow

us a glimpse of a world that at first appears orderly but on closer

inspection is anything but. Captivating.

Lara Viana’s paintings are some of the most accomplished and
influential of her generation. These transparent, almost luminous
works, are visually exquisite. Looking at Lara’s paintings is a
thoroughly mesmerising experience. Just as the spectator begins
to unravel the painting the mystery is compounded. Elements
constantly dissolve and then condense. This is painting at its most
elusive and elastic.


Graham Crowley, Painter, November 2022

I’d like to thank all the painters and collectors who’ve kindly lent
paintings and made this exhibition possible. I must also thank the staff
at The Highlanes Municipal Art Gallery who’ve worked so diligently to
mount this exhibition.
And finally, a special thank you to Aoife Ruane, the Director of
Highlanes Gallery, who entrusted me with the responsibility of
curating this exhibition.

*To view the document in full, please click on the PDF link at the top of the page.

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