Frank Phelan and Donal Moloney

Wandesford Quay Gallery, Cork

This fourth exhibition to be presented at the Wandesford Quay Gallery, previously the Fenton Gallery and re-opened this summer under the auspices of Crawford College of Art and Design, provokes some prickly questions for a contemporary art review sheet. These questions are framed by huge pre-existing (and still open) ones: Why make paintings now? What extra claims are made for a painting when it is presented as art, and what additional demands have been placed on both artist and viewer by that discursive framework? Can a good painting be bad art, and if so, then why? At what point might the process of working through a particular pictorial idiom become its mere repetition? Are there different art worlds, and what rules and pressures govern each one?
Firstly, the return of this bright, beautiful exhibition space should be celebrated as a significant contribution to the art viewing opportunities available in Cork, and an excellent platform for CCAD to reach the city’s exhibition-going public. This show presents the work of two painters: Frank Phelan, born in 1930s, and Donal Moloney, born in 1980s. The former was involved first-hand in the development of Modernist painting in Britain, and kept studios in London and St. Ives during the 1960s, befriending the likes of Patrick Heron and Roger Hilton. The latter, at least two generations younger, is a recent graduate from both CCAD and the Slade School of Fine Art, London. The two artists, needless to say perhaps, take up quite different positions with regard to the tradition of modern art, and the possibility of producing paintings now.
Phelan’s relatively large acrylic and charcoal easel paintings continue to invoke the tradition of English Modernism, and the work of Peter Lanyon and Roger Hilton in particular. The pictures combine gestural energy, which arrives in contained passages of charged brushwork, with broader, flatter fields of colour. At their best, the paintings are both spatially ambiguous and aesthetically dynamic, with areas of little incident punctuated by the insertion of bold colours and crude yet measured charcoal marks, not unlike those of Hilton (although there is no hint of the latter’s crazier outbursts here). The aesthetic rewards of these pictures are given metaphorical inflection by their titles (Vessel, Nude, and Kite, for example), suggestive of an evocation of the qualities of phenomena, rather than of their appearance.
Moloney’s work is smaller in scale and less assertive. It does not pack the same aesthetic punches as Phelan’s canvases, but neither, perhaps, does it aim to. Moloney presents two main types of picture: firstly, there is a series of busy, intricate and fragmented surfaces, like a splintered patchwork, or a tangle of broken multicoloured threads. Secondly, there is a set of boards on which it seems that pools of thinned acrylic paint have been left to dry out. The resulting ovoid residues float in space, their fragile boundaries having nevertheless been precisely formed in a slow, nonhuman process of evaporation. The emphasis here, then, is on an exploration of different processes of production, their relationship to time and to authorial agency.

Frank Phelan: Grey/Blue (2009). Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Frank Phelan: Grey/Blue (2009). Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Does this show aim to confront the question of how painting might go on as a cultural form still capable of responding meaningfully to contemporary conditions? There are clearly many possible modes of such response, and painters continue to demonstrate the huge resource that the history of the medium affords in sustaining powerful new contributions. When the paintings in the present exhibition are attended to as art, then the burden of such a self-reflexive engagement with the history and conventions of that practice is implied. The achievements and narratives of art history loom up, offering a testing measure against which new efforts are set. A whole history of the invention, exploration and, perhaps, exhaustion of pictorial problems and idioms spreads out. This last issue of the exhaustion of painting was crucial to the dismantling of the Modernist paradigm in the 1950s and 1960s, and an opening onto an ‘expanded field’ of practice.

Whether or not one supports such ‘expansions’, the point is that pictorial styles and forms are historical, and so a question that such an exhibition as this leaves is: why this particular mode, now? This impressive new space will enable the Crawford College to demonstrate its agenda; Cork eagerly awaits more indications of what the current stakes of art are for the city’s major art school.

Frank Phelan and Donal Moloney was on show at Wandesford Quay Gallery, 13 September – 2 October 2010.