For his debut solo exhibition at The Molesworth Gallery, Tom Phelan combines his two great passions - art and surfing. The exhibition title, Quiver is surfing slang for a collection of boards of different sizes, shapes and vintages. The word also conjures the shimmering presence of his latest work - poised between the abstract and the real.
As he tackles the formal problems of abstraction - balancing colour, shape and composition into an unified whole - there are nods along the way to minimalism and colour-field painting. Underpinning each piece, however, is a visual reference to the sea or to surfing: the prow of a surfboard, a heaving sea-swell, a breaking wave. He works on Casani birch panels, using the grain of the wood to add texture and depth to the work and also to suggest the early wooden surfboards long since replaced by fibreglass.
All of the work is rooted in the real, in the artist’s personal experience. Six years ago, Phelan retired as studio manager and master printmaker at the Graphic Studio, Dublin, to concentrate on his own practice, after committing over twenty years to the renowned Dublin printworks. A move to Vienna followed, where he set up his own studio and returned to painting, as well as printmaking on a press kindly given to him by the family of his late friend Barry Flanagan, with whom he had worked closely.
The paintings in this show are a result of Phelan's obsession with the sea, his love of surfing and an acute, uneasy awareness of being landlocked in Central Europe. This most notably manifests itself in the series named Lipsticks, the name given to the first colourful fibreglass boards produced after World War II on the West Coast of America. Racks of surfboards -their colours, surfaces, fins and contours - prove an irresistible influence on the work, along with the ocean itself; both the rolling swell of the Pacific Blue as idealised in Surfer Magazine, and the gritty cold grey reality of the Atlantic off Ireland’s northwestern shore in January.
For the dedicated surfer is nothing if not hardy. Struggling into a wetsuit in a carpark in the wind and driving rain, the artist was often asked "You're not going out there in this weather, are you?"
The reply was always the same: "Sure I’m getting wet anyway”.