by Fiachra Gibbons, former Arts Correspondent with The Guardian
These are the traces that memory leaves on canvas. Close your eyes and try to remember key moments in your life. Remember how we tried to guard those moments, hold onto that image or that face, and how we constantly had to remake them to stop them blurring away into the infinity of everything else we have ever seen? What we end up with is an image of what we felt rather than how it was. What we are remembering is feeling, whose colour and depth is in the end just as real as the actual images we saw when the photocells crossed our retinas.
In fact, as Bridget O’Rourke shows here, visual memories can even be more intense, more lustrous, more true. O’Rourke’s work is an inspired pursuit of memory and memories, a working and reworking of what happened and what was felt till she arrives at something essential. These pictures, drawn from the last five years of her work, are both a meditation on the memory of feeling and our vain attempts to disinter and disentangle emotion and memory.
“Visual memory is both fascinating and difficult. If you look at something for a long time, and then you close your eyes and look at a white wall you see an after-image that shimmers in front of you. Visual memories are like that. When a lived image becomes a memory it becomes a kind of half tone in our mind that can sometimes be better than the actual image itself because it is the essence of the memory. In some ways that is what I am after.”
Her paintings are a kind of archaeology, intense internal landscapes that are the product of a search - one that sometimes goes on for years on a single canvas - for the authentic, for an answer. The paint goes on in layer after layer and then comes off again, getting scraped and wiped away and reworked. Just like a memory, the painting changes in front of us, comes into focus and slips away from us just when we think we have arrived at something real, and then the whole process starts again till in the end something is found.
“Often there are many underpaintings. I tend to use the canvas as my sketch. It is more truthful that way I think. The versions that don’t work I cover over, so if you scrape it down all its history becomes apparent. In some of the work in this exhibition, that archaeology goes down through sixty layers of paint.”
These paintings are the product of an infinite patience, and their meditative charge increases the longer you spend with them. Like Mark Rothko, Sean Scully or Gerhard Richter, whose effect on O’Rourke’s work is clear, she has been heavily influenced by religious art, in her case from her Irish Catholic childhood in America and her early fascination with Michelangelo. For her, however, it was the discovery of how religious art is used almost universally as a tool for meditation, from Buddhist and Hindu mandalas to Catholic and Byzantine madonnas, that opened a door into what was going on underneath the surface of the paint, in the realm of the unseen, where the real magic is happening.
“If you look at early religious icons and see the way they were painted through all the chipped and peeling paint, you begin to see all the colours underneath, like the pure red under the gold that gives it that shimmer and lift. What is going on underneath is where all the light is coming from. The god or the saint or the figure on top is important, but it is not where the light is coming from. It is coming from the background colour and the whole materiality that is supporting the figure - everything that is behind and within. It is the background that gives the figure its sense of worthiness and presence that you feel when you first look at it, and that holds your eye even if you don’t know who the saint is or what story the picture is supposed to be telling.”
“It is the same thing with visual memories. It is the mental imprint they leave, that after-image that is the really interesting thing. The scientific research around this, particularly about perception and psychological projection is summed up by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who said, ‘More directly than any other dimension, depth forces us to reject the preconceived notion of the world and rediscover the primordial experience from which it springs: it is, so to speak, the most existential of all dimensions, [. . .].’1 Depth and depths are what link all of my work.”
Yet there is great technique here too, particularly in the mixing and application of paint in what she calls her “unnameable colours”, colours that are so of themselves and the moment of their making that like memory they can never really be reproduced. O’Rourke never takes the shortcut through the chill minimalism of pure colour. Even her Japanese series, playful and decorative almost in its joy and lightness, is made of her own fantasy primary colours. There is a strong calligraphic quality here too, which you will find right through her work and particularly in her ‘stripe paintings’, each gesture charged, so that “some of the paintings that seem the fastest were the slowest to produce… Even if they take months to do I like to give the feel that they were done very quickly, that they are very fresh and vivid.”
Hers is a hard-won minimalism, one that comes through stripping down and paring back to the essentials, much like Samuel Beckett, one of her intellectual heroes. Like his work, her’s has a warm, lived reductiveness. It speaks. “A lot of minimalist art does not have a heart to it,” she feels. “For it to work and to have intensity it has to be the most minimum gesture on canvas that will still speak. That is when it is really beautiful and touching and powerful.” Her love of diptychs and triptychs comes out of marrying minimalism with the need to go deeper, to question. Most of the work you see in this show are conversations, puzzles really, each working off the other, interrogating, illuminating, darkening its neighbour, pointing up differences. O’Rourke wants their meditative nature to win out, transporting, transcending the viewer into another realm. Look long enough and you will see her figurative past coming out from the depths of the paint. Rain, cages, figures on the far horizon, families, genes, bar codes, hidden vistas, sudden unexpected landscapes and here and there the glimmer of coming light… or is it fading? We sometimes don’t know if we are at the beginning or the end of something, but like the best poetry they have the power to stop you dead and hold you in an instant in time. Each is a journey to take - they are in fact whatever we want to project onto them. In that way too, they are just like memories.
Fiachra Gibbons, former Arts Correspondent for The Guardian, Paris, April 2010
Bridget is a Paris-based MFA graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. She has shown in the Royal Hibernian Academy Annual Exhibition in Dublin in 2007 and 2009, at Galleria Facsimile in Milan, at the Lanitis Foundation in Nicosia, Cyprus (as part of the In Transition Exhibition), and at KGB in Paris.