Liverpool

Ian McKeever

Walker Art Gallery

After hovering between drawing and photography, Ian McKeever has turned to painting with his “Night Flak” series, organized with the discipline of a conceptual piece. For his six paired panels, inspired by the German Romantic poet Novalis’ Hymns to the Night, he chose canvases as large as he could encompass with arms outstretched. Then he prepared himself like a Method actor. To accustom himself to dark spaces he learned potholing; Novalis had been a student of mining. He got into the habit of painting at night, working from dusk to dawn without lights. The intention was not to learn to manage without daytime vision, but rather to exploit the emotional vulnerability caused by disorientation and lack of sleep. The second panel of Solitary Is the Place suggests a testing of perimeters, like the prowling of a caged animal. Yet help is at hand. “Aside I turn to the holy, ineffable Night,” wrote Novalis in his first Hymn, “Far below lies the world, sunken in a profound pit: waste and solitary is its place.” In the first panel the paint skids as it is flung in curves; mapping seems to have given way to rhythmic activity. This contrast between a first painting in thick impasto, perhaps with incipient forms in brighter colors, and a second, more graphic “drawing” against a white ground is maintained throughout the series, a reminder of the different responses which day and night demand.

Despondent at the death of his 16-year-old fiancée, Novalis experienced a vision at her graveside, recounted in a straightforward flashback in his third Hymn, corresponding to McKeever’s Twilight Shudder, the only one of the series not shown in Liverpool. From that time onward he welcomed night as his link with the lost girl, finally as his means of accepting her death and death in general. Evening Dawn Shows Gray, with its second panel of hanging blossoms, and the first panel of Mark Glad Departure’s Day, in which Novalis’ intoxicant poppies burst forth from the gloom of a dark composition, both convey the shudder of excitement the poet feels as he rhapsodizes on death in the final Hymn. Panel Two of the latter, resembling a mapped cave or the ample curve of an absent bedmate, shows how far McKeever has come. By There Was but One Thought——from Novalis’ fifth Hymn, a meditation on the age-old fear of death—sheer happiness surges through both panels, as natural images rise unbidden and the distinction between diurnal and nocturnal is entirely overthrown.

No narrative can be discovered either in the order of the paintings or the process of their making. The “representation” that informs them hinges on an act of faith which does demand reference to the spine their chosen text provides, however. The relationship between the emotions and the paint on the one hand and the developing spiritual awareness in the Hymns on the other is far from straightforward, something like the relationship between the physical and mental aspects of yoga. It would be unfortunate to regard this rethinking of mimesis as a lapsed belief in what paint can embody; a more fruitful approach might emphasize the ability to subvert the terms of existing arguments altogether. Whether the “Night Flak” paintings are the by-product of some hackneyed sensory-deprivation performance or a type of visual program music, or even illustration (the final taboo), is less important than their power to prove that a raddled tradition of British neo-New York School formalism, often misunderstood from the outset, can be sabotaged and renewed by the acceptance of conceptual armatures.

Stuart Morgan