Helen O'Toole

Sazama Gallery

The atmosphere of the bog seems to permeate Helen O’Toole’s recent paintings. Determinedly and unmistakably Irish, in the tradition of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats, she views her homeland as a place of turmoil, as a nation deeply marked by a poignant struggle for a place in European history. It is in her attitude to nature that O’Toole finds the surest metaphor for her conception of Irishness, and in these avowedly romantic canvases she indulges a passion for a textured tenebrism suggestive of ineradicable sorrow. No specific place is represented in O’Toole’s work; indeed it is usually impossible to distinguish land, sky, and water from each other. Rather, a commitment to a charged and forlorn ambience lies at the end of her searches, a dreamy ruminative quality of place that finally derives much of its meaning from her handling of the materials of art.

Pagan Pilgrimage (all works 1992) is a painterly immersion in a cosmology of nature. Churning with stray passages of pictorial incident, the painting’s largely dark, greenish-brown atmosphere is pierced by areas of creamy-yellow light. Here and there O’Toole introduces just enough bits of pure color—touches of red, blue, and pink—to hint at a liveliness now etiolated and made somber, an intensity now diffused and absorbed into larger and moodier whirlpools. This seething ebb and flow of the forces of color recalls Turner, and O’Toole certainly works within an Anglo-Irish tradition of pensive and brooding landscape painting that includes the work of Jack Butler Yeats, the poet’s brother. In Expulsion at Dawn the pitch is much higher; rhythmic rivulets of gestures pour across O’Toole’s space with a terrible indistinctness that nonetheless doesn’t make the work seem abstract, but only more true. Abstract forces of nature as well as sweeping universal currents are posited as subtending patterns of existence and then transformed into a parallel world of paint. What begins as an emotional engagement with nature and belief shifts to an investigation of the esthetics and the materials of art, a battle fought, but never resolved, within these successive large canvases.

O’Toole seeks to discover and expose a kind of risky equivalence, a nervous balancing of pictorial forces that remains precarious. Light and dark areas achieve unreconciled saturations, forever gliding into each other, existing in an elliptical relationship not unlike that between land and sky. The liquidity of oil paint sets in motion this essay in point and counterpoint: O’Toole is adept at the overt stipple and the dry passage, the patient accretion of paint and the bolder bit of panache, making the drama and command in her application of paint a subject of great interest. Tones become shards of ambiguous vibratory emotions, delightful even when subsumed in multiple media. Echoing the often inchoate quality of nature, her paint surges toward mystery and hints at a kind of chiaroscuro of the spirit. This results in a world both deeply felt and surprisingly sweet and dour: in intimations of a place in which faith and doubt become forced companions, inevitably nourishing one another.

James Yood