Seán Shanahan

This suite of twelve paintings was produced in response to an invitation to present a site-specific installation in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. Originally the vision of Irish picture dealer Hugh Lane, the Municipal Gallery remained a dream for many years after Lane’s early death on the ill-fated Lusitania. The gallery’s collection, the core of which is constituted by a number of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings bequeathed by Lane, was finally housed in an eighteenth-century town house in central Dublin that was built by James Caulfeild, First Earl of Charlemont, in 1765 specifically to accommodate paintings. In the early ’90s the gallery’s position as Ireland’s principal repository for modern and contemporary art was usurped by the newly established Irish Museum of Modern Art. More recently it has become the permanent home of Francis Bacon’s reconstructed Reece Mews studio.

Seán Shanahan’s exhibition “Vidar” was the latest in a series of temporary exhibitions situated in a suite of four second-floor rooms. A Dublin-born painter based in Italy, Shanahan borrowed his exhibition’s title from the steamship on which the nomadic young Joseph Conrad served as first mate, as recounted in The Shadow-Line, his 1917 memoir. The shadow line, for Conrad, was that boundary over which one crosses into maturity, and Shanahan evidently regarded the show as marking a certain coming of age as well as a return to home ground.

The show benefited significantly from a meticulously orchestrated and seductive complementarity between stillness and movement. While the color, proportions, and scale of the individual paintings varied notably, the compositional format was absolutely consistent. In each case a rectangular block of MDF (medium-density fiberboard), whose top and bottom edges were planed back at an acute angle, was painted almost in its entirety in a relatively undifferentiated color, with a narrow band of unpainted support left at both the right and left edges of the painting, stretching from top to bottom. The deliberate and subtle asymmetry typical of Shanahan’s paintings up until now, their general accommodation of surface imperfections and assorted pentimenti, has here given way to a less obviously dynamic and more serene form of picture making. Shanahan himself has characterized this development as a reduction of the individual paintings’ narrative dimension through which the presence of color is thoroughly liberated. This sense of liberation is reflected in the faint optical shimmer that overflows into immaterial space from the sharp, unbounded edges at the top and bottom of the picture plane. The narrative dimension reasserted itself somewhat, however, in the titling as well as in the dynamics of display. The names of certain paintings, such as sea, pearl, and coral (all works 2002), extended the nautical metaphor and charted a course though the four interlinking rooms, whose different scale, proportions and ambient light contrast considerably. Yet other titles, such as you’re dead and you’re dead II, mischievously undermined the atmosphere of processional serenity as if to indicate that, despite the works’ undeniable intensity and poise, both individually and collectively, oversolemnity was to be avoided at all cost.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith