catalog essays

Between Earth and Sky
Stuart Shils, Coastal Gouaches, Tibor De Nagy Gallery
November 6 – December 23, 2005
Green Shade Publishing 2005

Painting along the coast of NW Mayo, from summer to summer, I tend to forget how much time can be spent sitting in the car or behind other windows waiting for rain to pass, watching the light in this luminous fishbowl lens of an airspace shift through an expanse of land and sea. No place reveals itself easily, directly or quickly, but the temperamental atmospherics of Mayo really test the limits of patience. It’s a potent and volatile range of contrasting mood—from pale and shrill to dark and deeply resonant—all of which must be absorbed and digested… slowly, with repeated and sustained exposure. So time spent waiting and looking, away from making oil paintings, is still fertile perceptually and a critical part of the orientation. Watching / absorbing that assault of light and water, that stampede of air consuming and demolishing in its rush the visual world of solid mass, rendering everything ephemeral and transitory, the line between earth and sky dissolved— all this tunes and keys a state of receptivity.

Drawing on paper, whether with pencil, charcoal, ink, or gouache, offers me much needed time away from the formality and occasionally intimidating self-consciousness of “the easel”, and is often the big earth mover, the tool I use for entering the thicket and clarifying the seeing. During early trips to this coast I drew casually and rapidly with graphite outside at night and during storms when painting was difficult. More recently I rediscovered gouache—fast drying, slippery and portable compared to oil, with a very different tactile bit into itself and into the paper; and limited working time before setting up and drying, forcing an aggressiveness in attack compatible in spirit with the erratic intensity of this landscape. These particular gouaches are part of an extended set done in the studio or near a window (for a sense of the sky’s light), mulling over visual thoughts and encounters lodged in the eye’s mind, moments whose memory faded slowly, elaborations on a handful of motifs that have been preoccupations for a few years out in the field.

Even when right out in front of things with brush in hand, a million bits of information and fact dancing temptingly and distractingly before the eyes, when turning back to the working surface, it’s the layering, editing and reconstruction of memory that informs compositional decisions: memory of what was seen just then, two days ago, two weeks ago. Regardless of whether outside or in the studio, ambition is to stay honed in the visual moment sustaining perceptual unity, even though making the drawing or painting requires the passing of time that often erodes the force of initial impact or memory of impact.

Compressing this unwieldy theatre of perception, pigment, fact and interpretation into the confines of 3 x 3 5/8 inch pieces of paper emphasizes an important paradoxical crux—that enigmatic relationship between what is “out there” and the graphic priorities of drawn or painted space—as an issue of scale, not size. The painter cannot compete literally or physically with the size and bluster of nature, and does not need to. Graphic commentary on things seen “out there” and on states of mind in response to what is was seen, drawing (and painting) ultimately makes reference to itself. Within that visual narrative, what kinds of walks are the eyes taken on, what are the prevailing complexions of color and moods of tone, and how does the language of the brush direct focus—in this case, within pigment dispersed in water floating on off-white paper?

Stuart Shils Ballycastle, Summer 2005