From the Stars to the Studio
After we’d finished a dinner featuring what he described to me as a “traditional Irish tagine”, Ronnie Hughes asked me to step outside and have a look at something, which turned out to be the night sky above his house not far from Sligo. A confirmed urbanite, I hadn’t seen so many stars in years. The Milky Way was a dense trail of cloudy luminescence. As usual, my eye picked out the Big Dipper. Ronnie keeps a telescope, so he told me, and all you had to do was point it at any seemingly dark area of the sky and you’d see it was thick with stars.
I was happy to see all that, as happy as I was to head out of the chilly night and back indoors to another glass of good red wine, but it was only the next morning, in Ronnie’s studio, that I quite understood why I’d been standing under the starry sky the night before. Not that I believe he’d suggested the peek outdoors because he had his paintings in mind—well, I suspect he pretty much always has his art in mind, so let me rephrase that: Not that I believe he’d suggested the peek outdoors because he intended me to make a metaphorical connection with the paintings he was going to be showing me the next morning; no, he really just likes looking at the stars, and he likes sharing that pleasure too. But the connections are just there, to be noticed or not as the observer might find it useful or not.
At the simplest level, of course, the connection lies in the pleasure of looking: Ronnie likes looking at painting as he likes looking at the stars, and likewise he enjoys sharing that pleasure. Here the reader may fear that the author is descending into platitude—what painter, good, bad or indifferent doesn’t like looking at painting? I know, I know, but hear me out: If there’s one thing I’ve learned in more than twenty years as an art critic, it’s that the difference between a painter and me is not essentially in what he can do with his hands that I can’t, or what he knows about techniques and materials that I don’t; it’s how long he can sit there in a room with an unfinished painting, just looking at it. This seemingly simple activity of looking is of the essence.
Did I mention an unfinished painting? Yes, and the reason is that for the painter, that’s the case that counts. His studio will naturally contain finished paintings too, but it is only really to the critic, the one who is not at home in the studio but merely a guest, that they are finished. For the painter, even if he is sure he has no intention of doing any further work on a painting, it represents unfinished business. There is something in it he is still hoping to be able to use again, but differently. Remember what Matisse said: “I do not repudiate any of my paintings, but there is not one of them I would not redo differently if I had it to redo.”[i]
The painter’s way of looking teaches all of us that the best way of seeing a painting is to see it in two ways at once: to see what is there, and to see what might be there. And that brings us back—I hope you’re not surprised to hear it—to that sublime object, the starry sky. This presents itself to us as a vast dome of uncertain distance—not a space (as we have to understand it) but a surface; thus the ancients conceived of the heavens as a sphere surrounding that of the earth’s surface. The stars, then, appear to be punctual entities spread across a uniform surface; and from among these, the eye can make out a certain number of figures or pictograms. The constellations we are familiar with trace their origins to the ancient Greeks, but Chinese and Indian astronomers equally observed seemingly meaningful configurations of stars.
Of course, we now know that the stars that make up the constellations have no spatial relationship to one another except as seen from the essentially arbitrary viewpoint of an observer on an earth which, contrary to ancient belief, is nothing like the center of the cosmos. And still we can’t help seeing constellations in the night sky. They are what might be there. Within us resides something that can’t help seeing meaningful representations in arbitrary concatenations of spots.
That something within us, that something that inescapably emerges when we gaze at the stars—which most of us do too rarely—is the very thing that makes it possible for us to see paintings, and, a fortiori, to make paintings. It is the power that a painter like Hughes uses intensively as he spends his day in looking at a painting he is working on—or perhaps it would be better to say, in looking at something he can see may yet turn out to be a painting—and which an art-lover such as myself will use in spending a few minutes, or perhaps on a good day more than a few, looking at what the artist has presented as having fulfilled his expectation that it would be a painting. This something within us is the capacity for what the philosopher Richard Wollheim once dubbed“seeing-in” [ii]—the capacity for two-fold seeing whereby one can see simultaneously the physical characteristics of some marks on a surface, and what those marks add up to a picture of (and which is also the capacity to see both individual stars as discrete points of light and, say, Orion).
Wollheim developed his idea of “seeing-in” largely with respect to representational painting, and yet it may become more resonant and suggestive in the context of a certain variety of abstraction. What I have in mind is painting that is not hardcore nonrepresentation (or “concrete art,” as its continental proponents often used to call it) in which there would ideally exist no reference to any non-artistically-formed reality, but also not “abstracted from” reality in the manner of analytic cubism. Because his paintings do not fit into such models of abstraction, Hughes has even gone so far as to deny what might seem to be obvious, that his work is abstract.[iii] But there is still another sense of abstraction, and it is in this other realm that Hughes’s work takes form, I believe, and it is for this reason that it is particularly helpful to view his paintings with the sidereal dominion in mind.
The artist himself observed, several years ago, “In my recent paintings the process of making (doing and thinking) is a search for the ‘gestalt’ moment—the moment when a range of previously unrelated phenomena coalesce to forge a structure, a form, a meaning—an enlightenment.”[iv] What Hughes calls a gestalt is equivalent to what I am speaking of as a constellation. It is a speculative construction in that it is not given in advance; it is noticed in the pattern of things seen. What has become more and more apparent, in the precipitous advance of Hughes’s art in the five short years since he made the statement from which I’ve quoted, is that his paintings are not so much about the gestalt or constellation itself as about the moment in which it might crystallize—or equally might turn out to be a fabrication of the mind, a pure artifact of our perceptual apparatus, as the constellations in the sky turned out to be. Thus, the lines in a painting like Hypothesis have not formed a pattern, but it feels like there is an incipient pattern being formed among them as one contemplates the painting—and yet the pattern will never quite snap into place. In this sense, the painting appeals to the mind’s desire to establish a gestalt yet operates by resisting that desire, which only thereby becomes the subject of the painting. In Plexus, we do see stars of a sort—the flashes that occur where the pale lines cross. Yet the painting leaves us in a fine quandary about whether to understand these crossing points as significant compositional nodes, or simply as the by-product of choices taken quite independently of one another. There is much to “see in” these paintings, but what one sees in never quite solidifies.
Hughes’s recent paintings are full of such aspects of hovering uncertainty; what makes them so pleasurable is that they do not simply frustrate our desire to resolve the contents of a visual field into a gestalt or constellation but rather, they pacify that desire by offering a new fascination in place of its simple fulfillment. The workings of the mind and eye as they yield to the promptings of the visual cues supplied by the painting become its subject. Here is where the beauty of a painting and that of the night sky differ. Of course one wants to call the latter incomparable in any case, but the specifically relevant difference is this: Natural beauty is unintentional, truly in the eye of the beholder, but art is the product of a complex intention—and in the case of these paintings, that intention has been articulated through a subtle process that involves simultaneously cultivating and evading (or perhaps I should say, cultivating in part by evading) the form-finding urge that has invested them. In this, the painter shows himself to be something like a practical psychologist of perception. It has taken a lot of looking, then—at stars and at paintings and at much else besides—to make this work. And the more looking one can give back to them, the more deeply one enters into complicity with the painter’s task in them—the closer one gets to the painter’s pleasure in seeing the endless of painting, an always unfinished business.
[i] Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” in Jack Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, revised edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 37.
[ii] Richard Wollheim, Art and Its Objects, second edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
[iii] Conversation with Joseph Wolin, Ronnie Hughes: Synthesis (Sligo: Sligo Art Gallery, 2006), p. 5.
[iv] Ronnie Hughes: Lines of Desire (Belfast: Ormeau Baths Gallery, 2003), p. 5.