Peter Burns: The Living Eye. Hillsboro Fine Art Gallery

We are garnering some strong painterly talent in Ireland today and I am happy to say that figuration is not lost. Far from this being an outmoded form of representative painting, the figure now serves as emoticon in the best possible way. The artist Peter Burns is now showing at Hillsboro Gallery in an exhibition that runs until 22nd March. Burns whom I had previously seen in the 2013 Kinsale Arts Festival suffered (as did they all) because of the layout of that exhibition. The tight spacing between very similar exhibitions and the choice of analogous practice did nothing for the works featured. What Burns probably needs is (as is the case here – though admittedly not always an option), a solo showing, or to be paired with more minimal sculptures; as we saw in The Carny recently with the figurative paintings of Genevieve Figgis.

There is something awkwardly Guston-like (also represented by Hillsboro) about Burns’ paintings, and I have to admire his tenacity; often figurative work that invokes humour can too easily lead to cartoon. Though not aesthetically “beautiful” in the common sense of that word, the works have an allure all their own. What interests me in particular is the heavy impasto work; sometimes applied so thickly it is reminiscent of Yeats’ practice, so heavy in-fact that lumps of oil paint hold debris against the canvas. Which is unusual given the precise nature of the work. Though these lumps appear haphazard, the time necessary for each layer of oil to dry would take days. At other points, particularly when a figure emerges, one can see that the paint is applied very sparingly. Sometimes using just a single line. It is as if the more fanciful “dream-like” elements of the work are purposefully left as an impression. These elements seem to have been added rather quickly at the end of a very exhaustive practice.

I would not point to Surrealism here simply because of the deliberate didacticism within the format. I think the practice emerges thoughtfully and with a rigour that defies, certainly automaticism, but also the more dream-like figuration of the Surrealists. The works here reminded me more of the sublime painters of the American West – exploratory and wild and, though never at the core of the work, the figure is defiantly present; making the work at once awesome and conquerable.

I am always fascinated by Hillsboro Fine Art Gallery on Parnell Square. With a stable of artists that includes Gerhard Richter and Mark di Suvero (no less), it maintains its inclusive approach to the viewer and I have never left that gallery without having a lovely chat with one of its staff members. It is wonderful to see something so of-the-moment in Irish art in this space. Long may it continue.

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