Stuart Shils in Conversation With Vera Ryan
Ballycastle, Co. Mayo, 22nd August, 2001
The Mayo Paintings, Fenton Gallery, Cork, Ireland
November 16 – December 5, 2000
Do you adjust easily to coming to Ballycastle after being in Philadelphia?
Every trip is like a courtship. It’s like a couple who are engaged and then separate and then come back together. I can never leap back to just where I was last time; it’s a matter of going through all the training again. And it takes a long time to get settled. The entire summer is the training and by the last week the paintings are making themselves. That is the pay—off and along the way I need to leave behind all expectations. The summer here for me is like a visual dream, and extended operatic fantasy—it approaches the supernatural in scale, the sequences of atmospheric drama are so grand and strange.
How do you approach the motif?
I try to paint the idiosyncrasies of visual experience, the specificity of nature. The last twenty years have been about the tension between being able to see and feel nature , and the direct – response paint tradition from which I come. I cannot make a mark without being aware of light and space, establishing a sensuous connection visually. A long time ago painting was considered a window to the world. For me, painting actually is a window to the painter. But that said, I cannot paint without a mind and eye to the external world. The connection with sensation is the point of departure and within the tradition I imagine myself working, looking out to nature is the crux. But paradoxically, at a certain point, to get deeper into the nature of painting, one does not copy nature—so that increasingly, painting is a reflection of an internal resonance. It’s a mystical experience – the dance between nature and paint is a mystical one.
The paintings reveal very little drawing.
I had a classical education beginning with a tyrannical cast drawing teacher at art school in Pennsylvania, who was steeped in the English tradition of precisionist measuring. I did casts for five years, not exclusively of course. It was an art school that survived as a traditional atelier type of academy, very independent of the reformations of people like William Morris, or of the Bauhaus. In cast class, all I did in the first term was the profile of a head, neck and shoulders in sharp pencil lines. The deltoids. I would erase and erase…it was poison. Luckily, soon after, I started drawing in chiaroscuro with charcoal and became educated in a tonal system. It was so formal, though, I was not drawing for pleasure but for work. So I’ve had to re – educate myself as every person does, it’s one’s obligation on leaving school. And now, I consider drawing as a much broader issue—as interpretation, rather than limited to the formalities of light and shade, cast shadow and reflected light, the traditional academic equation. To me, painting is drawing – the drawing in painting is fundamental. In school, we encounter the traditions and the reactions, but both are potentially deadly. The important thing is to draw without system of dogma but for pleasure. On leaving school, I took to keeping little notebooks with drawings, to find my way visually and soon realized that I loved to draw. Slowly I even came to adore the pencil, with the broad tip though. Drawing is about notation and the spatial encounter the ability to record the sensuous encounter with a graphic mark.
When did you start painting?
I didn’t start painting until I was about 20, but I got very involved with the outdoors at around 16 years old. I grew up on the edge of Philadelphia, near a large and wild park. My most clarified childhood memories include very pronounced visual experiences. I remember the reflective quality of the metal on the legs of the sink in my grandparent’s bathroom—they were hollow tubes of polished aluminum. But mine was not a family that could practically or realistically support a child in the visual arts. Families who gave their blessing to going to art school were usually upper—middle class, at least. My mother was a schoolteacher, my father a salesman. As a teenager my primary interest had been music and I made a few films. And then I went off to college and became very interested in the history of art. For two years I lived in a very bucolic semi – rural landscape and had a mystical pantheistic romance with nature—the power of nature really reared its head. I read the New England Transcendentalists like Thoreau, and also Whitman, especially. But most importantly, I was obsessed with the English Lake poets, primarily Wordsworth. I began to draw a bit, with pen and ink, with an eye toward Durer’s engravings, surrealistic cartoons, Max Ernst’s collages and such. Titles became very important, bizarre literary titles. Baudelaire, Wilde, were also significant. All of this was pursued with religious fervor, but I was in a very anti – religious phase with regard to traditional religion.
And what about Art and tradition when you were a younger painter?
I grew up surrounded by a large family of eastern European Jews in America. My maternal grandfather was ordained as a Rabbi, his own father was the Rabbi of their village in Russia. In a very personal way my maternal grandfather held on to the past on arrival in America, and although he didn’t belong to a synagogue and practice formally, he didn’t throw out and reject the authority of the past. Most of my other maternal relations were Zionist Utopians, committed secularists, socialist progressives—which meant, with regard to religion, no religion, killing the old. But you can’t really kill off an inherited majestic and grand image of God, and most of them replaced the domineering, traditional God with images of political progressivism and with lives seriously devoted to social change. The residue of all this was very powerful, feeding me peripherally with a need for powerful immersion. They all floated in a sea of immense commitment beyond and before their individual lives, and argued a lot about politics. So as a young adult, when I discovered nature, I discovered the possibility of immersion in something great and immense, much bigger than myself.
This landscape in Mayo may now serve as something of a mystical stage set, but I spent years in America before arriving here in 1994, in a sense looking for God (visually), trying to tear the curtain away—all in preparation for this coast. Last summer I was painting on top of Carrowmore hill, a spectacular spot that simultaneously looks toward Nephan and Lackan and Ballycastle, and a friend drove by, finding me by chance on the side of the road, deep in work. In the course of distracted conversation I said something like, "I come here to pray to God"—meaning that more metaphorically than literally. So obviously I was not referring to the supernaturalistic God of the Bible, but I cannot deny where I am coming from in some deeper, non-verbal mystical sense. Years ago, on encountering art as a late teenager, I knew that I had found a visual liturgy a path home – but that path is one of evolving diasporic consciousness. Art and religion are not the same, but Art offered me at the time (partially, certainly not equivalently) what religion might have for my rabbinical great grandfather.
How do you see Rothko?
Rothko’s mature work is so beautifully liturgical—he is some kind of a modern Jew attached to traditional forms and depths of feeling, trying to reconstruct or re-establish meaning in the new country, visually. To me, that work takes on the form of very ancient, repetitive resonances, employing very abstractly the grand narrative formats and messianic emotion of biblical drama. In the 20th century, art as a manifestation of promise within the theater of modernity had tremendous appeal to Jewish artists and intellectuals carrying big images of creation, Messianism and redemption laminated into their consciousness’. Remember that Rothko attended chedar (a traditional Jewish school) in the old country until he was ten. James Breslin’s biography is great on this.
Only over the past few years have I become interested in Rothko. One night here in Ballycastle I stayed up with local friends and went home at 5:30 am. Sitting and writing at the window, looking up out into the landscape, there was Rothko—it was what I would now call a Rothko – ish moment. There was a fuzzy, diaphanous, vibrating landscape – ground, sea, sky, at the moment when night was becoming day. I had no serious interest in his art until then, but saw it all in a new light, the impact of his work became almost prophetic. With minimal tone and color, he got huge spiritual body, tremendous soul that spoke very eloquently to me. In contemporary painting there are not a lot of painters with that sort of soul. I found a doorway there, another way of pulling aside the veil. It is an ongoing evolving process here on the coast, of allowing myself to be pulled by this place deeper in. While I always risk losing myself, like Icarus, the power and temptation of place are difficult to avoid or refuse.
What would you say if your paintings were described as minimal?
These paintings are responsive to experiences I’ve had here in Ireland that took me by the throat and shook me up. Maybe some are extreme atmospheric explorations, and could be seen as quite minimal. It has been a great challenge to make paintings that convey a sense of this big empty landscape that is of course really very full. Clearly I’m not necessarily trying to make the paintings look like the subject—that is realism. The academic convention of form relates to rational, objective approaches— object orientation and literary description. The Mayo coast has taught me to see and respond more sensuously—to understand place in terms of paint and paint in terms of place. Take the paint and make it have some visual meaning. Meaning and the "story" are always embedded in the direction and handling of the paint—the story describes qualities of personal responsiveness, which sometimes may look unencumbered or minimal. The conventional dichotomy in the grossest sense is between realism and abstraction. I’m drawn to minimalism as one possibility, as a way of finding more within less, as opposed to an un unified heap of visually irrelevant details, as is often the case in Realism.
Are you drawn to the history of this place that has been so inspiring for your work, or is it the atmosphere, the weather, that is so important?
I came here almost completely ignorant of Irish history. At home I used to go to folk clubs in the early ’70’s, saw DeDanann several times, listened to the Bothy Band, Planxty, etc. My paternal grandmother was born in Belfast (and lived there for 15 years), to an eastern European Jewish family on its way to America. But I was never aware of Irish history. The Yiddish movement began in Eastern Europe in the 1870’s as a plan among intellectuals to redeem contemporary Jewish life and dignity for the masses through culture primarily. The answer was seen as not in religion, but in revival of the mother tongue, folk memory and folk culture, all cemented in enlightenment philosophy and modern literary culture. This was all happening in Poland and Russia exactly while the Gaelic League and Celtic revival were working with similar concerns of nationalistic redemption. The pain in Ireland had obliterated people’s ability to deal with life, similarly to the situation of Jews in Eastern Europe. The layered effects of hundreds of year of oppression, no land, extraordinary dehumanization, repetitive suffering, gross demoralization—all were shared by the Jew and the Irish. I came here for the visuals, but deep layers of history have emerged along the way —it’s an education in many senses.
Are you still comfortable and excited painting here after all these visits?
There’s always an ongoing fear each visit of how to follow the previous summer—how can I hold a candle to the memory of that now passed mystical radiance? Going into another year, working into the paint can be very confusing, overwhelming and uncertain—it’s all really a work in progress, an unfinished manuscript. Last summer’s paintings had a palette knife finish, the impasto was beaten out. The surface this year is a much different animal, it’s a kind of rougher texture. Last summer the earth dissolved in light. Light is still big, everything is still bathed in light. But this summer I did cliffs. I really didn’t expect to be looking at the ground, at the earth so much. Looking at sky and land simultaneously is very difficult, both make such great demands. The variation can be immense—the year Nuala was here it was incredibly wet. It rained the whole summer. I realized then (or rather I should say, realized once again) that the rain was beautiful, screens of rain with such translucencies and opacities.
The village is often a visual constant, I have a few spots where I sit watching the atmosphere changes coming and going. At the most, I really only go to three or four places to sit each summer. I become very familiar with them, they are like visual laboratories. There are certain aspects of familiarity, yet the place constantly reinvents itself and I’m also changing my relation to it. It’s becoming, by compression, more expansive. The place does a real job and familiarity does it better.