Through the Veil
The Mayo Paintings, Fenton Gallery, Cork
Those who live on continents put up with a sameness of season that can bring as much boredom to sunny days and blue skies as to fog and blizzards. In cities, muffled in haze and walled against distance, the experience of weather and its change is dulled and dissected, admitted one street at a time.
The Irish countryside, by contrast, lies open to a swirl of oceanic effects, its skies refracting light through infinite and chaotic molecules of moisture snatched up from the Atlantic. Nowhere is this better dramatized than in north Mayo, where urgent wisps and squalls and towering clouds make their landfall at an unadorned coast, massive in its curves of bog and rock and still haunted by the post-glacial loneliness of tundra.
Here, Stuart Shils forgoes the more obvious theatre of an atmospheric landscape to explore the optical experience of light and weather with a courage and intensity almost without precedent in the painting of the west of Ireland. While native painters like Patrick Collins and Sean McSweeney, moved by similar challenges, have created powerful evocations of water, land and light, the small, fiercely – wrought works of Shils carry an immediacy that grants them a grip and beauty far beyond their size.
Working in front of nature (or at times, inescapably, through a windscreen streaked with rain), he confronts light and weather with an act of concentration—"like swordfighting or tennis", as he says. Its exactitude of observation is also utterly sensual, the shifting, subtle forms and planes forcing a shock of recognition: this is how it was, at this place, in this moment. One enters his painting to breathe the chill of mist or, smarting with wind, to peer to a gradual disclosure of distance, a confirmation of the half-seen. That his work carries magic, not only for people like me, who can vouch for it local truth, but for viewers in New York or Shils’ native Philadelphia, points to its achievement.