Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times

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Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times, Weekend Review, Saturday, November 30, 2002
The Mayo Paintings by Stuart Shils, the Fenton Gallery, Wandesford Quay, Cork

Ireland had never been on my agenda," says American painter Stuart Shils. He first came to Ireland in 1994, when Margo Dolan and Peter Maxwell of the Ballinglen Arts Foundation at Ballycastle, Co Mayo, offered him a fellowship. He had painted in Cumbria in England and, if asked to name a European destination, would have been more inclined towards somewhere such as Italy. But the offer was made, he accepted, and, as he set off across the Atlantic, he had no idea he was embarking on a life -changing experience, no notion Ireland was going to draw him and his family back year after year, was going to prompt him to fundamentally change the way he painted.

Shils was born in Philadelphia in 1954, and is based there still. After his fine—art training, he built up a reputation and a following for a painting that can be described as urban landscapes; confidently made, strongly patterned compositions in which architectural geometry and order are softened by light and atmosphere. He first came across Dolan and Maxwell in Philadelphia, where they ran a gallery for a number of years. In the early 1990’s, they set up Ballinglen in Co Mayo and began to invite artists from Ireland and abroad to work there.

"I didn’t really know what to expect," Shils recalls. "We arrived, and we were driving out from Ballina. It was a gorgeous day, and then we caught our first glimpse of the ocean—a blueberry ocean with cream breakers, glittering in the sunlight—and there was this excitement, we knew it was a special place." That first day, he walked into the shop across the road from Ballinglen centre and was shown one of his own paintings, acquired by Dolan and Maxwell in Philadelphia, hanging on the wall of the room beyond.

The considerable beauty of the place did not immediately translate into images on canvas, though. The west of Ireland has a way of taking painters by surprise. "I was used to painting a very clarified urban space, in a rational, objective way. I was used to steady weather patterns, to stable light conditions, where you could be pretty sure that things would remain the same. When I went out to work in the landscape in Mayo, I felt I’d slipped on a banana skin. You look away and when you look again everything has changed. You don’t know where you are."

In that situation, he argues, you can do one of two things. You can impose your characteristic way of working on the conditions—"It works for some painters"—or you can try to find an appropriate line of approach. "Eventually, out of confusion comes clarity. That first year, there were just a couple of moments; I mean just fleeting moments, windows, cracks. It took years for those cracks to widen, to allow me to re-enter them. I couldn’t just apply what I had been doing to Ireland. That way, I found I was painting complete fiction. Cezanne could go back to Mont Ste-Victoire day after day and find it unchanged under that southern light, but as I discovered, the north coast of Mayo calls for a radically different approach."

But he was drawn back year after year to try. "I came to look forward to those weeks in Mayo as a release from the things that were making me insane at home, you know, the pressure of normal city life. In Mayo, I could abandon all distractions. It was like a mystical experience, or perhaps like conducting a romantic relationship at a distance. During the year I would think about it and by summer I was almost desperate to get to Ireland, to rekindle the relationship."

The breakthrough came, he recons, in 1998. "It was an incredibly wet summer." He likes to work out in the open, which that year meant getting wet or, when the rain became too much, sitting in a car…

Shils wasn’t inclined to go somewhere else because he was so excited at the progress he felt he was making. In terms of his paintings, what happened was the solidity of the urban, architectonic forms dissolved as he "chased the rain" across the open space of north Co Mayo. He began to produce paintings that took their cue from the transient yet potent atmospherics produced by water and light. What is striking about this work is its fidelity to the experience of the moment. If you are acquainted with the west you will recognize even the most minimal, abstract-looking of his pictures. The "white wall of light", as he describes it, is a rain front moving across the bog.

"In Philadelphia, I was standing in front of one of the paintings with an Irishman who lives in the States. He’s a bonds trader and I thought, well, I’d better explain what the picture is about. He stopped me and said, ‘That’s OK, I know exactly what I’m looking at.’"

Not everyone was so sure. "I was due to have an exhibition with my main gallery, in New York. I brought the paintings over. I don’ think I was unduly naïve about it. I realize that there is an extreme edge to these painting, but I was very happy with them. I thought they were something special, that I’d finally got somewhere with the Irish landscape. It was a disaster. They just looked blankly at me."

It didn’t get any better. "It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that pretty much every professional relationship that I had cultivated throughout the 1990’s collapsed as a result of what happened in my work in Mayo. When people looked at the paintings their jaws dropped. It was as if I’d betrayed them. How dare I take another path?" He worked at it, tried to explain, gave talks, all to no great avail. Mind you, he sounds remarkably cheerful, now, about what might have been an unmitigated professional disaster.

"I would never regret coming to Ireland. There’s something about place that’s very powerful if you open yourself up to it as a painter. You could say that the landscape here has changed my life. And I’ve had the benefit of knowing lots of really good people I’ve met here. It’s rare that you can combine living in a world-class community with having total peace of mind to work."

Ireland is now part of his life, and is likely to stay apart of his life. He’s currently looking at ways of staying for a longer period than just the summer months.

"Coming here presented me with on of those moments in life where you come to a fork in the road. You know that if you go there you’re going to leave a lot behind. People respond in different ways to the prospect of change. Some people would rather hold on to who they were. For me the message was that there was great potential here for transformation for me as a painter. I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s there."