JOHN GIBBONS AND CHARLES TYRRELL: A DIALOGUE
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, Taylor Galleries, Dublin, September 2005
This temporary coming together of the work of two quite different artists is more akin to a conversation than collaboration. Born of a sense of mutual respect that gradually evolved over a number of years before they actually met, as well as a growing degree of curiosity about the workings of each other’s art, it is more of a dialogue than a duet. It is a dialogue in which two self-assured voices remain distinct throughout a mutually enriching exchange. Born within a year of each other into comparable cultural contexts in mid-twentieth-century, small-town Ireland, John Gibbons and Charles Tyrell have followed rather different routes as they developed their distinctive artistic practices within the broad domain of late modernist sculpture and painting, respectively. Based in the heart of inner-city London since the nineteen-seventies, Gibbons has pursued a brand of mostly linear, welded sculpture that extends and refines the legacy of Julio Gonzalez, David Smith and Anthony Caro in various, equally intriguing directions. During this time he has, as he himself puts it, found a number of different ways of ‘opening a space’ for himself within his tradition in order to stop himself from ‘bumping into ghosts’. These avenues of exploration have at different stages ranged from invocations of architecture to subtle suggestions of the erotogenic. Tyrell, on the other hand, has chosen to live and work for quite a few years now in the wilds of West Cork. There he has practiced a rigorous variety of formal abstraction in which, as he describes it, intimations of the spectacular surrounding landscape tend to somewhat reluctantly accommodated within certain specific works rather than consciously courted as a matter of course. ‘In those works in which there is a particular landscape resonance,’ he says, ‘it is there because the painting itself invited it in.’ Otherwise, his natural inclination is to resist such incursions of rthe real into his bounded pictorial world.
The range of what must have been largely unforeseen resonances within and across the bodies of work presented here together is amplified by the sensitive orchestration of individual and grouped paintings and sculptures over the gallery’s four rooms, each of which has a remarkably different temper. The relative austerity of certain individual works by both artists is subtly modified and enhanced by suggestive juxtapositions that give equal weight to the divergences as well as the points of contact between them. One obvious common concern is a shared interest in a broad notion of duality or dichotomy, a fascination with the dialogical aspect of a unique work of art as reflected in the tension between its constituent formal elements, which are sometimes paired or mirrored. At the heart of Tyrrell’s painting is a concern with ‘relationships’, with an intuitive search for some sort of accommodation between competing systems, fields or gestures that is fundamentally abstract in the nature and only suggestive of the wider domain of human or social relationships by a loose form of analogy. Yet he acknowledges that his particular interest in Gibbons’ work had partly to do with what he saw as the increasing confidence with which his colleague succeeded in connecting the formal language of abstraction to elements of the experience world. As Tyrrell puts it, ‘I was impressed by how outward-looking the work is.’ While Tyrrell’s comments indicate that this ‘outward-looking’ aspect of an art that has it basis in formal abstraction constitutes important common ground, the marked difference between the two artists’ attitude to titling their works is indicative of some equally fundamental differences. Tyrrell’s systematic numbering of otherwise untitled works may be taken as a disavowal of allusion, narrative and referentiality, which is in keeping with the modernist credo that the destiny of each distinct art form is the refinement of those characteristics that are peculiar to it and which serve to distinquish it from other art forms. Gibbons, in contrast, evidently has no such misgivings and is quite content to invite the world into the work, as it were, through the deployment of highly suggestive, other consciously lyrical titles. ‘And the Earth Changed Shape’ (2004-05), for example, is the title given to a strangely mutated stainless globe, whereas ‘For All To See'(2004) refers to another, rather different steel sculpture, the decidedly complex and controlled structure of which suggests that there may even be a degree of irony involved in the titling process. The title of a slightly earlier work, ‘The Weavers Story’ (1999-2000) a beautifully rhythmic arrangement of stainless steel rods, calls attention to a certain affinity between fine art and the applied arts, whereas titles such as ‘song of the Soul’ (2004) and ‘As One’ (2001-02) are more open-endedly and unabashedly poetic.
A notable aspect of this exhibition is the range and variety evident within the work of each of the two participants. Gibbons, for instance, seems equally at home working with open or closed volumes, and the sense of enclosure, or play of revelation and concealment, that is common to both varieties of work is nevertheless very differently realized from one to the other. A similar versatility is evident in his handling of scale over a range of works that vary in size from ‘Bermondsey Wrap’ (2005), which is a mere 13cm tall, to ‘Om'(2000-2002), a sculpture in stainless steel, copper and wood, which measures 194 x 92cms. Given the central importance accorded to the plinth, or rather the decision to dispense with it, in the development of modernist sculpture, Gibbons once again displays a high degree of inventiveness in the placement of the works in the show. These are variously floor-bound, placed on plinths or in alcoves, set on wheels or constructed wooden ‘runways’, or, in the case of one work, ‘Angel III’, suspended from the ceiling. This specific work, which is one of a series of related sculptures, is a particularly fine example of Gibbons’ capacity to meld sculptural forms that seem markedly organic with those that are more obviously industrial in nature. In his work the obscurely erotic imagery alluded to earlier in passing sometimes takes the form of pendulous, scrotal sacs that are also reminiscent of gourds, whereas on other occasions it takes the form of an orifice or labial opening leading into the centre of the sculpture. ‘Angel III’ combines both these forms in a work that invokes the celestial while obliquely reminding us that the human body is, in its own way, a remarkable piece of engineering. Gibbons has always been less interested in evoking the strictly gendered individual body than in gesturing toward the combination of male and female aspects that may be thought of as fundamental to all human life.
Tyrrell’s range is equally impressive, especially in view of the set of strict, self-imposed formal limitations that have variously defined his work over the years. There is a world of difference between the commanding presence and forbidding frontality of a large vertical oil painting on canvas such as ‘C9.05’, which is over three metres high, and the lyrical delicacy of some of his recent series of smaller works in oil on aluminum, such as P4.05. Yet the compositional structure and mode of facture is the same in all cases, a bipartite division of the picture into square fields of more or less equal size, one above the other, and a method of painting that eschews the brushstroke in favour of a vigorous scraping on and off of paint with a metal spatula. The notion of borders has a long been important in Tyrrell’s art, a fact explicitly registered in the ‘Borderland’ series of the early 1990s. These latest works also emphasis the narrow bands that both contain larger fields of colour and provide some form of mediation between them. The pared-down, scraped-back surfaces of all of Tyrrell’s paintings bear the memory of their making, the sedimented history of each work’s individual facture. There are certain similarities between the palimpsest-like, build-up of gradually obscured marking on these busy surfaces and the scratched and scored shells of some of Gibbons’ smaller sculptures, which sometimes resemble some sort of out-sized, enclosed kernel or nut. The gestures at the heart of Charles Tyrrell’s paintings are gestures of erasure or removal as much as of incremental expression. These are beautifully reticent, through never ungenerous paintings, that somehow appear to be more communicative than might ordinarily be the case, here in the convivial company of this well-chosen and carefully installed selection of the sculptures by John Gibbons.