Everything is Something Else: On the Art of Patrick Hall (originally published 2007)

I came across this forgotten piece again recently and thought I’d put it up here as Pat Hall currently has a show on at Hillsboro Fine Art in Dublin. He’s a tremendous painter, who really ought to be more well known internationally.  This piece was originally published in Circa magazine in 2007.  An interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist that I hadn’t read at the time I wrote the essay touches on some similar ideas. It can be found here: http://www.patrickhallartist.com/# ***

Burning Mountain II, 1994, oil on canvas, 183 x 198 cm

Burning Mountain II, 1994, oil on canvas, 183 x 198 cm

In a 1992 interview with John Hutchinson, the painter Patrick Hall speculated in somewhat sombre tones about the extent of his artistic achievement:

Maybe I’m not destined to become the painter I thought I would be; maybe I’ll have to settle for being a good, run of the mill painter. Instead of aiming for perfection, I’m now aiming for completeness, to complete myself — on whatever level that might be. Maybe I need to get let go of the idealism I was brought up with — the high, unspoken perfectionism that developed from my dead parents’ seemingly unfinished lives…

Past, present and future are interestingly entangled here: a sense of destiny (whatever that might be…) merging with defeat, or disappointment; weary resignation and a reluctant admission of late-discovered limits combining with a readiness to accept the present as it is, to see things as they are and to make do, to move on. Uncertainty (that twice-repeated word ‘maybe’) is coupled with momentary clear-sightedness. And here is Hall speaking again, fourteen years later, looking forward to an exhibition at The Model Arts and Niland Gallery (then scheduled for Summer 2006) that would take a lingering look back over his life’s work:

It’s bringing up my ghosts. It’s kind of exciting in a way too because … I’m looking at my life, at fifty years of painting and seeing patterns of a future. I see a total blank, I see scratchings, not much else. Paintings. It’s all just the wind and the night passing.

Once more, Hall is haunted by spirits of ‘unfinished’ lives — untimely revenants that now recall distant, lost versions of himself. Once more, time is out of joint. While in this modest assessment of a life in painting there is some small delight to be had in finding the future in the past, the view from the present grants little consoling ‘presence’, little certainty. Everything is gaps and ghostly traces. Hall’s humble way of contemplating his career often seems to involve such subtle shifting between certainty and uncertainty. At times, the tormented or tender or almost forbiddingly stark art of this most singular of Irish painters has appeared simultaneously to urge an honest acceptance of things in their unadorned, material simplicity. At others, Hall’s art stresses the evanescence of the everyday, appealing to some other vitally immaterial sphere: the imagination, the infinite, or something else again. Registering these shifts, temporal and metaphysical, seems more than a little valuable in addressing the uncertain impact of Patrick Hall’s mesmerizing imagery. For the artist Isabel Nolan, curator of a substantial survey of Hall’s art at Sligo’s Model Arts Centre, a critical challenge in striving to stay true to the steady turbulence of the work was to resist linear thinking, to refuse to contain difficulties, ambiguities and contradictions within a coherent art historical narrative. Central to Nolan’s curatorial approach was the conviction that Hall’s is a painting practice which “is, and perhaps always has been, of the moment; which is to say that even now Hall is not playing out a signature style or single subject that he defined at some designated height of his career.” So, rather than assembling a judiciously balanced and comprehensive retrospective, Nolan successfully opted to work on the basis of enthusiastic, intuitive responses. To do otherwise, she averred, would have been to attribute “a purposefulness and momentum to Hall’s career” that betrayed the real conditions of “a practice that has been fundamentally based on not knowing, on valuing uncertainty, and often working without specific objectives.” Such unwillingness to “make a story” out of Hall’s half-century of painting and drawing, coupled with a preferred commitment to seeking out “key concerns and compulsions,” is incidentally reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s artfully idiosyncratic ruminations on representing the past in Speak, Memory: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.” For the compulsively “chronophobiac” Nabokov, the customary rhetoric of time was to be rejected, rebelled against. Time, as it is conventionally understood, imprisons. In formulating her own anti-time or anti-retrospective case for representing the shifting patterns in the life and work of Patrick Hall, Isabel Nolan looked, however, to anti-linearity arguments shaped more recently by Slavoj Zizek (like Nabokov, of course, a noted philosopher of the perverse): “the experience of a linear ‘organic’ flow of events is an illusion … that retrospectively confers the consistency of an organic whole on the preceding events.” What such a system disguises, Zizek suggests, is “the fact that at every point things may have turned out otherwise.” The central significance of such thought to an occasion of ‘positioning’ Patrick Hall’s paintings is for Nolan most clearly crystallized in Hall’s contention that his working process is founded on fugitive personal requirements rather than conceptual or formal frameworks. The paintings are, he claims, “The only things that could be done at certain moments.” Hall’s Fifty Years of Painting at the Model Arts Centre was, as (former) director Sarah Glennie observed, inclined towards addressing “attitude and intention over coherence and linearity.” (Time, said Merleau Ponty, is “not a line but a network of intentionalities.”). It’s a strategy that potentially offers license to reflect on Hall’s oeuvre without the typical recourse to chronology or historical context. And we might thus delight in ‘tripping up’ among the overlapping patterns of Hall’s work, past and present. If Nolan’s curatorial manoeuvre brought disparate moments and disconnected subjects together into unlikely and even uncomfortable proximity, these feasibly jarring juxtapositions also revealed unacknowledged or accidental correspondences in a manner that properly represented Hall’s practice by remaining faithfully poetic. As the psychoanalyst Adam Philips has written in relation to Paul Muldoon’s wildly unorthodox collection of lectures on literature, The End of The Poem, “the poetic [for Muldoon] seems to be virtually defined by the logic of the unlikely, the absence of straightforward causal connections”. Muldoon’s critical meanderings within and beyond literary texts, Philips argues, demonstrate and encourage tremendous readerly pleasure through their privileging of the tangent, the digression, by “preferring strange connections and unexpected affinities to the usual pieties and obeisances that the old idolatries required.” Fifty Years of Painting highlighted the poetic polyphony in Hall’s art: odd and disconcerting conversations took place between seemingly incompatible voices. Relieved of the burden of marking stages in an artist’s development, the paintings not only emerged as powerful, discrete moments but also prompted unexpected connections, encouraging strange shifts from one image or one idea to another. At one and the same time, they appeared as exhortations towards heightened attentiveness and ongoing ‘drift.’ (A combination which brings to mind the extraordinarily detailed and yet disorientating landscape of another Drift — Scott Walker’s recent and remarkable journey into existential and sonic extremity.) The nightmarish vista of a Patrick Hall painting such as Burning Mountain (1994), for instance, has its own horrifying particularity: a mound of skulls is piled at the foot of an imposing peak that burns with a blood-red fire and the force of this desolate scene is instantly, keenly felt. The ‘meaning’ of the painting, however, remains ambiguous — it seems laden with abstruse references to mythological or biblical narratives, but its sparsity of detail allows it to tread (as Paul Muldoon has said of his own writing practices) a “fine line between allusiveness and elusiveness”. Yes, there is a dominant sense of a mythic framework here — but the skulls that clutter this terrain might also remind us of modernity’s mass graves. Such obliquity opens up further interpretative pathways. We might, of course, compare the potent content of Burning Mountain to other such manifestations of this resonant symbolism in works from different stages of Hall’s career. (There are numerous variations on the mountain theme as well as other biblically-inspired conflagrations.) But equally we might note, for example, how in ‘surveying’ Hall’s works in the wake of Fifty Years of Painting, it becomes tempting to trace how the fierce blood-reds on the Burning Mountain have made their way into adjacent tributaries in Hall’s imagination, entering realms of his art that otherwise have few characteristics in common.   Something close to this vivid corporeal colour therefore appears suddenly dominant and significant in Hall’s diverse depictions of daily life: images of ordinary things and everyday phenomena such as an intense, hazy Red Chair painted in the late 1960s, or the crimson petals of Joe’s Tulips from 2003. These vital, deep tones also add potency to numerous figurative works: the lone male contorted in masturbatory ecstacy in La Vie en Rose (1981), perhaps, or the defensively posed Boxer from 1989, both of whom have bodies of burning red. Moreover such visual links and juxtapositions might cause other correlations to emerge: allowing us to contrast the ghastly (and ghostly) abundance of lifeless skulls in the Mountain paintings with Hall’s studies of living, individual bodies: solitary figures whose raw physicality further contrasts with their curious, self-contained detachment. Each of these stand-alone friends, fighters or lovers seem lost in thought, caught between inner and outer experience, inhabiting dreamworlds as much as lived spaces. Again and again we can ponder how a constant shifting between parallel dimensions of thought and practice persists in Hall’s painting. There is incessant shuttling back and forth between oddly incongruent ‘compulsions and concerns’ yet, gradually, each might be seen to inflect and infect another. Reality is at once heightened and questioned. As Michael Bracewell has said of Neil Tait’s paintings, “one is in a world in which ‘what might be’ and ‘what is’ are left, quite intentionally in unresolved entanglement.” We encounter a series of ‘contingent certainties’ — “the only thing that could be done at certain moments” — and a principle of resilient doubt. It is important, neverthelesss, to note the strength of commitment to each ‘certain moment’ and to each chosen ‘thing’. Many directions are taken — and the work involves both a consuming fascination with the power of the imagination (or the mysteries of the ‘spirit’) and an enduring determination to come to terms with the conditions of the physical world. The special significance of studying the ‘things’ of the world has, for Hall, a very specific source in his past:

When I was a kid we were broke. When I was about 13 or 14, my mother used to sell things from the house. In some kind of unconscious way, this became the seed from which my paintings grew. Things became very important to me as they disappeared from my child’s world. It’s the thingness of the things that is and was important to me. That’s why I make paintings.

  Hall invites us to somehow reconcile this directly-lived material inspiration with his ongoing need to explore more radically imaginative visions. Though he regularly draws on mythological allegories and dream scenes, all of his painting (as he has rather surprisingly claimed) “is an attempt at a literal rendering of a certain thing.” As such, perhaps, the source of the work’s unconventional ‘energy’ is a kind of matter/anti-matter reaction. Commonplace ‘things’ abound in Hall’s work but overall the key trope in his analysis of the object world has been the ‘stone’: a recurring symbol (or blunt, anti-symbol) that has received focused treatment over recent years. In conversations about his working processes (and their relation to his life and well-being more generally), Hall has employed metaphors of stones to refer to the the potential pains or burdens of painting — “in the last few months, since I’ve dislodged the stone of painting from my stomach, it has felt like the release of a flood of water”; “painting isn’t something that should be an onerous task — it’s not a stone that I have to roll up to the top of a hill” —  and it is undoubtedly for related reasons that his large, uncompromsing paintings of single stones are themselves burdensome, difficult things. There is a kind of fearless ugliness to paintings such as I Am Alive and Was Dead or Stone (both from 2003): bulky brown and grey forms on the brink of abstraction, rendered with loose, broad strokes, they display a crude ‘thingness’ that might well prompt frustrated bewilderment. But if we push these stubborn stones a little further (keeping in mind Albert Camus’s observation on the plight of Sisyphus: “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”) their truly basic character becomes, paradoxically, a source of complexity. Stone is on the one hand non-negotiably straightforward — fully, unavoidably ‘there’ — yet in its large-scale blankness it also reads as an empty space: its form of appearance opens up an unsettling lack. In this context too, of course, we might wonder about the relation of matter to perception, and recall the critical function a ‘large stone’ has in a fundamental philosophical debate:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”

So notes Boswell in his life of (the limping) Dr. Johnson. If such a collision with the fact of ‘matter’ is entailed (partly through use of a heavily material mode of representation) in the encounter with the painting Stone, other works in this series directly signal alternative understandings of fixed, physical certainty. In I Am Alive and Was Dead the title’s reference to resurrection raises doubts about finite being, implicitly relating the weight of the solid stone that sealed the tomb of Christ to the imagined ‘lightness’ of spiritual possibility. (“And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back — it was very large.” — Mark, Chapter 16, Verse 4). This sense of perpetual shifts between intimations of materiality and spirit, between scrutinized presence and conjured absence, is lent support by Isabel Nolan’s astute identification of a link between Hall’s painting practice and the poetry of Wallace Stevens, whose late period in particular, as Simon Critchley notes in Things Merely Are, is characterized by “a directness, a sparseness, a simple lack of gaudiness and an almost despairing beauty.” The crucial reference in this context is to Stevens’s series ‘The Rock’ in which, as Critchley writes, “the overwhelming concern is not with the activity of the poetic imagination, not with ideas about the thing, but …with the thing itself, the bare remote inhuman thing that lies beyond all human understanding and meaning-making.” Thus ‘the rock’, Critchley says, holds out the possibility of properly addressing what Stevens elsewhere called “the plain sense of things”. Yet at the same time it is impossible to classify Stevens’s thought on these strict terms alone. Citing a key figure in American post-structuralist theory, Critchley makes clear an essential, complementary realm of poetic enquiry:

As J. Hillis Miller wisely points out, ‘at times [Stevens] is unequivocally committed to bare reality. At other times he repudiates reality and sings the praises of imagination.’ Indeed it is plausible to read Steven’s entire poetic production in terms of an oscillation between two poles and two aesthetic temptations: on the one hand, the imagination seizing hold of reality, and on the other, reality resisting the imagination.

A version of this oscillation certainly seems present in Patrick Hall’s paintings and drawings — across the full range of his fifty-year career. Often, this process of shifting from imagination to reality (and from reality to the imagination) only seems visible in the distinctions between entire, extended bodies of work. Equally often, however, the pattern is discernible within individual paintings. A number of the ‘Stone’ works, for instance, feature rudimentary representations of tiny ‘angels’: frail, stick figures that offer a curious counterweight to the hulking rocks. Or, in two striking religious-themed paintings from 2001, transcendent moments from biblical narratives are seen in a manner that seems to stress the strong material dimension in these mythical meetings of real and imagined worlds. In Jesus Walking on the Sea the miraculous act depicted is about defeating human heaviness, about breaking free of gravity. But the painting’s ‘central’ spiritual figure is shown at the fringes of an undulating ocean of slate-grey: the composition is dominated by an expanse of uncertain ‘matter’, a liquid surface that in this moment gains fleeting solidity and surety. Jacob’s Dream, similarly, reflects on a magical transformation. In this case sunlight becomes a physical link between this world and another, the work referring to the Old Testament tale in which Jacob drifts into a sleep and imagines monumental ladders that are scaled by the angels traveling to and from the heavens. Intriguingly, glancing at the relevant passage in the Book of Genesis, an incidental detail suddenly has unexpected import: “Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.” Intimate contact with the stone creates the conditions for dreaming, for a shift into other realities. Moreover, this reference — along with the fact that ‘Jacob’s ladder’, remains a common name for the beams of light that can slice through clouds on partially overcast days — inspires a further unanticipated correspondence. In Nabokov’s autobiography Speak Memory, he claims that his “highest enjoyment of timelessness” was found in the landscapes where he famously wandered in search of rare butterflies: this ‘ecstasy’ was “like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone.” These fragments and digressions have, in a sense, little credibility as crucial, informative elements in a survey of a contemporary painter’s art. Yet much as Hall himself has argued for close-up concentrated focus on things in themselves, on material actuality, he also holds to the pleasingly contradictory dictum that “everything is something else.” There is always a shifting between worlds — a movement between ways of seeing and experiencing and comprehending the world. “One moment your life is a stone in you,” he muses, “and the next a star.” Discussing Edmund Husserl’s view of individual consciousness in his little book Chronology, Daniel Birnbaum proposes that the ‘subject’ each of us believes ourselves to be “is not itself located in the world.” The subject, Birnbaum maintains, “ is the limit of the world — it’s not in the world, but not in some other world either.” Patrick Hall’s painting is similarly situated. Throughout his life as an artist he has discovered diverse ways to approach the ‘limit of the world’: forever seeking points of communion between matter and imagination, finding connections between stones and stars.

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