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Terrence Heath

The Vibrant Worker: Lynn Donoghue's Recent Paintings(2000)
Lynn Donoghue, The New Portrait, Bau-Xi Gallery, Toronto.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 19 No. 4, Nov. 2000, pp. 77-79.
[ 1,096 words ]


How many contemporary Canadian portraitists can you name? I mean, outside of the academy of commemorative portraitists whose works adorn the hallways of our legislative assemblies? Allan MacKay, Joe Fafard, and Lynn Donoghue are the ones that come immediately to my mind. Different as they are one from the other, they share certain experiences as artists in Canada. They are all artists who came to national prominence in the 1970s, in part riding the reaction to non-representational work in that decade. They are all artists who have chosen not to teach art in university art schools, or, at least, not for very long. They are all artists who learned their skills at a time when portraiture and figure work were not emphasized and often not taught in Canadian art schools. They are all artists who are at a point in their careers where their work has that fullness of accomplishment that marks the mature artist. In sharing these experiences, they also share certain characteristics as artists and persons. They are fiercely independent, they do not fit into current art fashions and fads (and, as a consequence, they are often only minimally, or not, represented in major Canadian art museum collections), and they are respected and admired by each succeeding generation of young artists.

The recent exhibition of Lynn Donoghue's work at the Bau-Xi Gallery in Toronto, The New Portrait, is witness to the power and resourcefulness of this artist. These full-figure portraits bring together the range of the painter's strengths and interests. Each painting is a remarkable portrait, but it is also a statement in colour. The figures are set in colour fields that tell you as much about the figure as the likeness and body position do. Most remarkable about these paintings is their sheer luminous presence. On first glance they seem like thick gestural sketches, painted in a short period of intense activity. But as you look closely at them you realize that the paint is not thick but thin and translucent. The images and the fields have been laboriously built up with layer after layer of paint until the colours glow. The colour fields pick up and develop hues and tones in the figures and subtly integrate these two seemingly diverse visual components. It is this integration of field and figure that does not allow the figure to float in the 'space'. The field and the figure are coherent but not related in illusory space. Each figure is anchored in the colour fields, so, for example, the upside down figure in Upside Down Luca is not falling. Each figure 'holds' the colour field areas, often by the placement of hands or arms. So, although the figures have no visible means of support, they are not floating in the space, but are inherently part of the glowing colour fields around them. And some of the fields have up to ten layers of paint. The result is a translucency that almost vibrates.

It is this luminosity that makes these paintings most like icons. Not icons for dark churches and flickering candles, but icons for the full light of day. A portrait is, of course, a very specific image with strong controlling limits — two eyes, a nose, eyebrows. Any change in these specifics moves the image away from a portrait. The 20th century has experimented extensively with radical restructuring of face and figure. In effect, this restructuring has moved the portrait away from the icon toward the purely aesthetic depiction. In some cases, such as Cubist restructuring, the facets of the figure 'break down' the portrait into spatial and pictorial elements. In others, the figure or visage is abstracted to generic references. Portraiture is a very old part of the history of art, and specificity of the person has been the touchstone of the portrait, whether for commemorative or religious reasons. Donoghue adheres to this commitment to the portrait as specific, but brings to it the vibrancy of strong colour and the frontal flatness of contemporary painting. She reconciles the long tradition of specific portraiture and the explorations of modernism in what she calls 'the immediacy of paint'.

Donoghue's accomplishment in The New Portrait reflects thirty years of intense engagement with the artists who speak directly to her sensibilities. And these are at first sight a very disparate group. She responds to the major post-war American modernists, especially Barnet Newman and Robert Ryman. It is no accident that her first major collector was David Mirvish. She likes American minimalism and its use of colour. At the same time, she will travel to New York or Europe to see Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Alice Neel, Velasquez or, most recently, Chardin. She likes early Netherlandish painting and Piero della Francesca. She tells a story of living in London and going to see della Francesca's The Baptism again and again. She talks of the impact of looking at Velasquez until she could see how he had applied his paint. In her work you can see the intensity of her looking. Colours, compositions, figural positions reflect her painterly passions: a self portrait with a Velasquez gesture, a use of paint like Chardin, a clear division of colour field a la Newman. In this exhibition she has brought all these influences into a dazzling set of paintings which are inimitably her own.

As I stood reflecting on these paintings, and Donoghue's career, it occurred to me that these were paintings first and only secondarily were they portraits. That may sound like a strange statement, but when I look at Manet's portraits (another favourite of Donoghue's), I don't care who the person is. I am looking at a painting. I had the same experience with The New Portrait pieces. Although I know many of the sitters, I was immediately much more involved in the paintings than in identifications. This realization seems to me to be succinctly the accomplishment of this exhibition — Lynn Donoghue has painted portraits that are paintings quite apart from the identity of the person painted. And yet they are not simply aesthetic objects. The way the figure sits, how they hold their hands, the angle of the head, the colour reflections, all tell you that the humanity and life of this person is specific. And, although Donoghue does commissioned portraits, the works in The New Portrait are paintings in and of themselves. It is this bringing together of the worlds of the day-to-day and the studio that distinguishes the mature artist, whose work fascinates and nurtures its viewers whether the subjects of the portraits are known or not.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 19, No. 4, Nov. 2000, pp. 77-79.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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