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Ron Shuebrook

Lynn Donoghue
Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax, March 15 - April 8 1984

Vanguard, Vol. 13 #5/6, Summer 1984.
[ 881 words ]


During the past decade, Lynn Donoghue's exuberant and generously-scaled portraits of Toronto art world personalities have been exhibited with regularity and in worthy contexts. Donoghue 's works are in marked contrast to the often-cynical strategies and personal distancing evident in the neo-expressionist modes and mass-media-derived representations that have come to dominate Canadian painting in recent years. Her enterprise demonstrates an essential good will toward painting and a celebrative attitude toward her subject matter. Unfortunately, her admirable intentions have not always resulted in resolved accomplishments, but they have established the territory in which her career could be pursued.

As Donoghue has noted, during her initial years as a painter, there were very few informed and demonstrably skilled figurative artists in Canada for her to use as models of permission and as measures of quality. Consequently, she has linked her interests with sustained traditions of representational painting in Europe and the United States. Donoghue has suggested that the examples of Manet, Matisse and Alex Katz have been extremely influential on her practice, as she has sought to improve her manual and structural skills. Despite the disdain of the so-called avant-garde toward engaged figuration and the selective ignorance in other quarters of the Canadian critical establishment, Donoghue has continued her serious pursuits with an increasing awareness of the appropriate historical and contemporary precedents. Donoghue's recent solo exhibition in Halifax at Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery was this community's first opportunity to judge, at least provisionally, the success and limitations of her on-going practice.

Consisting of five compositions that ranged from single canvases such as the large group portrait, Dancemakers, 1979, to the recent multi-panelled, Reliquary, 1983/84, the exhibition displayed Donoghue's characteristic physical ambition, graphic immediacy of execution, and knowing art world reference. The aggregate effect of these factors is initially persuasive and seemed to affirm her sense of serious purpose. Unfortunately, the emblematic promise of the frontal figures becomes increasingly unsatisfying as closer scrutiny discloses a number of significant, pictorial contradictions and inadequacies. Employing a working formula that usually has placed a rather literally modelled face on a more casually modelled figure against a highly coloured ground, Donoghue seems to seek a compressed pictorial space that focuses the viewer's attention on the subject. One might assume that this strategy is derived from the conjoining of related pictorial devices in Manet and Matisse. However, unlike the plastic orchestration of visual elements in those modern masters, Donoghue brings together diverse details without finding a structural principle that fully unifies the particular differences into a pictorial whole. The paintings remain largely generalized responses to the external data of the subjects as they have been filtered through Donoghue's temperament and maturing knowledge of relevant historic reference.

A summary description of Reliquary must suffice as an illustration of the most prominent aspects of her painting. Consisting of a sequence of larger-than-life portraits, on separate canvases, of such people as Karen Wilkin, Ric Evans, and Bill Boyle, the complex composition relies on the repetition of similarly seated figures to insist on the relation between the individual panels. On the floor in front of each canvas, a plaster slab contains an object selected by the sitter. Each staring face is painted in similar, nearly literal flesh tones; some attention was given to the illusionistic modelling of the features. In marked contrast, the remaining exposed parts of the body such as hands and arms are more casually described. Often there is an anatomical distortion of both proportion and shape, especially obvious in the clumsy drawing of hands. Unlike Matisse, who would modify the 'facts' of the subject for the sake of the rhythmic or spatial order of the painting, Donoghue does not offer a convincing reason for these distortions. Moreover, these liberties with observed data do not generally heighten the psychological potency of the image in conveying the character of the subject. Donoghue might consider more carefully the compelling portraits by Alice Neel, whose approach to figure painting has always included similar anatomical distortions for the sake of expressive intensity.

Other writers have suggested that Donoghue's use of flat coloured grounds and pattern have been derived from Matisse, but it must be said that Donoghue has not fully grasped the pictorial necessity of Matisse's arrangements of line, colour, and plane. His use of pattern was rarely a simple repetition of a motif because it happened to be present in the external subject but, rather, was a nuanced composition in which particular visual elements were interrelated. Each colour opposition, the character of each employed line, the location of each shape performed specific simultaneous referential and structural functions. There was little room for the indulgences of manual flourish that would disrupt the ordered pleasure of the painting. At the risk of diminishing the sensual gratification that is certainly part of the making of any painting, Donoghue would do well to seek a more disciplined, decision-making process that would integrate the various facets of her paintings without losing the improvisational vitality.


Vanguard, Vol. 13 #5/6, Summer 1984.


Text: © Ron Shuebrook. All rights reserved.

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