As with many of the great Spanish artists – Murillo, Zurbaran, Ribero, El Greco – the paintings of Goya are often fringed by a deep, enveloping darkness. From him we know that horrors may lurk there, horrors that are the stuff of nightmares. “The sleep of Reason produces monsters,” he inscribed on one of the etchings that make up Los Caprichos. The image is in a sense an allegory of creativity. He meant that imagination must be held in check by reason, and that the task of the artist is to engineer a balance between the two.
Most of Clifford Collie’s recent paintings are similarly articulated against a velvety darkness. They mediate between the unseen, the unknown, and the waking world of reasoned perception. With care and even tenderness, they evoke lustrous, ambiguous forms that both invite and confound interpretation. It is as if, caught between sleep and wakefulness, we catch a fleeting, fragmentary glimpse of something that may be real, may be part of a dream, may even be something imperfectly remembered. Yet access to this hesitant, indeterminate space can free our imaginations, allowing us meditative scope. It is a valuable space for reflection.
Over the last 14 years, Collie has split his time between Ireland and Spain, where he has been based variously in Girona, Bilbao and, now, close to the city of Zaragosa in Aragon, on the edge of Los Monegros, a region which incorporates the only desert in Western Europe. Hence the title he has given to this exhibition: Sequia, or Drought. The hard, brilliant light of the desert may seem remote from the accommodating darkness we find in the majority of the paintings, but then, bright light makes for deep shadows.
In many respects the influence of Spain on the evolution of his work was incidental, in that he did not go there because of a particular interest in Spanish painting. That sympathy has developed over time, out of his engagement with the qualities of the landscape and the culture. Dutch still life painting was perhaps even more important in shaping his vision. Still life emerged as a term in the Netherlands during the 17th century, when it came into its own as an artistic genre. Virtuoso paintings of flowers, fruit, vessels, foodstuffs and other household objects were laden with symbolism. In vanitas type compositions, representations of sources of pleasure and objects of beauty were reminders of the transience of life.
On the face of it, Collie is to some degree a still life painter. In the past, vessels and fruit have been subjects of intense scrutiny in his work. Comparably, gourds and roots – dried out organic forms as the title Sequia suggests – are current objects of fascination, ordinary things of great though generally unremarked beauty. On the evidence of the paintings, one could say that on more than one occasion he has moved outside into the landscape, but perhaps the point is that the terms outside and inside are not particularly relevant to his work. His pictures are not quite either still lifes or landscapes, though in a way he does take his cue from the Dutch artists. The objects around which the works are formed become something else, they become mysterious, emblematic, flaring presences. Embodied with quiet attentiveness, bearing intimations of transience and fragility, they stand for what is both simple and precious in life, what should be cherished; persuasive amalgamations of reason, imagination and feeling.
Aidan Dunne Art Critic