aeiou: Watercolours by Tom DePaor

I met Tom de Paor at the opening of his exhibition in the Sarah Walker Gallery in Casteltownbere. Talking outside on the jetty, we spoke of the similarity with his ‘close encounter’ installation at the 2018 Biennale which, with multiple sketches, referred to Giovanni Michelucci's Church of the Autostrada. Instructed to quickly draw from memory following a performative slideshow on the church, the sketches’ artists, his own students, became co-authors of an installation charged less by massive, referential effort than by the mass joy of participation with minimal labour. In Josef Albers words: “The measure of art: the ratio of effort to effect, the aim of art: revelation and evocation of vision" i.

The conversation moved onto Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, where, in the 2nd edition, Robert Venturi includes an apologetic addendum to the 1st. Following his visit, his opinion of Michelucci's church had veered from one of initial disdain to one of pleasure. The “willful picturesqueness of the haphazard structure and spaces” becomes a more sympathetic, albeit duller description of, "an extremely beautiful and effective building”ii. Similarly, the ambiguous photographs of the 1st edition appear with greater resolution in the 2nd. The mist has cleared but some mystery is lost. The ambiguous, haphazardness of a picturesque imagination has made way for the extreme effectiveness of first hand examination.

Tom de Paor's latest exhibition is, in his words, “more of the same thing”: a series of multiple unframed watercolours entitled "a e i o u" iii, completed in the Spring of 2019. The letters are compiled randomly within rectangular grids of differing sizes, their serifs and lower-case character otherwise eschewing architectural reference. Each watercolour is one vowel on landscape 210x305mm, 300gsm watercolour paper. Indeed, despite their specific symbolism they appear more as watery landscapes: ox-bow lakes, puddles, tarns, chutes, sedimented pigment stranded after water’s evaporation.

Vowels feel like liquid in the mouth. Without the tongue click, teeth hiss or lip smack of consonants, these are the glyphic sounds of pleasure or delight at beauty and never too far from the sounds of pain or distain. To quote Timothy Morton, “beauty is always a little bit weird, a little bit disgusting” iv. Bad-taste-disgust being an essential criteria to good-taste-delight.

The vast swathe of watercolours come from controlled gestures and exceptional use of a variety of vibrant colours, form and colour swimming together like a happy child in the sun. The ‘i’s perform a joyful leap to reach their dots with serifs splashing. But then, occasionally, a bloated, muddy ‘a’ comes into view, or an erratic ‘e’ veers too close to the paper’s edge, its centre cracked open. A rare uncontrolled splash and an unpredictable colour. So this beauty is all tinged with ambiguity and weirdness: something is not quite ideal: is this writing or painting? Where between outsider art or more conventional Irish watercolour landscapes do they sit? Thankfully the ambiguously haphazard does not suffer from the hand of extreme editing.

The scale and life of the exhibition continues that curiously generous aspect of the Irish Pavilion of 2010 with de Blacam & Meagher’s pamphlet stacks slowly diminishing as they were taken away. So too did these watercolours begin to quickly sail away from the harbor side gallery on opening night, for a sum (or an i.o.u.) of €100 each, with voids quickly filled by others from the edges like water. The overall body of work slowly evaporating into the landscape.

i Albers, J. “The Origin of Art.” Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (eds.) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). p107.

ii Venturi, R., ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’. (MoMA Art, New York, 1966) p.19

iii Despite its evident singularity this grouping has a n oddly sparse usage in visual art history. “Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan” or “All the world is subject to Austria" was 15th Century emperor Frederick III’s motto with AEIOU carved onto his buildings: the 'I' reinforcing the weird symmetries of the rounded, gothic 'E' with 'O' and the 'A' with its opposite, angular 'U'.

iv Morton, T. ‘Dark Ecology’ (Colombia University Press, 2016) p 124. On this beauty/disgust paradox also see pages 134 & 149.