“The past,” thought he, “is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of happenings, each flowing from the other.”
– Anton Chekov, The Student, 1894
Brendan McGorry’s work shares much in common with the short stories of Anton Chekov (1860-1904). One of the Russian author’s best-loved novellas, The Student, tells the story of a young theologian visiting a widow and her daughter, and discussing the story of Peter the Apostle’s denial to the Romans that he is a companion of Christ. The elderly woman and her daughter are distressed by the story. It seems all too relevant to their immediate lives. Touched by their response the theologian ruminates that the nature of human behaviour and brevity of our lives has been shaped through all time past by the sincerity of truth and beauty.
The circumstances and situations in McGorry’s art are instilled with a similar consciousness of the transitory nature of the lives of the figures that inhabit his paintings, sculptures and drawings. Yet, McGorry is not unsympathetic to their predicament, providing a companion: a history of art that is close to the artist’s heart and mind, that may also be of assistance to them.
In The Belle Époque Project (2014) McGorry reconsiders the lives of the Impressionists in Paris in a series of paintings that respond to works by Manet, Renoir and van Gogh. He retains their subjects and compositions, but in paintings like Frances at the Folie Bergere After Manet (2014), the contemporaneous nature of the artist’s narrative assummes a greater presence. By updating the central figure and customer reflected in the mirror behind the bar to the present day, McGorry reminds us of our presence in similar circumstances and that the experience of such moments, like the subjects in Manet’s painting, will eventually be consigned to history.
Stellar (2017), an installation of portraits of early and modern masters from the Renaissance to Abstract Expressionism, introduced McGorry’s favourite and influential artists into the space of the gallery. Adopting the tondo, a circular form for portraiture that has its origins in the Renaissance, he populated the gallery walls with an A to Z of portraits that included Mantegna, Caravaggio, Newman and Woollaston. The tondos floated across the ‘sky’ with an expansive landscape drawn directly onto the wall below, inscribed and defined in charcoal with two figures at the furthest distance possible from one another – a Piero della Francesca’s angel on the left and a reclining David Hockey figure on the right.
Yet it was not merely the passage of time or a story about the history of art that McGorry was detailing through this series. The artist spent a year in Italy studying frescoes and the context in which this Medieval and Renaissance method of painting was realised through a consideration of the space and environment it occupied.The installation for Stellar was similarly about communicating directly with the gallery visitor, placing them within the artist’s world just as McGorry is drawing attention to the principles and iconography of those artists who surround him as a critical part of his universe and experience.
In The Death of Painting (2016), McGorry responded to the surprising proposition of the possible demise of painting, referencing the work of the English Pre-Raphaelites, (19th century Romantics who could not get enough of the subject of death), acknowledging the morbidity and pleasures of their work through John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851). In the 1850s, the Pre-Raphaelite artists Millais and Rossetti had looked back to Piero Della Francesco and Uccello, artists who predated the High Renaissance, for inspiration. In doing so, they created a distinctly Victorian response to their own world that encapsulated the materialism and spiritual aspirations of 19th century England. Thus, in his choice of the Pre-Raphaelites, McGorry again highlighted the connectedness of the visual arts and artists from one century to another and the way in which this continuum sustained and cultivated their work.
McGorry’s interest in confronting and openly commenting on the subjects of his work is equally evident in his use of materials and working processes. The subjects of his charcoal drawings are conceived and defined in contour lines possessed by an economy and frankness of observation and expression. In his paintings, he reveals the linen of his canvas surfaces as colour to complement the gestures of his paint and its colour, exposing the qualities of his materials and the tools of his trade.
His paint may be scumbled over the canvas, thinned to translucent washes, pointalist dots or built up in expressive impasto strokes. Whatever the methodology, McGorry’s paint on canvas shares the space on the picture plane with figures and objects defined by an animated exchange between drawing and painting. A vitality constructed on the premise of tensions and potential alliances between the delineation of his subjects and the sureness of his painterly surfaces.
McGorry has commented that “there is a lot of research that goes into each series of works before beginning to paint, and then I pull it all together.” Offering up the evidence of a history of art and its potency to speak over an immeasurable passage of time, his work documents the particulars and the possibilities of human behaviour, personal histories possessed and haunted by an unending continuity.
Essay by Warren Feeney
BORN: 1966, Auckland
AWARDS: The Wallace Art Awards - Finalist (2018, 2016, 2008-2014, 1992–1999); Molly Morpeth Canaday Award - Finalist (2015, 2011); Molly Morpeth Canaday Award - Merit Award (2014); Estuary Artworks Award - Paramount Award (2010); Field Days Number 8 Wire Art Award - 2nd Prize (2009); New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award - Finalist (2009); National Drawing Award - Finalist (2008); North Shore City Art Award - Finalist (2008); Walker and Hall Waiheke Art Award - Finalist (2008); Anthony Harper Contemporary Art Award - Finalist (2008); Adam Portraiture Award - Finalist (2008)
COLLECTIONS: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington; James Wallace Arts Trust, Auckland; Auckland City Council, Auckland
PUBLIC EXHIBITIONS: NZ Sculpture OnShore, Auckland (2014, 2012, 2010); Male Nudes, Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland (2013); Portrait Painting, Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland (2012); Auckland Arts Festival (2011); Gods Little Laundrette, Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland (2011); Works on Paper, Uxbridge Creative Centre, Auckland (2011); Through the Looking Glass, Uxbridge Creative Centre, Auckland (2011); Skins, Outdoor Billboard Project, Auckland (2009)
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY: ‘Art of the Week’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, 2019; ‘Brendan McGorry and the Belle Epoque’ by Michael Wilson, Art New Zealand, 2018; ‘Long Live the Art of Painting’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Aug 2016; ‘Great Expectations’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Oct 2015; ‘Exploring Space and Absence’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Aug 2009; ‘Perspective on art’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, 1994; ‘Joy of life’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, 1988