Press Clippings

Best to ease off on the symbolism
Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times, June 28 2006




To title your exhibition Philosophical Paintings, as Conor Walton has done with his show at Jorgensen Fine Art, is surely to risk pretension. And, in the event, he doesn't quite manage to avoid the risk. Even though he sets up as defences something close to the ironic distancing of post-modernism, and even though he refers self-deprecatingly to his own status as a young fogey, an "evolutionary reprobate . . . resisting new media, abstraction and the latest trends" the bottom line is that he is serious about the Philosophical in the title or he wouldn't have put it there.

His ambition is to make modern-day versions of what was once the most exalted genre in the academic hierarchy: history painting. That is, he is attempting philosophically charged meditations on the state of things in the form of representational allegories. Mostly, they are overtly theatrical in a deliberately fusty, murky style, though there are self-consciously contemporary notes: in one, a besuited man wearing sunglasses and looking more than a bit like Steve Martin holds open a heavy tome and directs our attention to a planetary diagram of some kind, not so much a philosopher as a dodgy Bible salesman.

Allegory of Knowledge, oil on linen, 48 x 60 inches, 2006

What, though, is at the heart of Walton's philosophical musings? Allegory of Knowledge, with its lovingly painted, naked fruit picker, is a variant on the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In the catalogue text, Walton suggests that "the advance of civilisation turns us away from poetic wisdom and towards a more objective truth", which implies that poetic wisdom is in some sense untrue and, as he elaborates, that rationality is a Bad Thing. But he is not quite clear about this, saying firstly that in a tired or fragmented cultural context, the painter "must piece together his own notions of truth, nature, goodness and beauty", and immediately afterward that, if culture fails us, "nature and objective truth become vital guides." There is likely to be some friction, to say the least, between subjective and objective notions of truth, given that one person's subjective truth may not, in fact, be true at all. To say that "evolution is the creation myth of our age" is, presumably, an example of Walton's own subjective truth, and it is but one of his misconceptions about evolution. It's a bit misleading to imply that science and rationality distance us from nature when religion generally sets us above nature and scientific knowledge makes it crystal clear that we are part and parcel of nature. As for regret that we live in a rational and scientific age: would that we did.

Walton's elegiac note about painting itself is also misplaced. Look around and it's clear that representational painting is a viable cultural option, and, when he forgets to be the conscience of his age, he is a thoroughly capable representational painter. By far the best things in this show are those in which he eases off on the more heavy-handed symbolism and deals with what is in front of his eyes: bunches of grapes, a naked figure, an architectural landscape. If he does what he does best, the philosophy will be part of the picture: he won't have to insert it in the form of book titles and portentious epistemological references.