“Patrick Graham: Transfiguration” was the most extensive solo presentation the Hugh Lane has mounted for quite a while. Apart, that is, from its permanent housing of the studio of Francis Bacon, whose tortured sensibility and renditions of the body in extremis have parallels in Graham’s work. The show encompassed almost two dozen substantial paintings—the six-by-eleven-foot-plus diptych was a format the artist favored during his heyday in the 1980s—as well as sixteen drawings, none of them small and all among his signal achievements. Though most of these mixed-media works on paper were from the past decade, the paintings spanned forty-five years. All but one postdated 1982, when Graham, who was approaching the age of forty, created the works that quickly made him one of the most influential artists in Ireland, certainly the most emulated by younger painters, some of whom were his students in Dublin’s College of Marketing and Design, now TU Dublin (Technological University Dublin), where he taught for many years. The largest work here, an eighteen-foot-wide blasted ruin of a tetraptych titled The Life and Death of Hopalong Cassidy, 1988, is an extreme but not atypical example of his work at the time: a Grand Guignol of hacked stretchers, ripped canvas, and slashing brushstrokes, executed in a palette redolent of mud and gore, garnished with a sprinkling of tawdry flowers, and weighted down with two life-size mangled torsos fashioned from chicken wire.
A recent self-portrait, Figure in Landscape, 2021, greeted visitors at the exhibition’s entrance, its heavily worked surface belying the delicate depiction of the darkened features, intense gaze, naked torso, and thin arms of an artist pushing eighty, clutching a single wildflower in each fist. This image is emblematic of the oddly affecting mix of swagger and vulnerability that has long been characteristic of Graham’s self-presentation, which has more than a touch of Beuysian mythmaking about it. It has sometimes been hard to see past an oft-rehearsed heroic biography: parental loss, a lonely Midlands childhood in the dismal 1950s, early acclaim for prodigious academic drawing skills, then a Pauline conversion to expressionist imagemaking sparked by a confidence-shattering encounter with the work of Emil Nolde, which precipitated a self-destructive fallow period of some eighteen years before Graham rejoined the fray. The decision to paint the walls of the various gallery spaces pink or red amplified, though unnecessarily, the flesh, blood, and viscera so often depicted or intimated in the works they were temporarily hosting. The transfiguration conjured by the exhibition’s title is that of the Christian Gospels: a glimpse of the divine body briefly irradiating the wastelands of fallen humanity.
The exposed mortal body, all meat and sinew, and the expostulations of the tortured soul (AH SWEET JESUS THIS IS ANOTHER WAY TO LOVE . . . AND I UNDERSTAND was emblazoned on one canvas from 1982) are recurring tropes. So, too, are the landscapes that are the locus of the protagonists’ travails. Bleakly expansive despite a shallow pictorial depth, these vistas are identified by the (rural Irish) place names inscribed on the surface of certain paintings. Words function as both bearers of meaning and compositional devices, tremulously distended across the picture plane à la Cy Twombly. These notations often comprise the painting’s titles (Lark in the Morning, 2020; The Song of the Yellow Bittern, 1988), some borrowed from traditional folk songs whose charms often mask a darker import.
Graham lost his mother to tuberculosis at an early age, at a time when the iconic figure of Mother Ireland retained some mythic heft—an era, too, during which a sexually repressive church shamefully opposed legislation aimed at reforming health care, which it saw as a threat to the integrity of the Catholic family. This surely continues to inform, to a degree, the drawing series “Síle na Gig,” 2016–22, based on the figure of the Sheela-na-gig, those enigmatic stone carvings of female genital display that grace many churches in medieval Ireland and elsewhere. While this fearsome motif was powerfully repurposed half a century ago by American artists such as Mary Beth Edelson and Nancy Spero, it signifies very differently in the work of a septuagenarian Irishman as a disquieting emblem of uneasy fascination with carnal origins and ends.