A text inspired by the paintings of
Lesley-Ann O'Connell by Barry Kehoe
There are three colours that are ever present in the palette choice of Lesley-Ann O'Connell. Cerulean Blue, Magenta and Cadmium Yellow. Each colour has its own set of particular characteristics and in her work they form a triad of dramatic characters. They draw upon each other for strength and struggle against each other for dominance. In each painting these three colours are coaxed into an imbalanced harmony of space, light and form in which the viewer can wander freely becoming lost in an inner space of emotion and memory.
Cerulean Blue is the colour of the sea and the sky. It's a stable grounding tone. Magenta is the colour of votive sombre celebration, sunsets and sunrises. It can present a liminal moment of change. It can be a colour of transition and transformation. Cadmium Yellow is the colour of the noon day sun, intense energy and high emotion.
In O’Connell's work there is often the bass of a Cerulean Blue that anchors the eye. An application of Magenta like the melody in a song that can hold the centre while the high notes of bright Cadmium Yellow dance through the work. Often presented as a frame of paint inserted into the canvas these interacting movements of colour can jar, push and pull. They defy visual expectation, guided by the deliberate composition of the artist.
With the use of these pure colours there is a risk that structure in the work could collapse into a formless maelstrom. With a sudden mark of Vermilion or Hooker’s Green O’Connell offers an anchor point that draws the eye from the storm. She renders a plant, a vase, a boat in the movement of a brushstroke that also grounds and stabilises the work just enough to offer the eye a helpful foothold. The use of thin washes in contrast with thick impasto brush strokes also pulls the focus, creating optical illusions of cinematic depth. She uses colour as an active force to push and pull the viewer into the structures of dreamlike inner worlds.
She is drawn to places of transition, like the frames of windows and doors. She also turns to her memories of boats, cliffs, landscapes, rooms and familiar spaces. She transposes these subjects and confines them within interiorised landscapes of dancing light and colour.
Through her use of orthogonal frames of paint upon the canvas and her bold marks of pure colour, we are drawn ever deeper into harbours of memory. At times the work is elusive, at times it is comforting, but it is never quite definitive. She avoids the uncanny, but also never fully embraces the familiar. She strives to find this imbalance that asks questions of our eye, our experience and our memory. Our gaze cannot hold a safe and restful point in her paintings. It continues to wander unthreatened and unbounded, as free as the dancing marks of colour and light that step in and out of her enclosures. Her paintings expose horizons beyond the natural line, revealing the possibility of hidden spaces and secret vistas.
The purity of colour in her work is strong, bold, defiant, and simultaneously, nervous, insecure and teetering. The syntax of these colours is constantly altered by how they react when placed in a movement together, like entities competitively dancing across the canvas. The measured and deliberate choices bring both calm pleasure and disquieting disruption. The power of these colours and their deliberate framing push a sense of unease, and yet, pull the eye ever deeper into a seductive trap. It is hard not to feel overpowered by the sensuality of the inviting colours.
Dreamboatpresents a boat, in a space within spaces. It is framed by multiple layers. It is both secure and safe within a haven of memory, but also confined uncomfortably by the unstable horizons of the somnambulant. It places the viewer at a distance from the centre as if looking backwards through a pair of binoculars, refracting the subject into a minute shrunken fragment of desire.
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his essay “The line and the light” tells the story of being out of place as a young student working on a fishing boat. As he looks at the sea, he spots a discarded tin can floating beside the boat, dazzling and blinding in the reflected sunlight. A fisherman remarks that Lacan can see the tin but the tin cannot see him. This self-reflective moment gave him an insight into how we perceive paintings. He realised he did not belong in this story of the fishermen he felt ashamed and that he should be no more than a shadow or a dot in a painting of this moment.
The works of Lesley-Ann O'Connell give us a similar opportunity to allow the canvas to reflect upon our perception and the awareness of where we are positioned in relation to what we see. The paintings draw you in, but finding a comfortable place for the eye to linger is not so easy. Lacan goes on to explain that through an artist’s use of light and line, our vision allows paintings catch us in a trap. Colour, movement and line, as in O’Connell's painting, is used to draw us in. To trap our gaze in a lattice of layers each more inviting than the last.
Immediately Dreamboat brought me back to a memory of a small steam boat in a glass box that proudly stood in the window of a terraced cottage where my grandfather’s brothers lived. The boat was made from crudely whittled wood with bootlace eyelets for portholes. A tuft of black wool came from the funnel representing the black smoke from a coal driven engine. It was a peculiar curiosity in the little house where, as a child, I’d stare at the boat in its glass case wishing I could shrink myself down to scale. In my imagination I would run around the deck commanding the ship on some great adventure of discovery. My grandfather’s brothers grew to be two elderly bachelors who apparently painted a line down the centre of that house. Each would stay on their own side, comfortable, curmudgeonly and always together. Though they didn’t speak for many years, when one died the other didn’t last much longer and my father inherited their house.
Remembering that little boat in its glass case, as I look at Dreamboat, brings me back to that house. A house I often felt was inhabited by a malignant spirit. I've had many nightmares over the years about the room where the boat sat on the windowsill trapped in its glass box. But the same boat in its fragile prison takes me back to summers at the beach watching sail boats compete in the local regatta, long summer days spent watching my father fishing from the pier in the harbour under Magenta evening skies and being carried to bed contented and exhausted, secure in his arms, after long days spent exploring the dunes on Cadmium Yellow beaches and jumping in the Cerulean Blue waves of the sea.
This is the power of Lesley-Ann O’Connell’s explorations of colour and space. Within her work we can allow ourselves be transported by memory and emotion, through time and space, slipping through a myriad of portals to varied horizons, enveloped in the familiar and unfamiliar spaces that she creates to trap our gaze and, at the same time, free our imagination.
Barry Kehoe is an independent curator and art writer. He is a researcher and educator at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). Barry has a BA in English and History (UCC); an MA in Drama and Theatre Studies (UCD); a hDip in Arts Administration (UCD); and an MA in Visual Culture (NCAD). Barry was a delegate to the Former West Congress in Berlin and was a recipient of an art writing residency with the Kooshk International Artist Residency in Tehran.
Lacan, Jacques. The Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis II: ‘The line and the light’ (p.91). Norton and Co. London 1978.