Following the artistic paper trail

It may be Minimalist but Richard Gorman’s work has a sensual richness that makes for a beautiful show in an ideal space

It may be Minimalist but Richard Gorman’s work has a sensual richness that makes for a beautiful show in an ideal space

RICHARD GORMAN was born and brought up in Dublin. His family was in the motor trade, and the expectation was that he would follow suit. He duly studied business at Trinity College Dublin and then began to work for the family firm. That might have been the beginning of a lifelong career, but all along he had nurtured other ambitions, without ever feeling he would get a chance to realise them. He was about 30 by the time he decided he wasn’t in the car business for the long haul and, in an abrupt change of direction, he went to Dún Laoghaire School of Art (now IADT), graduating in 1980.

From that point on he has worked as an artist. His first solo show was in the Project in 1983. Two years later, he established a base in Milan, and has lived there on and off for much of the time since, with long periods also spent in Ireland. Forays and sojourns elsewhere, particularly Paris and Japan, have also been central to his artistic development. In Paris he worked in the renowned print studios of Jacques de Champfleury and, more recently, Michael Woolworth (he’s also worked extensively with the Graphic Studio and Stoney Road Press in Dublin).

In Japan, he absorbed aspects of the country's distinctive aesthetic sense and sensibility, not only exhibiting there, but also making substantial bodies of work in ways that acknowledge and incorporate Japanese techniques and traditions. His current show, Kozo, at the Kerlin Gallery, stems largely from his explorations into and experience of papermaking in Japan and the possibilities it presents for the evolution of his own work. Kozorefers to a particular kind of paper.


To say that he has been in Milan for much of the time since 1985 may suggest a hedonistic, cosmopolitan lifestyle. That is not quite the case. True, Gorman has always cut an urbane figure, with a laid-back, classical dress sense. But Milan is a working city and the work ethic is partly what he likes about it. His atelier there – in which he lives as well as works – is a modestly specified, functional space on a small courtyard. He runs a very tidy, organised studio. Those expecting something like the romantic squalor of the Francis Bacon studio in the Hugh Lane would be sorely disappointed.

Perhaps the relative austerity of his studio reflects the internal language of his art, which is organised and spare. Yet it should be said that, although exceptionally spare, the art is not austere.

There is a generosity and sensual richness to it that militates against any such feeling. Gorman is completely attentive to the sensual qualities of everything he makes, to nuances of colour, texture, line and form, and to the fabric that serves as a ground for the work, whether it is paper or canvas – he prefers to stretch his canvases with hammer and tacks, for example, and prime them according to his own preferences, rather than using the more convenient options of a staple-gun or a readymade, prepared canvas.

The work in Kozo takes this attentiveness one stage further. He first became acquainted with washi – traditional, handmade Japanese paper (washi literally translates as Japanese paper) – when he learned how to make it during his time in Fukui in Japan in the early 1990s.

The centrepiece of this exhibition, All Wall, is a huge, 40-piece composite originally made and exhibited in Japan in 2003. It features what might be described as extreme paper-making in that, rather than making sheets of paper and then applying paint to them, as one might expect and as happens with the rest of the work in the show, he undertook quite a testing, labour-intensive process.

This involved mixing coloured dye into prepared paper pulp, then pouring the dyed pulp into guide moulds positioned on newly made, wet sheets of paper. The result is an intriguing hybrid of painting and watercolour in which the colour imbues the very substance of the paper – and the paper is substantial and textural, so that the finished surface evokes a thick oil paint impasto rather than watercolour. And there is a beautiful give to the way the drying process has married the curvilinear coloured sections to the undyed areas, so that they are inextricably woven together.

All Wallis a terrific piece of work, though it is also quite subdued in tone and colour. The other pieces are more conventionally painted, in gouache, on to lustrous sheets of echizen kozo washi paper. They display Gorman's characteristic grammar of just a few geometric motifs, typically circle, lozenge and triangle, arranged in interlocking patterns that have an almost mathematically quality, as though they are a personal species of Venn diagram.

As one catalogue note for an exhibition eloquently puts it, his early, hugely energetic, gestural paintings “were animated by the frantic surface pace of an anxious line, which skimmed over or ploughed through impacting plates of muted colour”. That “anxious line” hits the nail on the head. The line raced to police the surface of his busy compositions, trying to hold them together.

At that stage his paintings started from some visible point in the world: a scene, a thing, or a memory. Gradually he came to realise that he didn’t need to hang a painting on some external image, that, as he expressed it once, when you make a painting “all that stuff is there anyway, you don’t have to put it in”. Rather the question is, how could a painting not be of the world? Unlike some Minimalist artists, he doesn’t set out to preclude us from seeing whatever we like in his work, and there are myriad potential associations in the forms and colours he uses. Visit Kozo and you’ll see a beautiful show in an ideal space, and whatever else your imagination dictates.


Works on paper by Richard GormanKerlin Gallery, Anne's Lane, South Anne Street. Until February 25

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is visual arts critic and contributor to The Irish Times