Last night at the Kerlin gallery a panel of three speakers (their roles privileged with chairs) led a semi-supine audience through a worshipful recollection of the artist William McKeown. The audience was invited to sit on the floor, or we must have been, because suddenly everybody did. I wasn’t entirely comfortable – and sitting on the concrete floor did my back no favors – amongst the familiar faces of the congregation, and noticing how the less familiar ones are getting younger and younger (or more precisely how I’m getting older and older) I wondered, not for the first time, if I had strayed into an event that wasn’t meant for me.
I loved Willie’s work (I bought a drawing when he first exhibited at the Kerlin in 1996) and found in him and his work a sustaining influence. The same age as me, his significant career (though it’s trajectory was not as blessed as some may now believe) ran parallel to my own paltrier version. We exhibited together in 2001 (along with Fergus Martin and Richard Gorman) at the Fenton Gallery in Cork and his nod of approval for the drawings I showed then meant more than my nonchalance allowed. He had an unusual certainty about things, his work in particular, and that self-belief could be infectious.
Willie was renowned for his sensitivity to the natural world. An early riser, his keen gaze held the morning hours and it’s emerging light at the centre of his attention. Curiously, for someone so fixated on natural elements, he seemed equally interested in interior spaces and rooms within rooms became a recurring feature of his gallery installations. His luminous paintings and drawings refer to nature and to the vivid reality of the present moment. Simple titles, ‘The Meadow’, ‘Raining’, ‘Buttercups’, allude to a direct engagement with the world around him, while others, ‘Open’, ‘The Morning’, ‘Hope’, express an allegiance to what is always coming.
William McKeown, IMMA installation, 2008 (courtesy Kerlin Gallery)
When he died suddenly last October I felt a sense of shock and an acute sadness for him. I also, and this was very immediate, felt a painful question – what now? What does his work mean now? I remembered how in the aftermath of his death I felt his absence as a negation of the values and experience his work had avowed. I felt the demoralizing effect of a testimony being disproven, a sensation of meaning being unmade. When the audience was invited to speak I wanted to ask the panel the same question I had been asking myself but the tone of the event was reverent and uncritical and my question seemed too provocative. Perhaps it’s too soon to know what the work means without him, without the possibility of renewal it always implied.
Isabel Nolan remembered his extraordinary fastidiousness when during a gallery installation she found him holding a magnifying class to a canvas and tweezing invisible specks of fluff from the surface. This prompted Declan Long to quote Saul Bellow, an aside to the effect that Willie was, “a Columbus of the near at hand”. ‘Conversations’ like this usually throw up something worth remembering and that line was it for me. I guess there is no easy answer to the question I wanted (but didn’t want) to ask, but Bellow’s great phrase, recalled by Declan Long, sent me back to ‘The Adventures of Augie March’.
Christopher Hitchens highlights the following lines in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition and they seem appropriate here:
“I drank coffee and looked out into the brilliant first morning of the year… the snow polished and purified blue … The sailors who first saw America, that sweet sight, where the belly of the ocean had brought them, didn’t see more beautiful color than this.”
And Augie reflects later, as the novel is coming to a close,
“Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of that near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”