William McKeown (1962–2011) was an artist who went beyond embracing the immediacy of being: he sought to capture moments of transcendental beauty by creating spaces brimming with light, framing them through a body of abstract paintings. The 22 works on display for the Irish artist’s first solo show in New York at Casey Kaplan Gallery represent this dedication to making experiential and predominantly monochromatic color fields. While the work is related to a history of 20th-century abstraction, reminiscent of Agnes Martin and Mark Rothko, the highly personal canvases of McKeown evoke memory, emotion, and the natural world from a wholly different perspective and manner than his predecessors.
McKeown was born and raised in County Tyrone on his family’s farm, which inspired much of his aesthetics—memories of looking out onto the Irish landscape while straining to hear cuckoos calling in the spring and seeing an endless blue sky. After studying textile design at Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design in London, McKeown switched his primary medium to painting in the early ’90s. The artist’s use of unprimed linen speaks to his previous engagement with weaving: rich layers of color absorb into the canvases. While the artist’s queerness and nationality may not appear overtly in his work, the theme of seeking emancipation through the creation of sublime spaces, based on emotion and experience, speaks to his identity in a divided country that forced queer identities to the margins.Desire for a freeing space manifests across canvases stretched in perfect or nearly perfect squares, ranging between 16 and 19 inches wide and high, without hard edges or corners. The spacious and even installation across four white walls gives the paintings an ideal amount of room while still accomplishing a sequential presentation. Black, uneven, and continuous brushstrokes border the edges of the majority of the canvases, which work to hold the painted light within them. While varying considerably across the show, the fields of color inside the paintings have gradients that turn into stronger hues towards the bottom, with a completely new bit of radiating color sometimes added on. The result is a series of distinctly colored expanses, each with an individual sense of depth. Untitled (2009–11) contains a gradient whose outer edges at the top are a dark gray that transition to a lighter gray space surrounding a bright, glowing layer of orange at the bottom. The painting exhibits a duality found in McKeown’s works where we are reminded of tangible things—embers, the orange light at dusk, or a candlelit room—while at the same time, there is a sense of feeling, the painting presenting a hopeful inner glow illuminating the dark.
There is no bottom line to the painted black borders of some canvases, with the light spilling downwards uncontained. Raining (2008) does this with a gentle gradient of light blue-gray transitioning to a pure and bright gray at the base. The image of a misty downpour with a hazy blue-gray sky behind it came to mind, especially given McKeown’s own native wet, windswept Irish landscape. But Raining ultimately made me reflect on a sensation, the feeling of rain, not a specific instance. While most of the works are untitled, suggestive titling allows us an opportunity to imagine something tangible in a non-representational way.
Like the washes absorbed by the linen, McKeon’s paintings seemingly sink into the walls thanks to the thinness of the canvases and smaller scale of the work. The merging of painting and wall surface recalled the feeling of looking through a luminous window or portal into something both palpable and immaterial. Hope Painting (The Light Inside) (2006) embodied this sensation when a strong blue gradient blended into a thin, pale pink—a curved bar of color, floating on top of and over the edges of the black borders. Here, nothing in the external world seemed to properly reference the light within the painting aside from a feeling of internal serenity.
McKeown’s canvases are frequently referenced as roughly being the size of our chests—evoking our lungs and a sense of breath. In 2021, a decade after McKeown passed away, breathing has taken on new meaning in the context of a deadly respiratory pandemic. Rather than just making me aware of my own breath, McKeown’s paintings allowed my eyes to look outward through panes of color, rest, and focus on the capacity of personal freedom through abstraction and emotion. The artist’s steadfast commitment to these liberating possibilities offers a moment of respite when it has never felt more necessary.
Bryan Martin for The Brooklyn Rail, 2021
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