Nuala Herron ‘Beauty in Ruin’

In this collection of paintings the artist attempts to show a glimpse of the frailty and transience of beauty in ruin. Herron is exploring the picturesque, a time-honoured area of investigation for artists though of course putting it into a modern context. Picturesque meaning literally "in the manner of a picture; fit to be made into a picture" was a word used as early as 1703 (Oxford English Dictionary), and derived from an Italian term pittoresco, meaning, "in the manner of a painter," As meaning like beauty is transient the term ‘picturesque’ is now held in some distain and taken to mean simply pretty or charming.

In 18th Century philosophy and criticism it was however a valid stream of artistic exploration holding the middle ground between the beautiful (in the strictly traditional sense of classical i.e. Grecian aesthetic ideals) and the sublime (that appreciation of the vastness and terrible power of nature as articulated in the theories of philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant). The picturesque borrowed from both extremes, conjoining elements of what was considered at the time ‘ideally’ beautiful (i.e. fitting the philosophical notions of beauty offered by notably the Greek philosopher and statesman Plato) with the non-rational (i.e. wild, instinctual, untamed and possibly dangerous) sublime. The notion of the picturesque was primarily articulated by the clergyman and writer William Gilpin in 1768 in a travel book designed for the English leisured classes, where he defined the picturesque as ‘that is what agreeable in a picture’. His perception of what was ‘agreeable’ however deviated from the norms of the time to include rugged landscapes and decaying buildings and even ‘decaying’ people. The artist includes portraits in her study of the potential beauty of decay and ruin. The equation of human aging with the decay of infrastructure has also a lengthy history which again leads ultimately back (in painting at least) to the theories of the Reverend Gilpin.

Unfortunately the picturesque became a fad and swarms of tourists pounced upon suitably craggy areas of England and Europe which eventually led to the devaluing of the term. Though even in the 19th Century the art critic and poet John Ruskin considered it a genuinely modern aesthetic category. Herron brings the picturesque into the contemporary context in this exhibition by including elements such as a study of an individual (her mother) in a post-riot landscape posing on a hijacked and subsequently burned vehicle and a landscape showing industrial intrusion, decay and pollution in India.

Herron’s paintings are often also studies in surface and colour which show the artist’s interest in portraying to a level which almost reaches the abstract, building facades, doors and shuttered windows. She takes the picturesque and often mixes it with painterly concerns in regard to technique and intertwines comments upon domesticity. These buildings are old and decaying but they are lived in. These areas have a massive pipeline running through it but people live and work there.

The artist often bases her painting on photographs, not always her own, thus appropriating other’s images for her own devices and reinterpreting them to give them new meaning. This can be seen in particular with her reinterpretation of a photograph by Robert Polidori of a building in Havana, Cuba in which the artist articulates her appreciation of decay and beauty and gives prominence to the obvious domestic associations of the building by highlighting the white sheets on the washing line.

(Text by Gregory McCartney)

This the artist’s first solo show in the Context though she did appear in the ‘Take Away’ group show in 2004.
The exhibition runs 7th October – 4th November 2006

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