‘Look up. A hundred billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Unconcerned with me, that confidence of stars, light offerings, two thousand years old. If they are anything to me they are jewels for my shroud. I cannot know them. I cannot even know myself ... What can balance the inequity of that huge space, which never ends, and my bounded life? Perhaps this: The beatland of my body is not my kingdom’s scope. I have within, spaces as vast, if I could claim them.’
Jeanette Winterson, Art & Lies, 1994
I am learning to see. I don’t know why, everything goes more deeply into me and doesn’t stop at the place where it always used to end. I have an interiority. There is a place in me I knew nothing about. Everything goes there now. I don’t know what happens there.
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1910
Strange how, even now, the internal structure of our bodies feels both banal and utterly mysterious. For many of us it should ideally remain an unknowable yet dependable obscurity so that we forget its potential as a source of inconvenience, or worse, of pain and suffering. In the pursuit of the ideal, the reality of our fallible flesh becomes estranged. The study of anatomy, conversely, is a confrontation of our substance through the systematic mapping and naming of the body as a known entity. While still in its infancy, however, the validity of the practice was contested by some Enlightenment writers who believed the absence of the soul undermined the knowledge such practice provided, creating a duality; the visible functionality of the body divided from the enigma of its lived experience. 1
The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch has described the creative act as a means of ‘giving form to something which is perhaps alarmingly formless in its original condition…as if one lived in a kind of rubble word, and one was always making forms. 2 Our perceptions of reality can only be fragmentary and partial, and she notes the possibility of finding solace in the devotion to this search for significance.
Chanelle Walshe’s paintings are the result of a consistent and meditative working method. She brings to her practice a near ascetic sense of focus in which the superficial distractions of the mind can be temporarily overcome, allowing for a deeper connection to alternative rhythms of the body. Before any painting takes place, she begins with the study of the body, primarily the human heart and lungs, during days spent looking at preserved specimens housed in the Anatomy Room at The Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin.
During the research process, Walshe draws these organs from ‘life’, quickly and in pencil, making reams of studies that, in her own words, ‘feed’ the paintings, so much so that the boxy lines of the notebook are echoed as flat careful planes of colour in the finished works. By contrast, the hearts or lungs, strangely similar in shape, are painted in with a lively hand, using a palette knife to build up movement and energy. The disparity sets up a sense of visual and symbolic tension between these opposing layers; the inanimate and the vital. Working on as many as ten paintings simultaneously, she brings them forward together in waves, each a development of a specific sketch, enlivened by her physical and mental dedication. Painting in nourishing earthy tones, soft greys and golds against heavy reds and browns bringing to mind the gentle hues and textures of the country's bogs, she is also influenced by the work of Irish painters of an earlier generation such as Cecily Brennan, Patrick Graham and Camille Souter.
Having recently spent a while living in the west of Ireland, Walshe's palette has grown brighter and more restful; a development she attributes to the different quality of the light and the sudden expansion in her sense of space and time. Given the state of reverie from which she feels the works emerge, it is unsurprising that the cadence of a more subdued way of life has found its way through. Embarking from a cerebral and highly specific starting point, their energy is something quite far from their clinical origins. These essential shapes unfold towards the viewer, appearing as something precious she has unearthed from a background of soft matt soil, like 'black butter'. 3
In Irish tradition, where the keenness of one's physical connection to the natural world is assumed, a piseog is a piece of organic material left to decay on a person's land as a means of bringing them misfortune. Semantically the word is linked to the female body and likely expresses the fear and suspicion attached to the power of women's sexuality and generative strength.4 The remedy for such afflictions involved the burial of the offending object, and the elimination of its negative charge with prayer and holy water. By upholding the value of bold engagement with nature and interiority, Chanelle Walshe's paintings deny such prudish and conservative sublimations, while acknowledging and respecting the potential force of certain powers beyond our comprehension. In a world where boundaries, borders, territory and opinions are often hastily drawn and unyieldingly rigid, there is something captivating about the expansive and fluid logic from which her works emerge.
Rachel McIntyre, assistant curator, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.
1 Rebecca Haidt, Embodying Enlightenment: Knowing the Body in Eighteenth Century Spanish Literature and Culture, 1998
2 Iris Murdoch in conversation with Bryan Magee, BBC interview, 1978
3 Seamus Heaney, ‘Bogland’, Doors into the Dark, 1969
4 Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story, 2001