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Catalogue Text – ‘The Pleasures of Circular Time’, Paul Hallahan, Roscommon Arts Centre (Writer-in-Residence) September 2020.

September 23, 2020

What is a painted curve, only a broad sweep of the arm? Offering the simplest form of composition, the curve moves through a human history of mark-making like a timeless signature – from spiraling Neolithic carvings to the sacred geometry of Christian iconography. Whether interrogating interior spaces or unifying distinct works along similar sightlines, the compositional curve can trigger a multitude of relations, not least in how the viewer is positioned.

A downward arc may suggest a view over mountainous terrain, stretching towards the horizon; it can prompt us to visualise the geodetic curvature of the ground beneath our feet, or the earth seen from space, with the stars of heaven shimmering at our backs. Conversely, an upturned curve implies a more subterranean vantagepoint, as if situating us below ground to look upwards through some kind of portal. At the innermost level of the body, curves are echoed in cellular membranes or the light-sensitive retina onto which our world view is imprinted. Light bends when entering the eye, just as it refracts through atmospheric changes. The sun’s rays passing from one substance to another produces nature’s most primordial spectacle – the chromatic arch of the rainbow.

For the purposes of his solo exhibition, ‘Running, Returning, Running’ at Roscommon Arts Centre, Paul Hallahan has harnessed the power of the curve to soften the edges of a square. A series of 20 new paintings encircle the uniform gallery space in a continuous flow, before curving back into the landscape. Circularity was deeply engrained in these paintings from the outset. They are based on an older set of ink drawings, originally developed in response to a walk, routinely undertaken by the artist almost daily for ten years. Such repetition allowed Hallahan to transcend the mundane and interrogate the seemingly familiar landscape over time. The site of these walks is undisclosed, thus democratising the viewer’s encounter towards something more universal. Though the original drawings were put away, ideas continued to percolate around them. In revisiting them several years later, Hallahan wanted to conceptually log the memories resonating within these walks, which had somehow been locked in time. Such reflexive circularity is echoed in Hallahan’s encroaching arcs, which wrap around the canvas like the skin of a drum, enfolding and abstracting the monochromatic landscapes depicted within.

The orbicular motif is further embodied in a durationalsoundtrack that pans from the centre of the gallery space. The minimalist piano piece was composed in collaboration with musician, Joseph Harney, based on the artist’s request that only three chords be played for 90 minutes. These prescribed parameters were intended to help the music to move through a range of emotional states – including enjoyment, boredom, frustration and determination – ultimately producing fruitful moments of innovation and revelation. This minimal score also recalls a time prior to learning when inexperienced fingers made the most of limited piano keys. The artist believes that set limitations are ultimately soothing; having too many options can cause anxiety and the worst conditions for making art. Just as Hallahan’s repetitive daily walks allowed him to pull images out of the ‘everydayness’ of his experience, so toothese musicalconstraints became liberating, as the musician began to approach the elemental nature of all things.

In a similar conceptual vein, the palindrome attends to notions of pattern, restriction and the relinquishing of excessive choice. An established format within literature – often manifesting as ‘constrained writing’ with a structural focus on symmetry – the palindrome is also present within minimal music, characterised by repetitive motives and diatonic tonality. A palindromic equivalent in western art may be the Serial Art movement of the 1960s. With connections to conceptualism and minimalism, seriality offers a mode of structuring in which artworks became modular components of a broader sequence. A striking example within Hallahan’s practice is the harnessing of numerical seriality in his long-running series, ‘Aimlessly Pretty’. Across three phases from 2016 onward, Hallahan created 900 watercolours, with each painting only identifiable through its assigned number, set and year. Where individual works grapple with a fleeting search for compositions, the gradual proliferation of imagery amasses a robust and meaningful body of knowledge.

Interestingly, the title of the series was taken from a scathing review in Rolling Stone of Aphex Twin’s experimental 2001album, ‘Drukqs’, described by the writer as his “most incoherent and irrelevant album to date” featuring “gratuitously weird sounds and occasional wisps of ersatz classical piano that are aimlessly pretty” (1). Though intended as a derogatory remark, Hallahan locates freedom in the prospect of ‘aimless’ experimentation, unconcerned with fixed meaning or outcomes. He also traces the shifting implications of the term ‘pretty’, making art historical connections with beauty and the sublime, particularly in relation to human interactions with the natural world. Moreover, Hallahan seems to place value on artistic risk – a quality he greatly admires in artists like Philip Guston, William McKeown and Agnes Martin, whose journeys between figurative and abstract painting demonstrated a willingness to deviate from that which is already known. Creativity is not linear. It does not progress towards predetermined destinations; rather, it embodies the pleasures of circular time, looping and deviating, before spiralling back to the beginning.

Joanne Laws is an art writer and editor based in County Roscommon.


(1) Pat Blashill, ‘Aphex Twin, Drukqs’, Rolling Stone, Issue 881, 8 November 2001.

[Featured Image: Paul Hallahan, Running & Returning, installation view, Roscommon Arts Centre; photograph courtesy the artist]

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