When I say that Paul Hallahan’s works are arresting, what I mean is that I walked past the gallery showing his work – Hang Tough Contemporary – and could not take my eyes away. The painting that had attracted my attention, Lotus, measured 230 by 160 centimetres. It was dark grey and black, with hints of pink, and had the appearance of a wrinkled dress shirt, imprinted onto canvas.
Hallahan studied animation at Ballyfermot College of Further Education (BCFE), and earned a Bachelor’s degree in visual art from Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) in 2011. Since winning the Golden Fleece Award in 2018, which he modestly calls “one of the better awards in Ireland” and “quite unique”, and with funding from the Arts Council, he has been able to work full-time as an artist. Hallahan has exhibited in a number of different venues, including The Complex, The Lab and the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin. His current exhibit, which launched on March 3 at Hang Tough, is called Words as Colour Not Language.
Hallahan’s works “commonly focus on how we interact with nature, taking art as a form or by-product of nature and our civilisation”.
Hallahan’s works “commonly focus on how we interact with nature, taking art as a form or by-product of nature and our civilisation”. They concentrate on the bodily experience of nature, which transcends verbalization. Yet, when I ask Hallahan about his relationship to language, he becomes slightly abashed. “So, my use of language in art is kind of strange,” he says. “Words become very visual to me.” The titles that Hallahan gives to his works are often based on their symmetry or the sound they make. Occasionally, the meaning is taken into account, but remains malleable to him. “I am always really fascinated with things that start off as negative, that you can swing into the positive,” he says in reference to the title of the exhibit.
Most of the paintings that form Words as Colour Not Language are produced on raw canvas – their surface is, as such, semi-transparent. Although the shadow of Hallahan’s method, the crumpling of canvas and the dyeing, and the cycles in the washing machine, is visible in the final result of his works, many of the gallery’s visitors found themselves mystified by it. As art critic Cristín Leach pointed out during her talk with Hallahan at Hang Tough, he treats the canvas like textile. He recounts that forays into bleaching led to the total destruction of his painting surfaces. Some of Hallahan’s works do not make it through his gruelling experiments. Paul Mosse’s art, which Hallahan mentions at an earlier time as an inspiration, is a study of artistic decomposition similar to his own process.
Prior to the move, his paintings were lighter in colour and less intent on complexity, focusing more on the “macro” element – but the rural landscape he found himself in changed this.
The works shown as part of Words as Colour Not Language were made in the period of 2020 to 2021, following his move from Dublin to the coast of Donegal. “When you move, you always worry how it will affect what you’re working on,” Hallahan admits. Prior to the move, his paintings were lighter in colour and less intent on complexity, focusing more on the “macro” element – but the rural landscape he found himself in changed this.
The mountains around his new home were rich in vegetation. The bushes there appealed to him more than did the larger woodland areas, and provided a starting point for his works. Bushes become “smaller and smaller, denser and denser” the farther you look into them, Hallahan explains. “And there’s so much going on”, he continues, “It links again to this idea of the question”. Questions, like bushes, also increase in complexity the more you delve into them. Hallahan references Richard Feynman’s Magnets and Why Questions here, which gives its name to one of the works of this series. Cuckoo Cocoon and No Matter What are part of the same series. The paintings, Hallahan explains, were a way for him to “abstractly document density”.
In looking to document “not necessarily the forest, but everything beneath the forest”, as he says, Hallahan nods to the tendency in recent years to ignore grim realities.
At the forefront of these “dense paintings” is Lotus. Hallahan details the thought process behind its making, outside of its basis in landscape. With Feynman’s magnetism, the Kildare artist became fascinated with the concept of internal clocks and time. “I realised that about half the population have no biological clock of any sort. So, for me, as a male, my only internal reference point every year comes on my birthday. Those little marks”, says Hallahan, referencing the droplet-like shapes on his works, “are a visualisation that I’ve had since I was a child of how a year works: Christmas slows down into the summer, which is long, and then goes back up into Christmas again.” When he was thinking about how to depict time in his paintings, the droplet analogy came to mind. “I thought of time as moving in spirals,” he concludes. Hallahan started doing extensive research on timekeeping devices, which men have been obsessed with for centuries.
In looking to document “not necessarily the forest, but everything beneath the forest”, as he says, Hallahan nods to the tendency in recent years to ignore grim realities. The political climate that we find ourselves in, as well as the ongoing health crisis, makes this especially relevant. “The Yawn” and “In the Middle of the Night” both explore political themes. The first of these, for example, is linked to empathy yawns in politicians. But Hallahan is reluctant to create set meanings for his paintings. He instead prefers for the viewer to form their own interpretation of his (arguably very ambiguous) works.
I think back to how I felt, standing in front of the gallery, on my way home from college one night. Lotus relayed a sense of comfort and wisdom to me; the way I see it now, the work harkens back to its own process. The ineffable quality of Hallahan’s paintings can perhaps be said to be born of this wearing down of material. Yet in looking at them, the words to describe his works are still at the tip of my tongue.
Paul Hallahan’s exhibit Words as Colour Not Language is open at Hang Tough Contemporary on Exchequer Street, Dublin 2, until March 20, 2022. Hallahan will feature as part of the upcoming exhibit for the Golden Fleece Award’s 25th anniversary at the Solstice Arts Centre in Navan. Three of his works are part of Trinity’s art collection.
Featured image: “Lotus” (2022), 230 x 160 cm, acrylic on canvas.