At the age of 45, with already an impressive list of exhibitions to his name, in London, Berlin, Dublin and his native Belfast, Mark Shields is hardly a newcomer to public view. He has shown at frequent intervals at the Royal Academy and the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, been selected no less frequently for the Hunting, the Discerning Eye and the BP Portrait Award exhibitions, and this will be his sixth one-man show with the Grosvenor Gallery. His work is, in short, not unfamiliar to those of us who have cared to keep minds and eyes open. Yet for any but the most blasé and unself-questioning of artists, a show of new work will always be a test and a trial, at once a parade of insecurity and hope. And for all the manifest accomplishment and sympathetic serenity of his work, Shields is the least unquestioning of men.
And this body of work represents for him something rather more radical than simply another straight-forward step in his development as an artist. A steady progress is in no way to be deprecated, of course: each true artist, after all, does what he must, and, as he comes round again, how ever so slowly, on his way up the mountain, he will inevitably find himself not quite where he was, but a bit higher up. But things happen. That usual path may be unexpectedly blocked: another suggests itself, but who knows where it might lead, or at what risk? It may offer a wonderful short-cut to much higher ground: then again, it may prove horribly treacherous and false. In the end, all the artist can do is to trust the work itself, and follow its lead. Which is just what Shields has done.
It is not that he has not been as brave before. These days it takes a very brave artist to commit himself entirely to the image of the figure, especially so in working from its direct study, and the deep remembered knowledge thus acquired. It takes one even braver and more ambitious then to try that acquired knowledge against the long tradition of the large-scale figure composition, most especially so when, beyond the decorative, it engages openly with the narrative, the symbolic and, at times, the specifically religious. Shields has always had the courage of his ambition.
Yet hitherto, profound though the study and ambitious the engagement undoubtedly are, Shields’ progress has been of just that steady kind, step by step. We pick up in his work the guides he has followed along his way – the young Picasso of the pink and blue periods and the ‘Desmoiselles’; Sironi; Puvis de Chavannes; Millet; Poussin – while remaining all the time entirely himself. We acknowledge his technical command of medium and ground, the self-effacing monumentality of his draughtsmanship, and his scrupulous address to paint and surface. His Classical affinities are clear. All this we know, and admire. But, for all that we recognise the hand so well, what we have now seems so different. So what has changed?
All artists come to that stop in their work from time to time, just as Shields did, that halt on the upward path. It may be a natural enough, no more than a necessary pause to catch the breath: but it may be something more substantial, even though it may not be seen as such – nothing more perhaps than an unspoken disquiet, a vague sense of marking time, repeating a formula, finding nothing new. But there will always be ways over, through or round the block, and not necessarily by way of imagery, intent or any other sort of mental strife. More practical ploys and stratagems prove often the more effective, and not just in the immediate but in the longer term.
Without in any sense disavowing what had gone before, Shields felt just this sense of uncertainty as to how he might take the work forward. He was happy with the imagery, both large and small – the heads and single figures, the larger compositions – but it seemed that the means themselves were closing in on him – the dry, absorbent ground, the close tonality, the gentle, subtle palette. But he bought some new canvases anyway, to carry on, laid on the gesso ground as usual and, as before, began to draw directly onto them in sanguine pastel to set the image up. The only thing was that he went on drawing.
At first he found himself taking them through to a resolution close in spirit to the paintings he had been doing, the figures full in their description, and here the smaller heads especially – some painted, some drawn – span this first transition. Then, finding himself briefly out of pastel, and with only a pale yellow ochre to tint the ground by the time he turned to the larger canvases, he picked up the thickest charcoal he had to hand, and again began to draw and draw. And charcoal is, of its very nature, a broad, quick, open medium.
It has proved a transformation, not so much in terms of subject-matter, which has remained largely the same, but of technical liberation. There is to the work now an expansiveness and freedom in the statement that is taking it forward not step by step but, at high speed, and with a confidence and openness of spirit to match. So are they paintings or drawings? The short and only answer is that it doesn’t matter. For pastel and charcoal are but pigment too, rendered only by different means: and had these swift black lines been laid down as paint on a brush, the question would not be asked. What is more to the point is that Shields has moved on in himself to a point not of abstraction, or anything like it in the accepted sense, but to a fresh and new, and to him clearly inspiriting understanding that the mark can be right and true without being at all exact as particular description. A toe, a hand, a twist or gesture of the body can be seen as just what they are, and yet be barely more than an quick, suggestive, indicating stroke or two on the surface.
And with this technical freedom has come a renewed confidence in the narrative content of the work, that moves it away from the former, perhaps safer ambiguities and generalities, to a more direct account of the human and spiritual condition.
Shields calls this show ‘Colloquy’, which in this context suggests just such inner discussion or conference, a talking with himself. It is a debate as yet unconcluded, full of interest. It celebrates an artist with the nerve to show his work even as it is at a crucial point, caught in mid-transition. Each particular work stands nevertheless resolved in itself, in its own terms. They are complete and beautiful things. But to what will they lead? We can only wait to see, but I doubt there is anything to worry about. It is an exciting moment.