One of the remarkable things about Selma McCormack is that when she took up art after raising a family, she did not settle for watercolour landscapes, or for still lifes in pastel, or for flower studies in oils. She turned instead to one of the most challenging and most demanding of art forms; namely, sculpture, including bronze and ceramics. Happily for her and happily for us, it transpires that she has a real gift of shaping. The gift for sculpture is the gift of shaping - of shaping materials in accordance with certain subtle laws of proportion and expression. Proportion without expression is lifeless; while expression without proportion is artless. But the gifted sculptor never loses sight of both of these requirements, and produces figures that are at one artful and animated, at once formal and yet full of reference to life.
Selma McCormack's gift for shaping materials in a delicately balanced and expressive way is abundantly evident in the pieces on display in this exhibition, especially in works like "Horse and Rider", which is full of visual incident and spatial drama, and "Mother and Child Dancing", which bristles with so much energy that you forget what it's made of, you forget that it's made of hard-edged material stuff. These bronzes and ceramics are, of course, not just pieces of shaped material - they are finely tuned embodiments of moments in time, of actions, of relationships, and even of states of mind. This is sculpture at its most artful, most expressive, and most humane.
But, Selma McCormack, it transpires, is an artist of not one but two gifts. As well as the gift of shaping - the gift of sculpture - she also possesses a very different gift, the gift of colour, a gift which is evident in the paintings on display here. If the eye is made for light and colour, then the eye should revel in these paintings. These paintings are free assemblies of colour, in which each colour earns its keep by contributing to a beautiful visual effect. But these paintings are more than just decorative abstractions, more than just abstract refreshments for the jaded eye. There is something in them that prevents them becoming merely decorative.
In many of these paintings you will see a depth of a realistic picture. There is in them an evocative depth that extends mysteriously beyond the plane of the picture. This depth is most evident and most effective in the diptych called "The Boathouse", with its magical suggestion of water, reflection, and darkness. It is also evident in "Harbour Evening", in "Marakesh" and in "Someplace in St. Anne's". These and other paintings work like revelations - they do not set out to directly represent a scenario of the world; yet, in the process of painting, in the free-fall of colour and paint, a scenario of the world emerges and materializes within the painting, like a clearing in the forest. This physical world does not dictate the content or meaning of these pictures, but still and all, the world puts in an appearance, makes its presence felt, makes its presence visible. These surprise appearances, these surprise visitations of the world, such as we get in these images, are often more effective than the more exact representations that we may get in more realistic pictures.
Here, then, we have an artist who turned to art relatively late in life and turned to it with courage and with talent and with invention. She has brought into the world objects and images that would not exist but for her unique sensibility and her shaping mind and hand. That is what the creative artist does, and that is what this particular artist has done most effectively in the figures and images set before us this evening.
Let me begin by saying how delighted I was to be asked to open this exhibition of new paintings and sculpture by Selma McCormack. Selma and I haven't met for, well, quite a number of years; we worked together in Dublin in the days of a magazine some of you may remember, "This Week", edited by Joseph O'Malley. So it was particular pleasure not merely to open an exhibition of hers but to meet again and chat after all that time.
Ireland was, as we all know a very different place then. At the beginning of the seventies – it was a time before Arts Councils, as I recall, and before a sort of arts civil service; artists (writers, painters, musicians, sculptors) worked at their task little aware indeed that what they were doing would become the subject of such media attention and cultural debate in the years to come.
I remember the innocence of writing poetry, for example, in those days: one whispered back then that one wrote poetry, now one boasts about it. No doubt it's the same with the other arts; if someone said he or she was a painter you looked the other way – nowadays you get yourself photographed with him. I don't altogether believe that this change has come about because we have suddenly grown more to appreciate the beauty and aesthetic appeal of our artists and writers. Be that as it may, I tend to believe that many things in art have lost their integrity with the coming of media attention and what may be termed glittering prizes.
I think that very often when we spoke of the Irish arts world (including the literary world) we talk of that which we recognise chiefly through the media and what the media tells us. Perhaps this is as good a point as any to wonder when Galway is going to consider building itself a municipal art gallery.
I am very pleased, therefore, to be confronted in Selma's work with a reminder in some way of other days. Selma's work retains integrity and senses of creative urgency, which is rare enough in sculpture and painting; there is great energy in this work, a dramatic context and a sense of things distilled from drama and action. I see a great deal of painting and sculpture in my work as a reviewer of new art in the West and am often struck by the degree to which some accomplished artists are confined rather than liberated by their medium and chosen themes. By contrast here, Selma's dancers seem impatient to dance off their plinth; her African figure with Arms Raised both invites and spins away from us. Her sculpture, "Rearing Horse", similarly is impatient with unleashed energy. Above all else, there is a variety and sense of imaginative daring in these paintings and sculptures; they do not centre around one single theme, because the notion of energy and experience is the theme, and these concepts have no discernible centre. The artist should, of course, take everything and anything as material for of the elevation with which artistic creation may endow them.
Poetry is my field, for the most part. Most of us know the origin of the term in the Greek, poiesis, meaning to make or produce. It has become fashionable to take of "making" a poem, which is clever nonsense; one composes a poem, as one would song. The French philosopher, Jean-Louis Vieillard-Baron, who remarks that; "Poiesis is the complex unfolding of a man who contains a world within himself, objectifies it and recognises himself in it before the eyes of men". In this sense, then, the sculptures around us are a form of materialised poetry as anything written the paintings aptly complimentary to them. I am not the first writer to be envious of the immediacy and physical presence of painting and sculpture. If a work of art can make us envious that we have not been its creator, then it ordained and, in general, the world of manufactured images in which so many of us spend our days. For Selma this is a welcome return to her native city, a city which has changed as much for her as it has, indeed for its residents. I would like to thank Tom Kenny for asking me to open the exhibition, and I do so gratefully – Thank You.
Artists dislike labels. They invariably regard them as crude reductive devices best suited to the needs of art critics and commentators. At best they rarely articulate anything meaningful about creative impulses, at worst they merely describe attributes of a perceived style. The American artist Willem De Kooning disliked the term 'Abstract Expressionism' and took the view that it was disastrous both for him and his contemporaries to be described as such. Yet with the passage of time and the wisdom of hindsight the term has prevailed, and in fairness has offered useful starting points to access the essential concerns of this particular cultural phenomenon.
There are connections to be made here, and ultimately they centre on the business of classification and association. Selma McCormack's work invites comparison with such illustrious predecessors as Robert Motherwell, Clifford Still and Helen Frankenthaler.
The abstract expressionists can be viewed coherently as a group not for reasons of a common manifesto or shared core style values. Nor could their output be described as 'abstract' in the pure sense of the term. Their cohesion, if indeed there is such, was derived from their concerns with both subject matter and content.
This provides a useful context for looking at McCormack's work, particularly her painting. The works are consistently referential. The connections with landscape are fairly self-evident, and thus her subject matter is clearly established. It would however be a mistake to assume that formal considerations alone dominated these works. It is true that she explores formal relationships whole-heartedly, and revels in the juxtaposition of elements such as colour, texture, shape and line. What emerges from these engagements, in an abstract expressionist manner, is a series of forceful statements about structure and composition. Just as the American painters controlled and grounded their spontaneity in a strong underlying structure which acted as an enabling vehicle for their explorations of what critic Robert Hughes referred to as 'timeless themes,' so too does this artist approach and transcend her subject matter.
The content of this work is complex. It can be approached in a manner, which is comparable to its mode of initial gestation. This is reminiscent of the surrealist device of 'psychic automatism' - a means of accessing the unconscious mind, which is the key repository of this imagery. Whilst landscape and, in some cases, the figures contained therein may form the subject matter of this work, the content contains more primitive mythic resonance's which are the source of knowledge and feeling. This is also true of McCormack's sculptures, particularly those tending towards greater abstraction, which celebrate the seemingly accidental shape, the happy accident or the involuntary configuration. The spontaneous primary feeling is articulated and held in place by a strong yet unobtrusive concern for structure. The analogy with music is also fairly obvious.
The sources and tensions, which inform this body of work, are interesting. From an early age she has had a love for cinema and the theatre. Later, a sustained interest in photography emerged. Although she tends to work very spontaneously, McCormack's imagery is also control-filtered many times before achieving finality. Paintings are often reworked and in some cases cropped until the desired result is achieved.
And so it is apparent that her concern for methodical composition is hardly surprising. Cinema has its screen. The stage has its proscenium arch, and the camera has its viewfinder. We engage with these media and are unaware in most cases of these inherent distancing devices. Thus images, both two and three dimensional, are composed, considered and finally consciously selected for display to best effect in the mind of the artist, and we the viewers marvel at the sense of immediacy. Selma McCormack has revealed to us some of the better aspects of the art that conceals art, and we have been privileged to witness the creative actions of the dreaming mind.
Artist Selma McCormack utilizes her eminent, articulate representational style as a conduit for delving into the formal relationships of colour, texture, shape, and line in order to confabulate upon the question of abstract expressionism. Then again, there is a hint of Romano-Celtic art.
A native to Galway, Ireland, Selma began to sculpt in the 1980's and has exhibited in the Oireachthas, R.H.A, Iontas, Claremorris, R.U.A., The Caldwell, Dublin (1991), Carroll Langford (1994), American Embassy (1996), and The Kenny Gallery, Galway (1995, 1998, and 2001).
Someplace In St.Anne's is an intonation of Post-Impressionism. In spite of the fact that McCormack's fluid brushwork omits quintessential detail, nevertheless the painting transmits an entirety of the scene through a pastel palette.
Horse and Rider conveys an inkling of the Romano-Celtic period. The artist's ceramic piece can be paralleled to the Study of a Male Deity and Tombstone of a Cavalryman. Upon examination, the facial features of both the rider (Horse and Rider) and the male Romano-Celtic celestial being are similar by the long, straight nose, high (almost Etruscan) bone structure, and bulbous eyes. Hypothetically speaking, the cavalry motif, prominent in Romano-Celtic funerary relief, for instance, Tombstone of a Cavalryman is palpable from the detached, nonchalant stance and the creation of their own space.