A Song From The Silent Place

Mark Shields can remain silent for a long time, together with the creatures who stroll through his visual world like passers-by, who seem to step out of sounds, pictures, and language in order to integrate themselves into his paintings. The contemplative meditative air of the Shieldsian figure groups, the floating silence of the landscapes, the melancholy of faces are not the result of specific research. That would not enter the artist’s mind. Rather, he is occupied with the present of the arts, the attraction of sudden realisation, while looking, reading, listening to music. A compositional scheme for example, a thought, a basic mood ... They give but a sense of what has occupied Mark Shields recently, rather than giving certainties. Only thus, in all freedom and distance, can painting unfold so suggestively and powerfully.

It was little more than a century ago that artists in the France of the belle époque turned their melancholy seclusion from the world into a leitmotif of their painting. The urbane Parisian symbolism, with its tendency for a painterly-literary-musical harmony and its goal of a correspondance des arts, is closer to Mark Shields than his down-to-earth Irish farmhouse might suggest. Certainly such an interconnection of the arts remains unspoken with him, and the elegance of fin de siècle’s synaesthetic interlacings is not his thing. But the way dream, past, and present of the transitory resonate is reminiscent of the far removed elegies of symbolist art.

In conversation, Mark Shields says he does not want to paint anything new, rather something that exists for itself, "as if it had always been there". A wish that apparently has been developing since his beginnings with hyperrealistic still lifes and rigorous self-portraits. These works from the early 1990s seem almost surreal, as if circled by a precision camera. What remains of that is reminiscent of filmic slow motion. What became of that is painting built from block-like shapes with lively, intensively worked-over surfaces: layers of oil paints on an often darkly grounded canvas that are based on rough charcoal sketches. Painting over individual areas and their modelling that lead to further overpaintings and modellations of the figures or the development of open colour zones. Mark Shields’s paintings develop slowly, as hard, contemplative labour, as a task and responsibility, as he puts it – as a path that he has to take step by step. Even if older art should already have come up with the solutions long ago. And, he explains, once he has found a form through hard work, he gives it up and does not need to pursue the motif any further.

There is no lack of stimuli. They continue to live in the small dark green sketchbooks of uncounted trips – with addresses similar to those Englishmen of earlier centuries selected for their Grand Tour on the continent. They wait in newspaper clippings, on the pages of exhibition catalogues and art books, and are hidden in the volumes in the library – right across ages and countries.

As far as art is concerned, this means, for example: sculpture from antiquity and early Italian paintings, Degas’s portraits, but also those by Paula Modersohn- Becker, Fernand Khnoff, the symbolists, and Cézanne ... Mark Shields, a bibliophile since early youth, a customer of second-hand bookstores, has also an admirable collection of novels, books on religion, philosophy, as well as diaries and editions of letters. It would be lovely to portray this library that is concentrated in a small space; it would be equally rewarding to pursue their traces in his pictures, or to trace the drawings that are distributed all over the house. Kindred spirits every-where: Puvis de Chavannes, Redon, Rouault, Maurice Denis, but also Indian and Persian miniatures.

And the sketchbooks, the classic reservoir of painters and sculptors. Mark Shields’s drawings are light, lively, on a small paper format: a shorthand of visual experiences, from the details of which he develops his motifs. What he draws and then uses further is isolated from its original context, simplified and translated into his own visual language. Women, for example. Beautiful, strong creatures, quite independent of times and fashions, and actually remarkably similar to each other. The question whether this is the result of wishful thinking detached from the world becomes mute once Helen Shields enters the house. " ... a face, strange and lovely, took possession of him", her husband wrote in one of his texts. One doesn’t doubt him for one second.

Translated from the German by Wilhelm Werthern