Central Saint Martins Masters in Fine Art graduate Aisling Drennan is a contemporary abstract painter whose work is rooted in the material curiosities and playfulness of oil paint.
Currently, her painting practice is concerned with stone wall formations, drawn to their heaviness of form yet lightness of appearance. Studies of stone walls are abstracted and etched into layers of paintwork- constructed, deconstructed, scratched, rubbed and finally reapplied to form a new skin and begin the process over; a method of finding and losing the painting until visually robust.
Her practice is influenced by the American abstract expressionist movement of the 1950’s and the expressive content of her own experience as a former professional Irish dancer with Riverdance- The Show. Artists such as Joan Mitchel, Sean Scully and Willem de Kooning have informed her development arriving at its current balance between chaos and structure.
Most recently Aisling Drennan’s work was selected for Gordan Ramsay’s new restaurant in the Savoy Hotel, London (2021). She is an Arts Bursary recipient from the Women’s Irish Network in conjunction with the UK Irish Embassy (2020) and was a selected artist for the Royal Ulster Academy’s 139th exhibition (2020). Drennan was an artist in residence at Cill Rialaig Artists Centre (2019) & her work has been shortlisted for the John Moore’s painting prize, (2018). She was Fujitsu’s featured artist for a global media campaign (2017) & was a selected artist for London Irish Art (2015) which showcased the progression of Irish art in the UK. She won the Freyer award for excellence in contemporary painting from the Royal Dublin Society of Arts (2011) & has been noted by State magazine as “one to watch”
Review by arts writer & critic Anna McNay
‘It’s absolutely impossible, but it has possibilities.’
These words from the film producer Samuel Goldwyn might equally have been uttered by the painter Aisling Drennan, whose colourful, layered Abstract Expressionist-style canvases are a series of endless possibility, of unresolved experimentation, of contumacious contradictions. Constructing and deconstructing, concealing and revealing, Drennan’s mark-making creates both chaos and structure, a concoction of intuition and organicness, submitted to analysis, until some form of resolve is determined. Never a fixed conclusion, however, or, as Samuel Beckett writes: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
But, to the viewer, Drennan’s paintings are far from being failures. The vast, freewheeling swathes of paint sweep you up, taking you, willing or not, on a stormy journey, a rollercoaster ride, across and deep within the canvas, destination unknown. As painterly, or malerisch, as Drennan’s surface brushstrokes might be, there is nevertheless a depth to her canvases, with their partially visible geometric lines and boxes, drawn in charcoal, à la de Kooning, leading you within, underneath the waves, drowning you in the intense primary colours that ‘pop’ against one another in a playful, sometimes seemingly reckless, way.
‘You have to have colour and light,’ Drennan exclaims. ‘My god! And yellow is just a feel-good colour, really. It physically makes me happy to look at it.’ But reds and blues, ochres, and sometimes blacks, rear their heads as well, like animals from within, each opening a dialogue, interrupting, rejoining, and drawing the others into a spirited conversation, a song, or maybe even a dance.
The choreography is free, but there is an underlying internal logic, a set of steps and movements that may be exploited and utilised in infinite combination. Drennan paints always at arm’s length, from the shoulder and elbow, avoiding the contrivance of anything produced too painstakingly close up. Nevertheless, there is a beautiful concentration as she works steadily, aiming for the marathon, not the sprint. ‘Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.’
The lyricism of a painting extends beyond the individual canvas, with one work leading on to the next, which is born, inevitably, out of a ‘niggling’ point of its predecessor, begun before its parent is fully matured. The process is empirical, as Drennan takes, reappropriates and develops: ‘There is no performance – it’s all one big rehearsal’. The subject she seeks to explore is the very stuff of painting itself: its materiality and physicality.
The only narrative is a narrative of process, of exploration and development from one work to the next – from one layer to the next – building up memories and traces, a series of wounds and scars, with new life blossoming afresh at each turn along the way.
A work may take months to complete, as she applies masking tape, charcoal and coats of oil paint, before removing the tape, applying more paint, often time and time again, ever reassessing, redirecting, accepting the inevitable but entirely unpredictable happy accident. In an age of digital perfection, Drennan is an artist to whom the term ‘practice’ – with all the inherent hope, failure, and possibility – truly applies.
1 Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, 1983
2 Gloria Steinem, American feminist, journalist, and social and political activist
© Anna McNay, 2017