TEXT BY JOHN FITZGERALD
I thought I would share this text which written by John Fitzgerald for my solo show at the LHQ Gallery back in 2021.
John is the Director of Information Services and University Librarian at UCC.
In his last book of essays, published in 2019, Tim Robinson, the late great map maker and writer about geography and place, explores his own output as a painter in an essay entitled ‘Backwards and Digressive’. In the same book, he untangles his parallel development of an intense relationship with place. He coins the expression ‘topographical sensation’, to describe the experience of being in a physically significant place, such as crossing a mountain pass, or completing the circuit of an island, or viewing a lake from its middle, where the experience of arriving at, and being in, a significant place is immensely powerful and intense.
I thought of Tim Robinson’s ‘topographical sensation’ when I first saw one of Pascal Ungerer’s paintings. Indeed, I experienced it. There is nothing either ‘backwards’ or ‘digressive’ about Pascal Ungerer’s paintings. They are by contrast, visionary and relevant. They document not the drama of the expansive view, or the eye-catching perspective. Instead, they probe deeper into what is to be seen in the ordinary; and they actually enable us to a new way of seeing.
Pascal is already an acclaimed artist, with a string of qualifications and accomplishments to his name. He takes a highly informed approach to his practice, which at the moment centres on what he calls ‘spatial cultures’, that is the relationship between people and place and how we, as people, effect our surroundings. “My paintings…” he has written “…often feature made-up places; I use different structures, social histories or topographies from certain areas as a starting point, and amalgamate them into a kind of fictional landscape that acts as a metaphorical space to reflect upon wider socio-geographic issues.”
Pascal’s intense relationship with place and space takes him and, fortunately, us with him, into the liminal, on to the borders, out the edges of conventional view, where we can, paradoxically, see more clearly – just as when you see a cluster of stars in the night sky more sharply by slightly averting your gaze away from them. ‘Seeing slant’, you could say, to adapt that motto of Emily Dickinson.
In Pascal Ungerer’s scenes, when we look at them, we enter an artistic ground zero of heightened spatial awareness where the elements of the scenes take on an intensity and significance that is the product of his extraordinary skill as a painter.
In these works, we are held between the conditions of urban and rural, constructed and natural, human and inanimate. We arrive into an uneasy, conditional state. We are held at a border. Left in a waiting room that becomes the destination in itself. This duality is at once unnerving and liberating. We are unnerved because we can see the truth of the conflicts he depicts; and we are liberated because we believe we can better understand this universal state of marginality. Like all great art, Pascal’s work affords us the privilege of seeing into the deeper nature of our lives here on Earth, and the life of the Earth, which in many ways are both now on the edge. While they are not apocalyptic or dystopian paintings, they do challenge us to enter their territories of transition and uncertainty. ‘You are neither here nor there’ as Seamus Heaney says in his poem Postscript, ‘A hurry through which known and strange things pass’.
And one has to say, though perhaps not intentional, there is an unmistakable sense of suspense in these works, not dissimilar to the suspense in which we have all been living during the lockdowns of this lingering pandemic. A nervous, people-less suspense, characterised by isolation and uncertainty.
Which affirms for me that there is also a strong human dimension to the paintings. Particularly in the traces of human occupation that we find here: pylons, power lines, housing blocks, symbols of connectivity and community but which are also spectral and ghostly, as the titles of the paintings imply. The buildings in the wonderful painting ‘Temporal Light’ hover like outsized urban-esque forms in their rural surrounds, like those large buildings we saw landed incongruously by the Celtic Tiger on defenseless places like Crookhaven and Kilmacsimon and Passage West, which have never attained the vibrant maturity promised in their planning applications.
Here, in this compromised rural setting, the man-made structures labour in a haze of aloneness, not so much abandoned as home alone, unlikely survivors identifiable by their out-of-placeness, their failure to have assumed a compatible identity.
But there is also hope in these paintings: hope which emanates from a compassion for the marginalized, the outcast, the excluded, who find their homes in these no-man lands. And from this compassion comes a comfort: all is not lost. Hope seems to abide in and want to emerge from the luminous mists and clouds of these marvelous skies.
Pascal has worked as a photographer in the past, and I admire the disciplined focus (pun intended) of these works. Pascal is to be applauded for his dedication to the important perspective that these works share, and for the discipline of his practice in maintaining that perspective across the paintings. To quote Tim Robinson again, ‘life is too short to accommodate more than one idea’.
In conclusion, these are paintings of enquiry, conflict, and compassion. Their richness of meaning and ambiguity is the stuff of great art, and we are fortunate to have them here to view and revisit, thanks to the enlightened Cork County Library and Arts Service and its staff.
This is a remarkable and timely exhibition by an exceptionally talented artist from whom I think we will hear and see a lot more. I am honoured to declare this exhibition, ‘Ghosts of Babylon’ by Pascal Ungerer, as of this moment, open.