An Artist's Atonement

As I sipped from a delicate china tea cup in the warm kitchen in Desmond Shortt's family home, I spied early evidences of what was to become the full circle of Des's journey toward personal and artistic atonement. Everywhere was the stuff you would expect to see in the home of a woman of Des' mother's generation. Widowed when Des was only eleven, her lovely home is festooned with floral motifs on crowded soft furnishings, tea towels and cozies adorned with precious images of maidens dressed in Little-Bo-Peep style costumes. Even on the cup from which I sipped, was the decal image of a sixteenth century Lady on her garden swing.

Out the front window I could see the dentiled grey walls of a castle-like building across the main Cork to Chair road. Echoing again, on a slightly wider realm, the influences on Des' early days as a small boy living in the time-warped medieval Irish town of Cahir in the 70's.

Any allusion to this visual brew of chintzy homely images would have been eschewed as embarrassing to the maturing young Des in his heady academic years studying Art in Cork and at the UDC Dublin. There Des sought direction, validation, and the acceptance of his teachers and peers in the digestion and regurgitation of the current art fashions promulgated by the big, ballsy materialistic art giants in NYC and London and the provincial interpretations thereof in Dublin.

Des showed me photos of some of his early works and I judged that they would have hung perfectly comfortably next to a Jasper Johns on the gallery walls of some New York gallery in the 80's. But so what? Des realised and felt that this work, as successful as it was within the strictures of that particular stylistic mandate, was at its core merely repetitious and derivative. Where was Des?

As with many serious and highly intellectual personalities, Des went into a period of deep internal examination. Des read and studied the likes of Jung and Freud, especially in regard to the mysterious realms of the subconscious. He gradually developed a full-blown case of what we call today Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (what previous generations would have derided as the Sin of Sloth). Who was Des?

To exasperate this period of spiritual quagmire, Des then fell on his bicycle and seriously injured himself. He was forced to retreat to digs in a tiny room in Dublin. His confinement removed him from the omnipresent influences of his Dublin art peers. It also restricted his materials, medium, and work space in such a way that he resorted to small and intimate sketches and paintings. These were his darkest days. But curiously from them he found his brilliance. Having unburdened his art of the restrictions of process and stylistic influences, Des actually began a prolific output of small, varied, and almost random images. It was from that precious and distilled output that Des experienced his 'Eureka!'

He noticed to his horror that viewers of this production of intimate works, expressed admiration for just those works that Des felt the most uncomfortable and embarrassed about. Then, like the proverbial bolt out of the blue, it struck him. 'I am embarrassed by these particular images because they are the 'naked' me.' Had he found his 'id'? By following and building upon that 'embarrassment factor', he developed his vocabulary of imagery and has never looked back. He had found his personal atonement. He had found Des.

Not only did he find his personal epiphany, but he had also found a magic conduit to the rest of humanity. That which makes us feel at a gut level his connection to the rest of us - our 'collective consciousness'. We could intellectualise about his colours and forms, theorise about his personal iconographies, and analyse his expressions of collective memories and symbols and the psychological conflicts of masculinity versus femininity - all found in his work. One could fill books. Leave that for future scholars more capable than I. To me the true measure of his import is the clear and inescapable emotive forces that exude from his works to create a bridge into my own personal psyche.

Des now has a clear and steady path ahead of him. In the past year he has sold about 50 paintings. He has the enviable burden of having to choose between invitations from venues in which to exhibit. Desmond Shortt's work, I predict, will be collected and studied on many levels for many years to come.

For more insight into Des' work, and for an example of an artist's interpretation of his work, the following is a letter sent to your Editor from Des subsequent to my visit with him:

"I am very thankful for your visit. Having some fresh ears and eyes.

In the first few landscapes I was using blue for sky and green for foliage. They were such powerful 'signs' that I couldn't do much with them. They insisted on good weather and summer and postcards. As Launie Anderson says, 'It's a sky blue sky.'

My interest was in something more specific that getting the sky to be sky. Not a botanist's or farmer's nature, but Nature as a theatrical setting for an interior landscape; nature as seen by the court, Shakespeare's bucolic or tempestuous setting for human drama. When the story starts; 'the sky was red', it isn't a meteorological statement; it is outlining the story-genre to come, it's a premonition.

So, the late Classical painting of dramatic Nature with wandering peasants or gentry fits something I wanted. It can wander between the real and unreal. It is no longer a Classical idyll, but not yet a drama in itself, which is where the Romantics kick off. When we get into the Romantics, the colours do get more intense and varied. A studio painting in this style starts to look like Switzerland in the spring, or Spring. This heightened sense of nature is theological and mystical. I love it, but am wary of its vigorous fitness. It doesn't support my sense of humour.

I didn't set out with specific intentions. I would have been content to make some cheesy landscapes. And I did make some. They amused me but couldn't nourish when I needed nourishment. As I pushed around I found my own character emerging.

Two of my favourite landscape styles are the Chinese floating world landscapes, and the fantastical landscape backgrounds of so many medieval paintings. Neither have anything to do with realism as we define it. They are from a place and a time so distant to us that their interior-ness is obvious to us. But when I look at a painting that is photo-realist, its exterior-ness, it is foreign to me. I can wonder at it like a tourist but I don't feel any urge to live there. They, the Chinese and the Medieval paintings, are two styles that don't care too much about gravity.

Paul Klee has a line about painting not being concerned with the visible, but with making visible. I guess that I am not a camera and I don't see through a window. I don't live in an optical world. Texture and gesture and colour are joyful, and they pull the painting away from the eye, to give food for the viewer's fingertip and palate. For someone used to photos, the surface activity can look a mess. That mess is a reminder that they were painted by a body.

I like to hang paintings lower than the norm so that they are in front of my finger and chest. If it is hung in front of my eye, there is too much head stuff going on. I would like it at a height where I can literally embrace it.

I wasn't so aware of the influences of this house and of Cahir until you pointed them out. I can see them now. Cahir has so many 18th(?) century modelled-landscape-as-nature 'views'. And there are things in this house (like the cups) that I have gazed at and aspired to painting, but I had forgotten those moments until you pointed them out."

Des Shortt