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Hughie O'Donoghue by Pamela Hardesty

Hughie O'Donoghue (Manchester-born but Ireland-based) is an acclaimed contemporary painter of religious subjects, although his 17-year cycle of large-scale Passion works arose not from any religious intent, but from his interest in this format in painting history, and the unusual opportunities allowed by a generous patron. This exhibition marks The American Ireland Fund's donation to IMMA of 39 Passion works, featuring a number of these alongside very recent canvases, and it provides a unique opportunity to compare the strengths of the earlier cycle with the evolution in focus and method occupying the artist freed from this formidable project scheme.

Although O'Donoghue addressed his Passion works avowedly disinterested in their religious content, the subject matter of the Passion--seen as journey, metamorphosis, sacrifice--well suited this painter's language: the gradual building up in rich pigment layers toward delineation of form, and the tension in reconciling the abstract values of his very sensual large colour fields (he studied Rothko and Newman) with his interest in the conceptual potential inherent in the human image. He has said that photographs of bog bodies showed him the solution to integrating his figures "comfortably" into the surface of paint, and his (male) bodies in this series struggle to emerge, to hover into life, caught in recognition but always nearly slipping back into the abstract pigment. This "slippage" between abstract and figurative and the real sense of "sacrifice" of one expressive reading for the other held in permanent flux provide the true power of these works. There is undeniable power, too, in the massive scale, but also in the sensitive, evocative handling of surface combined with the visceral, (Bacon-influenced) quality of his figures.

The series climax Blue Crucifixion (2003) offers 8 metres of a surface explored, tended, over 10 years. A central resinous gleam contains the smeared remnants of a long headless body, a sense of skin, marked and stained, vulnerable. This residue of humanity is bounded, nearly compressed by the great expanse of luscious faceted pigment, dark but infused with shots of pure ultramarine-like eternity, like Heaven (?)-or a pure celebration of matter. Although he takes pains to state that this is "a" crucifixion, not "the" Crucifixion, this work and indeed the entire series could function, in a different context, as an effective (even if by default) contemporary Christian vocabulary.

His true passions are revealed in the more recent works which balance the truth he has found in the manipulation of pigments, the constructive process of forming, of making -and the personal value he has come to sense in the repository of history, legacy of image and data, that is passed down, collected, learned and reprocessed, in forming meaning and identity. After the constraints of the Passion series he became involved with the personal history of his father's WWII experiences, beginning to incorporate archival photos and texts to reference a different, if also weighty subject matter. Later works use found materials from a more general archive of the War, inserted into and underneath his pigment layers, his photographs enlarged and printed on fine tissue that melts into the paint like membranes, existing as shadowy presences in the ground of pigment. Girl at Stellata (2004) uses a found photograph of a war casualty, floating immersed in a resonant colour landscape, the pigment no longer the vehicle for information so much as the very atmosphere, environment of the photographic element. O'Donoghue's elaborate reworking and over-painting of inserted images as he builds these layers works as a kind of physical enactment of the constructs of memory, our struggle to form meaning and identity even as we sometimes obliterate or disguise.

Night Sleeper II, (2008) is representative of his latest series, that of life-size, inert, solitary figures floating in vague dark environments, all asleep, or possibly dead, but anyway neutral, passive. Unlike the tortured Passion figures these lie peacefully, accepting, and are more finely detailed and recognisable (using staged photographs), more separate and free from interaction with the paint. Their virtual "truth" as photographic document lies beside the physicality of the "real" ground of pigment. The energy and tension of the Passion series gives way to a dreamlike, almost melancholic, romantic aura, more immediately accessible (we trust reading photographs) if rather disconcerting encountered one after the other in this gallery's small interconnecting rooms. In Measure of All Things (2008) an inverted man lies with arms outstretched, his span Crucifixion-like, but this is a modern secular vision: meaning in man's terms; resting in our self-constructing and self-referential, ultimately private, human story.

Pamela Hardesty is an Artist, and Lecturer at the Crawford College of Art & Design Cork. This article was first published in Art and Christianity journal.