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Willie McKeown
William McKeown, Untitled, oil on linen, 2007
Courtesy of Kerlin Gallery, Dublin & artists estate

All that is, is light

The first exhibition since the artist’s death holds a strong message of hope. Tribute by Corinna Lotz

William McKeown’s paintings and drawings are extraordinarily simple, but they are not stark. They refresh our vision and gently remove the scales from our eyes.

Thank to the artist’s estate and Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens, a little of McKeown’s achievement is on show in the gallery that overlooks the gardens. There are 19 paintings and two drawings, found in his studio after he died last October.

Through these deeply reflective canvases, shown in one of the UK’s most beautiful gallery spaces, the artist's personality emerges in a powerful and poignant way.

McKeown would get up each morning and absorb the sunrise, whether outdoors in his native County Tyrone or in Edinburgh, where he worked in a large studio in the city’s east side. He loved taking friends, and his dog Buster, on walks along the Water of Leith, which snakes through the city, providing a lush green haven for wildlife and humans.

His approach to human beings in nature was rooted in his childhood growing up on a farm in County Tyrone. He held on to this time of innocence. As poet Enrique Juncosa has explained*, McKeown avoided addressing the political conflicts that dominated much art coming out of Northern Ireland.

By eschewing any kind of demagogy, he quietly insisted that there could be something other than the Troubles. Underneath it all, we are beings who arise from and exist within a natural world and cannot flourish without that connection.

Evoking the innocence and magic of being so close to the land and experiencing the rising of the sun, he creates a vision free of the bloody conflicts and sectarian violence for which Ireland, and the north in particular, became known over the 20th century.

Willie McKeown

McKeown’s sunrises, in which the paint breathes within the warp and weft of the linen, and through which light floats, are a metaphor for liberation and freedom.

“My work is not about nature," he wrote for his Ormeau Baths, Belfast exhibition (2010) catalogue. "It is about a response to a particular type of space. A space where there are no rules, no morals, no laws, no judgements, no systems. A space that is unconditional, all embracing and free. This space, of course, is found in nature but it can also be in someone’s eyes.”

He depicted not only dawn, but tiny wild flowers and birds like the corncrake which can be seen now in only a few places, and is threatened with extinction. He sought to renew the elemental bond with the natural world, a bond that we experience within ourselves.

As the Kerlin Gallery’s (Dublin) tribute says: “He steered our attention not to the distant sky but to the air around us, to the openness of nature, the feeling of our emergence into light and our proximity to the infinite.”

McKeown’s work has a deep connection with Ireland’s philosophical and literary past. It forms a link, for example, to Celtic scholar monks like Johannes Scotus Eriugena who in the 9th century boldly speculated about the shared nature of everything in the universe – and was condemned for it by the papal authorities. “All that is, is light" he famously said.

Willie McKeown

Over the last decade McKeown made installations in which his seemingly minimalist work evoked contemporary experiences of alienation. In 2010 he shared an installation called Traces of Light at the Middlesbrough Museum of Modern Art (MIMA) with Cuban-American Felix Gonzales-Torres, also a gay artist.

He had the fortitude and daring to probe ever more deeply into his subject – light and its relation to us – and to reveal it as the very pre-condition of our existence in the world. Equally he raises the possibility of healing the rift between humans and the natural world.

Curators Paul Nesbitt and Caroline Hancock have arranged the progression in Inverleith’s upstairs galleries sensitively. A calm spirit radiates from these canvases and even in Edinburgh’s cool grey light, brings to life McKeown's power to penetrate the very essence of things.

21 June 2012

William McKeown (1962-2011) is at Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh until 8 July. It runs alongside Remarkable Trees – the photographs of George Paxton and a film by Agnes Martin. Free admission.

William McKeown, Inverleith House, installation views. Photographs by Hyjdla Kosaniuk, courtesy of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 2012

*William McKeown, a book published on the occasion of a retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art 2008-2009

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