Review - Notes from Markham Street
On Markham Street in Toronto, in the core of Mirvish Village with its mix of antique shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars, among the storefronts was one that featured large paintings. With canvases positioned on an easel and thrust into the window, this showcase always seemed more of an aesthetic rather than a functional solution to the reality of a picture window. Despite the retail aspect of the street, there was no evidence of activity – no posted store hours, no apparent staff, no access allowed. In that window, paintings simply appeared and rotated with an uneven rhythm.
I moved to Markham Street about five years ago, living in a house south of the Village, and would often walk there with my children. I came to know Ronan Walsh from gazing into the window and inviting myself in to inquire about his work. In summer he would use the space as an actual studio, welcoming the light that spilled through the window to animate his bright palette. Although he had a larger studio upstairs in the same building, he would also come down and tack his large canvases to the walls and paint in the shop. While Markham Street pulsed with deliveries, shoppers, strollers and students, the artist, aware of the world yet oblivious to its immediate impact, set about immersing himself in his abstract, allusive work – conjuring sensations and memories with his brushwork.
Using pastels as his guide and prompt, Walsh would tackle large canvases in the manner of the Abstract Expressionists, ‘diving’ into his compositions (to use a word first employed by Harold Rosenberg
in his famed 1952 account of the existential movement titled ‘The American Action Painters’). In a work like Horses Camargue (2009), Walsh displays his embrace of Willem de Kooning’s hot palette of red, pink, orange and yellow, Joan Mitchell’s tangle of feinting and darting brushstrokes, and Norman Bluhm’s thinned, dripping and running oil residue. In a flurry of movement the idea of an image is connoted, and perhaps one glimpses the figment of a horse as pictured by Franz Marc in an earlier expressive moment in modernism. If such references, and a larger panoply of citation animate his work (one thinks also of Toronto painters Harold Town and William Ronald, or the painterly agility of fellow Irishman Jack Yeats), Walsh is nevertheless an artist who is eking out his own space in the impossibly congested territory of abstraction today.
Walsh is an artist who works at his craft, and whose life is given over to painting. He works day and night in both his studios, upstairs and downstairs, inspired by the street while simultaneously turning away from its vagaries and incidents – endeavoring to make an image from paint that has lasting significance. As Walsh works, making decisions in the moment, he presses onward, embedding action into colour.
Located on an ordinary street, Walsh wants his work to become a part of everyday life. Between a florist and a movie poster shop, his immediate neighbours, he positions his painting in the window, inviting viewers to ponder how such a work might fit into the flow of pedestrian life. Such a gesture thrusts painting into the city, into twenty first century Toronto, wagering a role for art in an otherwise ordinary world.
- David Moos, 2009