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Critical Review

David Swales is a highly original painter who had a childhood marked by the sectarian violence in Belfast, where he was born. Even so, he has moved beyond the provincial brutality of his early experience, traveling widely in Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America; his journeys have provided him with physical materials - often he paints on discarded wood, such as doors taken from destroyed buildings - but even more important, they have given him the inspiration for compositions that sensuously document his traveling experience. Seemingly done as abstractions, the highly rendered paintings of recent years describe, in their often roughly marked surfaces, a passion for gestural markings that represent in subtle ways the focused ambience of a particular place. Sometimes the reference can be made out - for example, one piece painted in response to China has a roughly drawn tiger in the middle of the painting - but more often Swales seems to be drawn to an atmospheric version of what he knows through travel. There is a tension between the abstract surface as it stands, often scarred or, alternatively, built up, and the sense that we are experiencing a place in the abstract, whose ambience is a geographically specific interpretation. His textures reveal his knowledge of many different sites, whose spirit of place becomes what the paintings transcribe.
For example, his New York paintings feel very much like the work of an artist from the New York School; the texture of his surfaces is rough and dense with strokes of paint and other materials, such as paper that leaves traces of itself despite having been mostly removed from the canvas. Brushstrokes are completed in waves of pigment that are thickly applied on top of each other, the pait building up to the point where the painting can seem to nearly be a low relief. Color is central to the artist’s esthetic; in one New York work, blue and yellow overlap each other in a continuous, allover format, the accompanying drips an aspect of the New York School composition that offers no center of perspective. While these works refers to Swales’s sharp knowledge of abstract expressionism, the viewer also has the feeling that the artist is constructing exquisite objects intended as meditative devices. The tension between the painting as a record of activity and its existence as something self-sufficiently physical is balanced beautifully in Swales’s art, which remains mysterious, even mystical, in the face of the audience’s gaze.

One painting done in response to a visit to Korea feels highly architectural: squares and long narrow rectangles, rather like windows on a wall, are incised with lines and seem to express the rough physicality of an ancient partition. The texture of the surface, replete with geometrical forms, suggests wall structures whose uneven exterior nearly becomes a palimpsest, that is, a manuscript used many times over, whose shapes repeat themselves and create a surface of overlapping forms. It is almost as though Swales has intended a spiritual history of the places he remembers, which he makes good by calling on the feeling of his travels rather than emphasizing particular sites. As a result, there is a strong emotional resonance in his art. Another painting, also based on Swales’s travels to Korea, feels very much like a version of a wall: Swales has built up a thin layer of reddish-brown paint that frames different areas of the squarish composition; these are filled with an orange-brown and red, while on the upper left there is a spiral motif, created by sanding the glyph, which is made of marble dust. Seemingly simple, the work possesses an evocative equanimity, through which something material left there is a spiral motif, created by sanding the glyph, which is made of marble dust. Seemingly simple, the work possesses an evocative equanimity, through which something material of Asian culture is being introduced.

Swales has spent time in Iceland, and his paintings made in reply to his stay are mostly white with green patches. It is hard to say that he is influenced by a particular view, yet his work suggests an ambient light that reads as true to the Icelandic landscape. Swales is generally committed to a gestural abstraction rooted in actual experience, and such a combination helps him relate its meaning as a painterly event. He balances the irregularlties of his heavily worked surface with an overall plan that appears, over time, to be laid out rather than improvised. As a result, there is a balancing of opposites - between the spontaneous markings of the artist’s abstractions and the overall view, whose deliberate poise incorporates passages that might seem improvised. His paintings’ façade, with the remnants of paint and paper, embody a version of the world that is closely related to architecture, one of the most physical, and public, of the arts. It speaks to Swales’s favor that he combines a genuinely spiritual vision with the physicality of his materials, making of them paintings whose atmosphere is as real as the vistas he has visited.

Jonathan Goodman