From Where I See The World – The Art of Ann Quinn

By Órfhlaith Foyle


Human beings are rare in these new paintings by Ann Quinn. When they do exist, they are either swallowed into a mushroom field or exist unseen in cars on the margins of a canal or plough with oxen in a surrounding sea of blue. The human also exists on the other side of the painting as the ‘You’ or the observer that stands and stares into Quinn’s work, and the artist herself who has created brilliant reflections of the world she sees and steps inside to paint.

Why do painters paint? Is it not easier to hold up a phone and take a photo preferably with a human slant? What is so strange about the natural world that when it is painted, it can seem almost alien to us? It is another world sliding parallel to ours. It is disquieting. It reeks of dead things. The sun can kill. The wind can obliterate electricity. Animals stare because they simply see another animal – you.

There is ferocity in Ann Quinn’s painted world but it is contained, held back by bracken, stone and hard-packed and frozen earth. The sun hovers black eyed and red-boiled above the eye-line of ditches or it glares white-orbed from hillsides or bakes on the back of a cow and its calf. The ferocity is potent.

Human beings do not like to be small. In her painting Meeting Place, Quinn has painted a woman on an arid seeming road. Only she and a weed exist on this road but above there a network of grey hazed mountains, their ridges delineated by snow marks, and on either side of the woman are black voids. What are they? Is she facing down her fate or welcoming the future?

A cockerel side-views the observer while it stands on a glorious ground of turquoise, amber, black, ochre-yellow and spits of white. Rooster Moment is a beautiful painting, not just for the colour, not just for its magnificent blue sky and its pink-white blur of cloud but it is the symphony of reality and nature’s mystery. The cockerel is supreme in his world. He is beautiful and the ground that is a collection of dirt, sludge, cockerel faeces, straw, leaves, stone is also beautiful. The mystery is something we cannot understand. We cannot be the cockerel but in Quinn’s painting we come close to ‘seeing’ that other animal; that animal who also observes the other.

Titles are integral to Quinn’s work. Moon-light, Neon-light, Evening Field shows a regular line of estate houses, beyond them the lights of a road, then the lights of a further town. In the foreground a stark electricity pole sticking up form scrub and bush. A moon anchors everything. The blue-black night and the rigid black of the houses’ roofs speak of the fragile aloneness of things. Despite the community of houses, there is a sense of another world watching.

Sheep on Melted Terrain, a field of cracked and melting snow and that blackballed, red-boiled sun casting the sheep shadows over the ground. As with many of Ann Quinn’s paintings, the sky is its own vled, its own terrain and in Mid Winter Morning, Quinn’s sky appears through washes of white, blue, pink and black. Beyond the paint, scratches are seen. Pockmarks and stray intuitive smudges, dribbles add to the ‘inner-workings’ of the sky. It is more than a mere blue that reflects in the world’s seas or holds ‘our’ sun.

‘Blueness’ is heightened in Quinn’s work and culminates in her painting, Ethiopian Plough. The black oxen and the men are concentrated counter-points. There is sea green in the sky and umber flashes on the seabed.

Her title painting The Place Where I Stand to Look out over this World is a brave painting. It is mostly snow-grey sky with the tip of a brambled hill showing in the foreground. Snow stretches amongst the branches, blue-white like ripped supermarket bags. The dark smudges resemble clouds in various contortions. The unseen human being is the artist. Her perspective forces our gaze into that grey sky. The falling snow and the minute bramble sprigs are marvellously detailed. Quinn is a superb painter of nature. Her colour and brush-strokes show the image of wind and the cold thick sky.

The Swan Lady feeds swans on the edge of a lake. The sky is inverted and the reflected clouds are mountainous. Swans float upwards from this parallel world, eager to take the Swan Lady’s bread. Again the human is small, and although she is the obvious focus of the painting, the deep patchwork of green, browns, reds corral the blue Swan Lady, contrasting her minuteness with the world about her.

The Mushroom Picker gives the impression that one is staring into a near sphere of green. There is such forensic detail in the painting. The sun-lit branches and the dark scrawling tension of pale blue, green-yellow, olive green turned to dark, then the yellow ground and finally the mushroom picker, only visibly human by the virtue of one arm reaching down to the ground.

It is another brave painting. A vast brilliant corral of colour and perspective from the artist’s eye, as is The Swans, a view of canal swans eddying over the dusk-coloured water. The sense of light and cool dark is rich. One can imagine the varied temperature of the water from the colours that Quinn uses. The near ice blue marginalised by both the creeping dark and the cherry-peach bright reflection of the evening sun. It speaks of the curious delight of melancholia, that mood that strikes us as we watch a day end. The car lights edge their way through the dark, and the houses keep attention while a lilac-grey-yellow sky unravels above.

This is the wonder of Ann Quinn’s gift as a painter. Her gift with colour, her perspective and her unerring eye paints a world that we are afraid to permit inside ourselves, a world that acknowledges human isolation, the demarcations of alien existences, and the natural lives of non-humans. A bull stands watch over his territory in Temporal Territory, its title gives thought to the reality of time and out-of-time, a territory that belongs to this bull-King under the blue potent hot sky, then he will be gone, snapped out of real life yet still caught forever in his temporary realm.

There is always that question ‘If a tree falls and no human is there to hear it, does the tree make a sound?’ It assumes the human’s superiority. Another way of asking the question, ‘If a tree falls and no human is there to see it, does the tree exist?’

Yes. Everything exists and Ann Quinn paints this in a way no photograph can capture, the texture of the sun, the gnarled reality of the ground and the dark places on the margins that we look at then look away, glad-full of the light, the swans, the signs of human habitation but still aware of what is on the other side, the sheep on their snow-hard ground, the oxen on the blue-dark ground, all that is aware of human existence and continues without it.

Órfhlaith Foyle is a writer based in Galway, 2016


Visual Poetry that Stretches Beyond the Horizon of the Visible

By Daniel Lipstein

In a universe of greens a lone figure of a woman is bending over the grass to pick mushrooms. The greens are a universe of mind, projecting rich contents, in the language of colours, onto a large board, with layers upon layers of pigments and mediums of oil. Sap-green-mixed-with-yellows contrast viridian-green-mixed-with-whites-and-yellows, over red, orange, turquoise, indigo, and hooker-greens, in the underpainting marks. An awesome symphony, whose deep silence transcends the significance of the mushroom-picking figure to the universal arena of metaphysical poetry.

The painting ‘The Mushroom Picker’ by Ann Quinn is an interpretation of a late summer scene at the Catalan Pyrenees Mountains village, Ferrara, an artist residency, among others she frequents. Another ‘residency’ of a more permanent nature is Dublin where she lives. ‘The Swan Lady’, is an oil painting on handmade paper, interpreting something Ann saw on the Grand Canal in Dublin, a woman feeding swans. The finished painting is a long leap from the source, ‘the reality’, that had presented the idea for the composition. A smaller scale, this is a dancing celebration of colours and oil mediums, a powerful creative pull of a skilful and experienced painter, well versed in the poetry that sends visible ‘reality’ through the visionary powers exerted by the medium of painting, to touch the essence that exists beyond the visible.

An uncompromising wild outburst of textured marks, spread on the surface, in a pattern that reflects a vision of the painter’s initially projected composition, is the foundation on which the finishing layers of pigments and glazes are built. The painter retains the intensity of such focus throughout all the stages of her work. A good example of it is the painting ‘Sheep on Melted Terrain’, where the painting painted itself through the inner logic of its compounds. It was informed by what Ann saw on the Curragh in County Kildare, and through the journey of its creation, by the poetry of the use of mediums, aiming for perfect unity between the subject matter and its surroundings’ layering of marks, something happened. The effort, the focus, the process and the talent, gave birth to an added dimension. An ineffable metaphysical entity, that exhales the essence of music out of the painting, and projects through each and every fiber of the work, the warm presence of something utterly unique, something that was created once, through an inspired and un-duplicable effort, never to be repeated, in the same time, timing, form and manner.

In the painting ‘The Place Where I Stand to Look Out Over This World’, while in potential all can be seen and known, in actuality the projected vision of the painting is an abstract-like view of a formation of a foggy sky, reminiscent of a veil behind which there is another veil. Like infinite horizons hiding and revealing one another, a repetition that charges the arena of the painting with the electricity of the possibility of a greater or a deeper vision. The painting is an interpretation of a vision from the reality of a rocky formation in the Pyrenees Mountains of Ferrara where Ann used to stand during her residency, her favourite standing place.

The ‘residency’ of all residencies that left a permanent mark on Ann’s vision is the one of her childhood on her parent’s farm in Donegal, where she also had a favourite standing place, next to the first horizon: “Our garden opened up to many fields for as far as the eye could see. Rolling hills right on up to the horizon where the land met the sky, so whenever I set my foot outside the door I was met with a vast sense of space. I remember as a young child I believed this was the entire world, before my eyes, I believed that the horizon was the edge of the earth. When I became a teenager, restlessness came over me and I used to go to my favourite spot, a water well at the top of the field. I would study the valley beneath me and see tiny cattle moving slowly in the distance. Years passed, I developed as an artist, and as I was living in the capital city. It took me a while to realise that the horizon was part of me. In due time, quite inevitably, the horizon, the strong sense of it and what it represents, began to strongly appear in my work. I traveled all over the world and moved from beyond one horizon to the other, always wanting to see what’s on the other side of the hill, what is at the other end of the horizon”. – Ann Quinn

In the visual poetry of a skilled and experienced painter, the experience of seeing many horizons translates to seeing many ends-of-the-ability-to-see, and thus her paintings become a stretching metaphor to an elevated or a transcendental kind of vision. Such maturity as a painter delivers a painting like ‘Ethiopian Plough’, where the land seems to appear as a lucid substance and the oceanic like appearance of it evaporates into sky, delineating the contours of a horizontal substance as an ambiguous possibility, thus delivering the viewer to a vertical realm that stretches beyond the horizon of the visible.

Quinn’s visual poetry is also that of forms. While seeing them in the reality from her innate ability to understand and see forms, she creates them as a painter, and then she allows them the freedom to recede and disappear through the spillage of painting mediums and pigments onto the surface, evoking thus the vitality or power where abstraction expresses itself before and after meeting the so called representational, in the painting. Such spillages appear in abundance in paintings like ‘Meeting Place’ and ‘Temporal Territory’, in ‘Sheep on Melted Terrain’, and in different ways in other paintings.

Another aspect of Quinn’s language of forms is the way she identifies her compositions in the reality, and decides their structure in her paintings. The freedom of the creative painter to express her vision through the journey of creating, destroying and recreating forms, could be thought of as a type of meditation. The successful end of such meditational journey is something equivalent to nirvana, which is an existential unity between the viewer and the thing or the apparition he or she views. While Ann achieves such unity between what she sees as initial forms, and the final appearance of her finished paintings, the way there is full of ecstatic moments. Such ecstasy is silent, subtle and very powerful. It is blatantly expressed in the painting, ‘Meeting Place’, where the painter paints herself standing in the midst of a Pyrenees mountains landscape, constructed of spilled and loose forms, almost transparent mountains, and a dancing foreground, where elements in her world and in the world of her painting meet, and where she also meets herself.

“Drawn to abstract shapes that begin to form the vision of any reality I am looking all the time, my eyes are working all the time. I see compositions forming when I am in a place that is full of potential. I am drawn to forms and I see shapes and forms in common things. Even before I developed as a full time practicing painter, I would see basic shapes and forms in what I could see in the reality, and I was also drawn to moods in landscape. It is all about capturing a moment when you witness some magic that would change in a minute, something is in the air that will last only a few seconds, you try to capture the essence of it, which is so tangible and fleeting.” – Ann Quinn

 “In this exhibition there are four paintings where I painted people. In ‘Ethiopian Plough’ and in ‘The Mushroom Picker’, and ‘The Swan Lady’, there are people who interact with the land. Also in ‘Meeting Place’, where I painted myself standing in the middle of the landscape, as a painter, I interact with the land, similar to the way a farmer or a mushroom picker, or a lady feeding swans relate to nature.” –Ann Quinn

The sensitivity in Ann Quinn’s paintings to subtle changes in marks of mediums and pigments and the way each component in the painting interacts with the other, must have developed from her intense feelings towards nature, where the temporality of seasons, the different appearances of the land and sky, and the movements of animals on land and from station to station in the cycle of life and death, decide the temporal atmospheres in the world she sees. Such experiences began on the farm where she grew up, then they continued in other places she resided in and passed through. The painting ‘Temporal Territory’, for example, expresses a moment, where a bull claims his territory, someplace, on the Pyrenees Mountains. His gaze electrifies the marks of the rocky land around him, and such electricity, together with the focal point of the animal’s eyes, is the power this painting projects.

“It happened sometimes when I was a small child on the farm… and it happened last week…. again, I got a shock…. I continued to walk towards the field, where I saw a massive dead cow, the presence of death, twisted and contorted, transformed the landscape. I became breathless, the presence of the dead cow made everything stand still, time stood still, I stopped breathing for a few seconds. This affected the whole radius of the immediate landscape, and with all my power I tried to walk away from it, the presence of death was overpowering. As I walked on the feeling would not go away, the impact of the presence of death, until the cow was out of sight. Without being fully aware of it, through nature, I was connected to the cycle of life and death.” – Ann Quinn 

Another example for the transference of intense sensitivity, from nature to painting, is the painting ‘Floating on the Other Side’. This painting won the K & M Evans Award at the Royal Hibernian Academy’s Annual Exhibition of 2012. It is a painting of a dead cow floating in space above the reflection of it’s body in water beneath. Ann saw the dead cow in the reality of her parent’s farm in Donegal. Her painting of the cow is a painterly-poetic expression of the phenomenon of death, the duality of life and death, and the possible duality of two sides to life and death, earthly and ethereal, or spiritual. The other side of the veil, or the other dimension beyond the horizontal horizon, hints at the potential or at the possibility of making the invisible visible, the intangible tangible. In this exhibition, ‘The Place where I Stand to Look out over this World’, the presence of the invisible, or the ephemeral, is as potent as it was in previous exhibitions by Ann Quinn, though now perhaps, it is more subtle, and more coherently cohesive in the minute fabrics of each painting.

Daniel Lipstein is a visual artist based in Co. Kildare, 2016


The Paintings of Ann Quinn – An appreciation

By Órfhlaith Foyle


‘On the hills a million people,

A million sparrows, nest,

Like a confused migration

That’s had to light and rest,


Building its nests, or houses

Out of nothing at all, or air.

You’d think a breath would end them,

They perch so lightly there.


But they cling on and spread like lichen

And people come and come.

There’s a hill called The Chicken

And one called Catacomb;


There’s the hill of Kerosene,

And the hill of Skeleton,

The hill of Astonishment,

And the hill of Babylon.’

From ‘The Burglar of Babylon’ by Elizabeth Bishop

For me, Ann Quinn’s hill paintings remind me of the rhythm of an Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘The Burglar of Babylon’ – the carousel of reflections and the image of lives hidden behind blazes of light.

In the painting titled City Cow. A cow stands, braced like a king surveying the horizon. Underneath his hooves is a hill of zigzagging light, as if a city is rumbling and living there. It may be nothing more than the last silvers of daylight on cow dung or plastic or stone, but the paint lights up the reflection of life inside and on that hill. A Babylon of light. A Catacomb of life.

City Cow, oil on board, 18 x 24 cm, (Private Collection)

City Cow, oil on board, 18 x 24 cm, (Private Collection)

The cow is repeated in another painting Subtle Correspondence, standing now on a hill that shows only its own skeleton of rock and ice-packed earth. A swan drifts by on the bottom of the painting. The ‘correspondence’ is solitary. Each facing its own way.

Subtle Correspondence, oil & inks on linen, 37.2 x 46 cm

Subtle Correspondence, oil & inks on linen, 37.2 x 46 cm

But they cling on and spread like lichen

And people come and come.

Ann Quinn’s work show the crack of light in the world; the bone colour edge of the sky, and the apparitions of paint marks lie above seemingly unsettled gravestones in Lucid Vapour, Expanding the Spirit to the Beyond.

Lucid Vapour, Expanding the Spirit to the Beyond, oil on board, 24 x 30 cm

Lucid Vapour, Expanding the Spirit to the Beyond, oil on board, 24 x 30 cm

There is a sense of Andrew Wyeth in Ann Quinn’s work. A similar appreciation of how spare and beautiful life is; how the carcass of an animal frozen in snow shows us how we will one day lie, and we can only stare at the uneasy inevitability of death.

Continuous Hibernation, oil on board, 30 x 30 cm

Continuous Hibernation, oil on board, 30 x 30 cm

Also there is the sense of humans invading the land Ann Quinn paints. They roost at the margins or build their houses inside the flanks of mountains as in Chak Chak, but the mountain curves around the yellow and brown houses in near subsumption, and the effect draws your eye in to that main yellow house, and you wonder how it must be to live under such enormity.

'Chak Chak', oil on board, Shortlisted for the Hennessey Craig Award 2008, Private Collection

‘Chak Chak’, oil on board, Shortlisted for the Hennessey Craig Award 2008, Private Collection

There is the hill of Kerosene,

And the hill of Skeleton,

Self-Portrait is remarkable for its colour, its stare and its edge. I am particularly affected by the shading beneath the cheekbone and I don’t know why.

Self Portrait, oil on linen, 55 x 65 cm, National Self Portrait Collection of Ireland, 2012

Self Portrait, oil on linen, 55 x 65 cm, National Self Portrait Collection of Ireland, 2012

There is something close to apocalyptic in The Burn Fields, not in a ruinous sense but in a timeless one. It is strong and inevitable the way apocalypses are; but it is all the more beautiful for that.

The Burn Fields, oil on board, 77 x 113 cm (Private Collection)

The Burn Fields, oil on board, 77 x 113 cm (Private Collection)

My Father’s Cows making their Way back down to the Burn Fields is a line of cows moving along the perimeter of fields – a limbo of time, passing yet repeating.

My Father's Cows making their Way back down to the Burn Field after Milking Time, oil on board, 60 x 80 cm

My Father’s Cows making their Way back down to the Burn Field after Milking Time, oil on board, 60 x 80 cm

The titles that Ann Quinn gives her work act as the first lines to a story or a mystery. Lunacy is Safely a Field Away or so it seems, because the tree is a mass of skeleton branches and the small red lights beneath it are the tiny hot lives of human habitation.

The Lunacy is Safely a Field, oil on board (Private Collection)

The Lunacy is Safely a Field, oil on board (Private Collection)

Night Swim reminds me of Harry Clarke and Aubrey Beardsley, and the Children of Lir. The arch and stretch of the swans as they drift and feed and also the glimpse of the swan that has almost left the painting; the night sky drenching the lake water with its own colour; the bright bodies of the swans catching golden moonlight the way a church glass catches sun in colour.

Night Swim, oil on linen, 28 x 25.7 cm

Night Swim, oil on linen, 28 x 25.7 cm

In the painting Two women talking under a Tree the women are part of the growth around them. A plant arches at their conversation. A tree’s leaves are drawn with such varied colour of sugar pink, red, orange and rotting brown, and in the middle of the scene, there is a delicate blue-grey green gleam of day, giving the whole painting a sense of its own world.

Two Women Talking under a Tree, oil on board, 15 x 20 cm

Two Women Talking under a Tree, oil on board, 15 x 20 cm

Out of nothing at all, or air,

You think a breath would end them.

They perch so lightly there.

There is such a condensation of light and also a distillation of light in Ann Quinn’s paintings; a sensation of ‘versts’ travelled in her landscapes, a feeling of falling into her work from a height, and an aloneness that confronts you. You see the world that she creates from what she sees and feels. Hills and mountains, bare and ridged or verdant and azure, while people are drawn with their edges intact and animals move in and out of time.

Her work is full of muscle, acidity and beauty.


Órfhlaith Foyle is a writer based in Galway, August 2013

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