Magazine article The Spectator

Universal Records

Magazine article The Spectator

Universal Records

Article excerpt

Mark Shields is a painter of considerable versatility and skill who is unable to rest on his laurels. Born in 1963 in Northern Ireland, where he still lives, he developed a powerful realist style that owes much to the Old Masters, and scored early success with meticulous portraits and still-life paintings. If he had been happy to continue in that vein, he would no doubt have made a very good, if safe, living, but ambition and self-questioning have led him on to develop new ways of painting and drawing, from mysterious, atmospheric landscapes and complex narrative pictures to large-scale pastel drawings on canvas. Shields speaks of a dread of falling into rhythms of working that lead inexorably to unthinking habit, and continually experiments with materials in an effort to insure against this. His latest work signals yet another departure: a series of 99 paintings of mostly single figures in oil on muslin, each measuring some 5ft by 2ft. The figures are primitive and telluric, recalling painted linen shrouds from Egypt, medieval wall paintings, Byzantine altar cloths, Fayum mummy portraits and many other unexpected sources.

This stupendous collection of images - raw, emotive, enlivening, disquieting - is currently on show at two London galleries (until 7 March) that are only a short walk apart:

Grosvenor Gallery, 21 Ryder Street, SW1, and Browse & Darby, 19 Cork Street, W1.

The two exhibitions are hung similarly, over three floors in each gallery. The paintings are divided in alternate quartets, with the first four at Browse & Darby, the following two pairs at the Grosvenor, and so on, more or less faithfully, though there are 55 in total at Grosvenor and 44 at B&D. Painted as pairs (except for the very last one), they suggest their own groupings. The idea of finishing the sequence on an odd number was to leave it open-ended, what Shields calls 'a perpetual incompleteness'. He tried out various descriptions of his figures: 'There was almost an army of them; a community; a congregation; then Host came to mind. The idea of the 99 has a connection with the parable of the lost sheep - which suggests that the one that isn't there is the important one.

That's what so many of us are engaged in - striving after the unattainable.

'Initially I hadn't thought they would be paired, that came about because the muslin is so thin. I was working on it on the floor and the paint was going through and soaking into the paper underneath. So I put down two layers of muslin and got an almost identical image on both, then kept working on them in different ways: a layering process with accidental things happening - bleeding and staining. …

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