“The thickest painter in Ireland” is how Paul Walls has been described by the Ulster Museum for its series of lunchtime art talks. Whilst many artists take offence at this sobriquet, Walls’s response is characteristically relaxed and good humoured as the description is both affectionate and accurate. Paul Wall’s reputation rests on his fascination with heavily impastoed, textured works in which the oil paint is applied so thickly that the brush work stands proud of the canvas and become structural, even sculptural in nature. His treatment of the paint surface is physical  and gestural, encouraged by his appreciation of the work of key expressionist painters such as Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Lucien Frued, and latterly, Maxim Kantor.

As seen in this exhibition of recent harbour scenes, sheep filled landscapes, sea birds and rugby players, Walls likes to work in series. For the initial work in a sequence, such as that based on the fishing fleet harboured at Killbegs, he paints a straightforward study with the emphasis on a structural composition, enhanced by strong tonal contrasts that reflects the lighting condition and the textures of the weathered trawlers.  Subsequent works are then ‘variations on a theme’ – in some almost monochromatic pieces, tonal values dominate; in other vibrant colour is paramount, heightened to the point of Fauvist exaggeration and reminiscent of the expressive seascapes of the German painter, Emile Nolde. Woking in the method allows Walls to explore both his medium and his subject matter to the full.

In the past, Wall’s landscapes have tended to concentrate on topographical features, but in this show an untidy flock of hesitant sheep straggling along a bogland track is the focal point. These well balanced compositions are produced in both oil and acrylic, a relatively new medium for Walls that allows him to work more spontaneously when investigating new themes, such as seagulls and rugby players, Designed to complement the Harbours Series, the Seagulls are striking images – groups of gulls squabbling over scraps of food or single birds perched on sea weedy rocks set against the muddy browns and greys of Irish seas or deep blue’s that suggest sunnier climates.

Perhaps the most surprising element of this stimulating exhibition is Wall’s apparently new departure into figurative painting. At first glance, Rugby Players appear crude and content in exhibition. The facial expressions and contorted poses of the rugby scrum and the two burly players locked in a tackle are ugly and coarse, akin to the uncomfortable and caricatured figures of Glaswegian painter, Peter Howson, whose work Walls admires. But then, rugby is an aggressive, even brutal sport and Walls’ vigorous technique and stylistic approach is perfectly suited to the attributes of the game. As evidenced by the variety of painterly themes in this exhibition, the physical process of painting and the need to exploit the medium to its full potential will always remain his primary concerns.

© Amanda Croft

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