Minimalism in the Dutch Golden Age at the Kerlin


Faith After Saenredam and Other Paintings

Aidan Dunne

There is a clear affinity between the work of Paul Winstanley and Pieter Saenredam, a painter who flourished during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. The son of an engraver, Saenredam was apprenticed as a painter and in time invented a subject matter with which he is forever identified: deserted church interiors. Remarkably, of his 50 or so surviving works, almost half centre on just two churches, Saint Bavo and the Mariakerk in Utrecht. Far from the pomp and and luxurience one might expect of church interiors, these Dutch Reformation interiors are usually white and spare to the point of austerity.

Saenredam's paintings are virtuoso excersises in architectural perspective. It has been suggested that he was motivated more by his passion for architecture than by his faith. Certainly he delights in the formal purity of the enclosed, whitewashed spaces, generally free from distracting decoration and, of course, people. Whatever his motivation, these qualites give his work a startlingly modern appearance when you encounter it in its art historical context in galleries. It seems to anticipate aspects of abstraction and minimalism. You can see its appeal for Winstanley, who has long pursued a form of painting that incorporates aspects of both photographic representation and minimalism. This has led him into an engagement with architectural interiors and exteriors. Communal areas in mid-20th century modernist buildings, including walkways, corridors and lounges recur. He reached a landmark with the publication of his project Art School (Ridinghouse) in 2013, consisting of a series of paintings of vacant studios outside the academic year: great studies of space, light and potential. A minority of his paintings contain figures.

The key work in his new show at the Kerlin Gallery is his recreation, or re-imagination, of a lost painting of the Mariakerk by Saenredam. Winstanley set about approximating it by refering to a surviving, precise preparitory sketch. Then he moved on to make another painting of Mariakerk, but from a slightly altered viewpoint, so you can see a window and a golden tapestry, both of which, he points out, were documented as being there. But in composing his painting, Saenredam made sure neither could be seen, though he did include comparable elements in other paintings. The bottom line is that Winstanley's re-imagination of the Saenredam is of course a Winstanley. And perhaps our version of anything is uniquely our own.

Other paintings include people looking at paintings in the National Gallery, London. A man and a woman stand before a Vermeer. A larger group moves around in front of a religious icon painting. The moving figures are blurred as though by a long photographic exposure. The figures are ephemeral, the artworks fixed and bathed in light. There's also a painting of a recurrent subject: a birch tree, which of course changes all the time even in its constancy. Seeing is believing, but the implication of these beautifully poised works is that our faith may be misplaced.

The Irish Times, 23rd May 2017