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Mollie Douthit: When Worlds Collide – Wonderful works are visual riches grounded in the literal

Review: Extended texts giving insight ultimately limit each work to singular meanings

Mollie Douthit: When Worlds Collide

Butler Gallery, Kilkenny
★★★★☆

A good painting is revealing, letting us into the mind and heart of the artist. A really good painting can bring us closer to our own. Mollie Douthit is known for works that show the power of the small. Fragments expand on canvas: a matchstick, a tea bag, a piece of paper, the edge of a chair or a slice of bread become deftly painted meditations.

Douthit, who was born in North Dakota and is now based in West Cork, has more recently pulled her viewpoint back to take in entire scenes. This work draws on memories of her grandparents’ holiday home in Minnesota and extends into a series of moments from the artist’s relationship with her now husband, who she met in 2022. Another reference point is Douthit’s friendship with the writer Sara Baume, who is making an exploration of the artist in her own current writings.

Do we have to know these things to value what we are seeing on paper and canvas? Not necessarily. Elvis Might Have Slept Here, 2023 gives you plenty to go on, with its delicious interplay between content and title; Here We Are, 2023 captures the feeling of blandness married to the magical hint of potential that can wrap around anonymous hotel and motel rooms. Delicate Flowers, 2023 is a cascade of laburnum and love; and A Dog Named Venus, 2023 is awash with the possibility of wonder.

Alongside these visual riches, extended texts beside each work add anchoring biographical detail. Perhaps they are a marker for the artist in her departure to more specific biographical work, but, while fascinating, they begin to limit each work to singular meanings. Initially giving insight, they ultimately prevent you from filling the work with your own thoughts, which is when art truly tends to come alive.

With that grounding in the literal, it is intriguing to see the opposite pull of abstraction in some paintings. In Good Fun, 2023 focuses on the edge of a shed, all dark wood vertical lines, with a lighter diagonal, tinged with blue for the roof. A streak of yellow represents an illuminated window, brilliantly bringing the composition alive.

I Come from the Land of Divisions, 2023 shows a road bisecting two lakes, which curve in half circles of blue. Huge white birds, possibly pelicans, float and skim the waters. I am reminded of Patrick Scott’s early work, such as Ducks Going to Sea, from 1944, where brown meets a band of blue two-thirds of the way across the canvas. A row of ducks line up to make the jump from one medium to the next. Shown at the artist’s posthumous retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, in 2014, it gives a hint to the reductions that artist would continue to make, until he jumped into his later pure abstraction.

One mode of representation does not trump another, and not all representational painters are on a journey to becoming abstract. Instead, the most powerful painting tends to haunt the hinterland between the two. These are wonderful works. The delight lies in the elusiveness that hovers around potential meaning. It is the enigma as well as the imagery that lets you in.

When Worlds Collide is at the Butler Gallery, Kilkenny, until Sunday, March 24th

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