Skip to content

By Vicki Mahaffey.

Picture a Sumerian clay tablet, impressed with wedge-shaped cuneiform symbols, sometimes enclosed in a clay envelope.  Perhaps the clay was dug from a riverbank over five thousand years ago, then shaped and pricked by a triangular stylus to bear ancient, originally pictographic signs.  Fast forward five mellennia or so, and consider Ciarán Lennon’s books, encased in cardboard or bronze and interleaved with rivers of paint.  These rivers are made of squares, captured through the box of a camera: they are the offspring of light and film trained on acrylic, copper, linen, or wood.  The rectangles of varying sizes recall the changing play of light and industrial pollutants on a river as seen by a child through a bridge-opening in Inchicore.  The bridge is stone, but it offers a glimpse of fluidity; it is old, but through it we can see and hear the current.  Instead of pictographic characters on a clay tablet, we have photographs of paintings that simultaneously box time and portray its forward rush, as the photographs spill over the right-hand margins of the page.  Even as the eye moves left to right down a row of arbitrary colours, the vertical lines of paint record a different kind of movement, perpendicular to the reading-motion of the eye.  Canary yellow drips down oxygen-rich red, and white washes over darkness, reminders of the now-dried flow of paint. In nature, rivers accumulate a cargo of fallen leaves; in Lennon’s books a reverse logic reigns, as paper leaves bear the river.  Sometimes, the long vertical strokes resemble boards, calling to mind not only the wood pulp in paper, but also the wood frames beneath the painted copper or aluminium or plaster or cardboard.  The rectangles themselves, in their newly linear sequence, retrospectively rearrange the stones that comprised that bridge over the Camac.  Lennon is conjuring with time itself, as gleam of a bronze box leads us out of the Stone Age, and the photographic legends of colour empty us into the vibrant sea of the twenty-first century.

A book, although opaque, is nonetheless a window opening onto other times and places, as any child knows; and so are lennon’s paintings.   This erotic tension between transparency and opacity is apparent in the teasing drip of colour over colour as the paintings promise views through what turns out to be a wall of art.  Like a river, though, these seemingly still paintings nonetheless transport the viewer through time, that ‘over-rolling stream’.  Through them, we scroll back through the history of the book, through printed books to illuminated or rubricated manuscripts, wooden codices, wax tablets, wood panels washed with lime, papyrus or parchment or leather scrolls, and finally to water, chisel, clay and stone.  We recall the sacredness of the book, its delicate equipoise of the permanent and the transient, and we find ourselves with Lennon himself, back at a stone bridge, a child with wondering eyes peering through an aperture at a flowing river.  Or, if we look at a single rectangle in one of the paintings, we see time differently arranged as it flows with the pint from top to bottom: the top as neat and idealized as childhood itself, the paint strokes splitting and uneven, their layers more exposed as they near the chamfered lower edge of age and death.

These books, like the paintings within them, serve as a microcosm of life; books, with their ‘spines’, are like miniature people calling out to, or literally paging, their reader. To what do these pages summon us?  They call us to joy, beauty, life: like the ark of the covenant, they record a pact between creator and viewer that promises freedom within constraintsóthe constraints of a frame, a book, a box of cardboard or bronze, or a glass exhibition case in the Chester Beatty Library.  Like clothes on a living body, such means of containment allure the viewer as well as ‘covering’ their contents.  Like the precious volume by Joachim of Flora that Owen Aherne has found in Yeats’s story ‘The Tables of the Law’, the many coloured pages of Lennon’s books are wrapped in bronze ‘robes’ of the finest craftsmanship; the Camac volumes are sometimes clothed in bronze boxes, like the one cast by Benvenuto Cellini to house the sacred book in Yeats’s story.  And just as bronezs send a double message of invitation and concealment, the paintings themselves appear to come closer or recede in supple response to the varying effects of colour.

If we return to the glimse of the river that the Camac paintings recalled to mind, we uncover yet another stream of buried associations linking art and books to nature. Contemplate first the name; Camac.  A palindrome, it underscored it’s own linearity through it’s perfectly symmetrical inversion of letters; it’s a word that reverberates back on itself.  Now move to the geographical river, which wends its crooked way nine hundred feet above sea level through Inchicore, by Kilmainham, often running underground, to spill into the Liffey near Heuston Station.  The actual river leads us back to the most probably Irish root of its name: a camóg is a hook or (to return to the governing metaphor of books) a comma.  The Camac river, then, punctuates the landscape by tracing a giant comma on a large page of land.  In Lennon’s books, the crooked thread that flows over and under ground has been straightened into irregular lines, like the lines of type that measure books.  The word ‘line’ comes from the Latin linea, meaning thread, which in turn evokes the relation between texts and textiles. Interestingly, the Camac used to host textile factories on its banks in the 17th centuary, which yielded to paper mills in the 18th.  It was the pollutants disgorged by those mills that once painted the river with startlingly vivid, frequently changing colours.  The river-lines in Lennon’s books eschew black type in favor of the different sized rectangles of layered colour that replace words.  Such geometrical ‘writing’, evoking as it does a childhood landscape, recalls the Greek meaning of ‘geometry’, as earth-measurement.  The Camac books retrospectively measure a portion of Irish earth through their geometrical forms, but in doing so they raise the ghost of early Greek texts in which the lineation was hooked (like a camóg), so that the lines ploughed the page as an ox ploughs a field: left to the right margin, then right to the left margin, down to the bottom of the page.  Solon’s laws were carved in stone this way (following the pattern known as boustrophedon).

Lennon’s method relies heavily on the arbitrariness of inspiration, always seeking to resist the imposition of premeditated design.  This is what gives his work its surprising quality, its sense of spontaneity and the immediacy of its address to the viewer. Playful recombinations of materials, sizes, arrangements, surfaces, and colours constantly produce new, intensely present effects.  These effects work like a page who delivers unexpected messages to a viewer; it is therefore fitting that he do so by assuming the other meaning of the word: leaves of paper in a book.  The word ‘page’ comes from the Latin pagina, which is akin to pangere, to fix or fasten, and this is exactly how Lennon delivers his messages: by fixing or fastening sheets of metal, cardboard or plaster to a wood support before painting and shaping them (softening corners, beveling the sides).  He then captures the paintings on film, fastening the photographs to the pages of white albums (in laLatin, an ‘album’ is a white tablet).  This takes us back, by a ‘commodius vicus of recirculation’ (Joyce’s famous description of the river Liffey), to older book-forms: tablets of clay or stone ruled by lines; literal earth-measurements abstracted into incipient meaning and scored to motion.

And this, finally, is what books and art are all about: a fixed flow, an ordered riot, an underground river, bound and covered over but ready to be opened and unleashed at any time.  The motion thus inspired is emotion, a motion out, a uniquely human hydroelectric power.  To book is not only to preserve, but also to reserve in advance; like a river or a uniquely human hydroelectric power.  To book is not only to preserve, but also to reserve in advance; like a river or brook, or a palindrome, a book rushes forward as well as harking back.  Lennon’s books are such books of the future, inspired and produced by industry, prophesying or scrying a new creed of colour.  Unlike Moses’ stone ‘tables of the law’, which were brought down from a mountain, these books hark back to and anticipate a fluid river, thereby celebrating the impossible nuptials of moving spirit with dead letter, of light with metal, of flowing water with the hope of containmentóin boxes, books and bronzes.

Vicki Mahaffey is Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, USA.