Michelle Boyle

  • Title: What Painting Is
  • Medium: Oil on panel
  • Width: 80 cm
  • Height: 90 cm
  • Year of creation: 2014
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What Painting Is


Born in 1967 in London, Michelle Boyle grew up in Dublin, and now works in a studio near Virginia, Co. Cavan. She says that her 2014 self-portrait was painted partly in response to dismissive remarks made by a Royal Hibernian Academy member on ‘the disarray of my palette and my informal method of painting which he observed at a life session in the Academy in Dublin. When I got home to my studio, feeling almost battle-weary, I painted myself with the palette in one hand, my brush in the other – rather resembling a warrior’s shield and spear – in defiance of the man’s attitude towards me as a self-taught, non-academic artist.’


This self-portrait was painted with swift immediacy, eschewing preliminary sketches or any initial outlining on the board. Each distinctive pigment of glowing primary colour – arrayed on the palette – is present in the subtly modulated palette of the painting itself. Boyle both tautly and supply evokes sensuous gradations of body, face and still, expressive hands, as well as the matière of her informal attire. The unflinching regard of her brown eyes projects a private persona – in which raw vulnerability and her defiant self-assurance as a painter are inextricably one.


‘I am wearing my studio clothes – generally old and layered to keep warm in autumn, a navy blue tee-shirt and cardigan with simple pattern on the sleeves and, just visible, a skirt with bright red roses. My studio hat is made up of rather dishevelled fragments of felt held together by a black band. The hanging ribbons have small bells, not visible here, which jangle as I paint.’ Variegated light and shadow falling on face, neck and torso are as redolent of the climate of the artist’s interior life as of conditions in the big-windowed studio.


The picture’s title comes from James Elkins’ 1998 book What Painting Is, an erudite exploration of the secret, sensuous alchemy of painting itself. Elkins writes: “Consider what is happening in the paint [in Rembrandt’s portraits], aside from the fact that it is supposed to be skin. Paint is a viscous substance, already kin to sweat and fat, and here it represents itself: skin as paint or paint as skin, either way. It’s a self-portrait of the painter, but it is also a self-portrait of paint.”


The primed white background of Boyle’s self-portrait oscillates with partially rubbed-out handwritten quotations from her own notebooks, as well as affirmative extracts from writings by authors she admires. These now barely legible lines include this from Elkins: ‘A life spent in the studio is a bearable life’; an aphorism from the Irish poet Peter Fallon which she had noted down at a talk he gave at Trinity College, Dublin (his response to literary accolades he had received): ‘All I had to do was live my life’; and John Berger’s rumination on the impending end of a relationship with a female fellow student as they lay together in a London bedroom as bombs fell during the Blitz: ‘I felt thankful…for all that had happened in the bed with broken springs.’


A further line that may now be now indecipherable in the palimpsest backdrop comes from the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif’s 1999 novel The Map of Love: ‘Last night I dreamed once more I walked in the house of my father’s childhood.’ She relates this to her own ‘present exploration of my recently discovered Indian paternal ancestry and visual inheritance. In fact I have painted six self-portraits in the studio since 2003 when I changed from a career in cultural anthropological research and writing to become a full-time painter. The first of these, depicting me as a baby, re-imagined my past in England before adoption to Ireland.’


Portraitists whose work has inspired her include the Ancient Egyptian Fayum Mummy painters, the American Alice Neel for her art’s visceral immediacy, and Sargent and Orpen for their flair and fidelity in attaining a likeness.


Boyle’s recent perspicacious series of portraits of the writer Thomas Pakenham was exhibited at the 2015 Hay Festival in Kells, Ireland. Her works are in Collections of Microsoft International, UNESCO HQ, Paris and The Office of Public Works, Ireland.


Purchased from the 2015 Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait Prize.