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Joan Coen’s ‘Sabbath’ and the Limitless Possibilities of Paint

Essay by Fionnuala Parfrey


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Some keep the Sabbath going to Church

I keep it, staying at Home

With a Bobolink for a Chorister

And an Orchard, for a Dome


Emily Dickinson, ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church’


Joan Coen’s ‘Sabbath’ is a rich and engaging art installation that attests to the continuous and continuing practice of an artist who aims to mobilize the durational potential of oil painting. ‘Sabbath’, comprises 360 10×16 (size?) canvases depicting a single object, a small white jug. The nature of the object and its representation on canvas is less important than the overall impression of the passing of time and the evolution of the artist’s painterly relation to the jug. Sometimes painting up to ten versions a day, Coen has been practicing this form of ‘fast painting’ for some time. The collected works bear the trace of her daily interaction with the canvas. The jug was the starting point for the exercise but quickly became secondary to the primary motivation of self-expression. The final piece becomes a journal intime, a series of explorations in colour and tone that brings a sense of ritual to the act of painting.


The original version of ‘Sabbath’, produced as part of her Masters of Fine Art in NCAD in 2014, was completed over a period of four-to-five months and comprised 180 paints on a single white panel.  In its current configuration, the series is displayed on three double-sided white panels arranged in a perpendicular fashion in the foyer of the Newman building on UCD’s Belfield campus, but when I met with the artist in June she assured me that the work was far from finished.


‘Sabbath’ is a creative work in process that reflects Coen’s artistic practice and the juncture between the two great European traditions of still life and the nude. The artist described how the little jug eventually revealed itself to her as part of a torso and this shift in perspective granted her the freedom to move away from pure representation. ‘I use paint in an emotive way,’ she explained. ‘I believe that the paint becomes one with my feelings on the day.’ This assimilation between the artist and the medium is one of the primary motives of Coen’s artistic practice. She consistently strives to reach that point where the purpose of the making art shifts from representation into the more ‘purposeless’ context of pure expression; when seeing in a traditional sense gives way to a more fluid exchange between the artist and her environment.


Philip Napier, Head of Fine Art at NCAD and the curator of this particular installation of ‘Sabbath,’ makes the comment that the work operates within a ‘continuous present’. Coen refers to it as a ‘manifestation of time’, and the number of canvases, 360, also puts us in the realm of geometry, a realm of coded space, which is infinite rather than delimited. The title refers of course to a day of rest but also to an ongoing process of creation. It also suggests, as in Dickinson’s poem, an individual’s practice of worship and spirituality. The artist has found freedom through repetition and abandons all recourse to edit and refine the individual works, preferring instead to allow space for imperfection and spontaneity. Her aim is to explore the fluidity of perspective and to investigate the limitless possibilities of paint. ‘Colour,’ she said, ‘is never exhausted; it’s a mystery.’ Within the installation she has produced a spectrum of colour that brings to mind Monet’s series of the Cathedral at Rouen and which grants the viewer numerous points of entry into the work.


The artist is drawn to seriality through the inspiration of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) whose thinking was consumed with the one thought that is the question of being. ‘What does it mean to be?’ This was the thought that captured Heidegger throughtout his lifetime. She relates philosophy to everyday life and through this work has transformed her artistic practice into daily ritual. In her own words, ‘Each of those little paintings becomes a thought, and it’s the one thought.’ The work invites the viewer to reflect on the significance of singular moments in time and how they relate to the overarching narrative of human existence. In a culture of image-saturation and a largely distracted form of engagement with visual culture, Coen is telling people to take the time to reflect, take time every day to explore one particular aspect of the environment around you. For the viewer, this work becomes a space in which to reflect on how the individual relates to the whole; how each constituent, imperfect as it may be, can lend itself to a thing of great beauty.


The artist described to me how the work evolved around her without her quite realizing what it was: ‘Eventually I laid them out on the floor with the help of two other artists, and it became then, for me a creative work. It revealed itself to me, and as a result I was able to think around it and say, ‘Oh this is what it is.’’ She calls it ‘purposeless painting,’ but I think what she means is that the motivation is not any one finished product, but rather the beauty of an action that stands for itself alone. Coen finds a way to successfully balance representation, expression and a degree of aesthetic autonomy. She actively engages with the mysteries of life in a spiritual sense and her quest is a universal one for meaning and authenticity. Authenticity in her mind is an abstract goal that facilitates an original action, which comes to serve a higher purpose. It is the harnessing of creative energy in the service of oneself, for she believes that there is ‘is a human drive, a creative force in everybody but it depends on how you use that energy everyday and the decisions you make.’


In the space created by the installation there is room for the viewer to consider both what is before them in terms of form, colour and texture, and what is implicit in the structure of repetition and variation. ‘Sabbath’ is after all about the infinite possibilities and potentialities of human experience.






by Joan Coen

Sept 3 - Nov 3 , O'Brien Centre for Science UCD