All dreams return again to the only remaining instinct, to escape from the outline of the self. (Hans Bellmer)

Let's get some housekeeping out of the way first: Hillsboro Fine Art is not the Cinderella of Dublin's art scene, but its lost slipper. If you quickly list off the commercial galleries in Dublin on one hand – Kerlin, Mother's, Green on Red, Kevin Kavanagh, Taylor (maybe), and in that order  – Hillsboro might only figure if you had a mutant sixth finger. But in recent years the gallery has peeked the interest of new audiences and artists, a time when shepherding gallerists have lost control of their flock, and artist-led spaces have become either overly institutionalised or overtly outlier.

Sheila Rennick's solo at Hillsboro this year was tease enough for me to take a rare trip to the gallery. The gallery felt distractingly homely: the door, the sofas, the curio by the Hillsboro Art Family dotted here, there and everywhere to frustratingly throw the context of the main event out of joint. You might think: grow up, it's a commercial gallery after all and artists have to supposedly 'live'. But there is always the expectation and choice of sheep's clothing, which Hillsboro seemingly don't do. On the day of my visit loitering artworks were found bagged and wrapped here and there. That said, if Paul Doran were to show paintings in Arnotts basement I would be there.

A bit of a lost slipper himself, Doran is enigmatic out of sheer obstinacy; in the ways he pushes paint and doesn't play the art game. Every three years or more Doran awakes from some Rumpelstiltskin slumber in some backwater in Wexford, takes a trip to Dublin, hangs his paintings in the gallery – work that hasn't saturated social media beforehand or been previously shown in curated exhibitions – and then heads back home to start it all over again. It's a peekaboo existence. Here you go! What do you think! (question marks not included).

I remember during a rare in-conversation between Doran and Mark Swords at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios in 2012, when Doran shared a memory of walking up Caple Street after buying a large bag of paints from Evans Artist Supplies that cost a ridiculous sum of money. He seemed to be questioning the very activity of painting in the retelling: the burden of the bag was palpable in his tone.

Following that moment of critical reflection and evaluation on Caple Street, Doran must have took a detour to the haberdashery, stationery shop and tool shed on his way to Evans next time around, because his Green on Red show in 2013 was 90% fabric, timber, plastic files, and 10% paint. But what marks my memory from that exhibition was Doran's capacity to break painting. As I wrote in response to his work shown at TBG+S in 2012: "Doran's material meddling looks like a stick of dynamite was shoved into Pandora's Box".

Each painting in that farewell exhibition at Green on Red in 2013 was two fingers to his previous work, the buttery and collectible stuff, and two fingers to his collectors, most of whom must have thought: "kitchen roll? Up yours!" Up to that point Doran was known for paintings that were about to collapse under their own weight and density, floating anxiously between event horizon and black hole. (One painting actually did collapse with the help of a gallery visitor's finger, which led to Doran sticking his own finger in one of his own pies, which then led to a transitional period of broken and purposefully botched paintings).

So what happens when two lost slippers, Hillsboro and Doran – odd or matching – shake hands on an exhibition? It's hard not to imagine a scuffle in the gallery between Doran and gallerist, John Daly, over the superfluous gallery decor. It's harder not to fantasise about Doran's new work hanging in Green on Red's new space down the quays: a bit of rough on rough. It's hardest to know if Doran and the new Green on Red would have worked together, or if the artist would have been forced to make it work, to break his method, to rethink his message, by painting bigger, bolder, better or whatever. We will never know.

Expectation is a terrible thing, especially when it's defeated. On the week of the exhibition at Hillsboro it was impossible to avoid the saturation of images promoting Doran's exhibition online. Lots of judgments and expectations were made by that fool, assumption.

Online they looked bigger but lighter; in the flesh they are smaller and more compressed. Online they are usually shown photographed from the side like three-quarter portraits with slight variations in physiognomy: big ears, cleft chin, dimples, variation on the scale of a human face.

Face to face in the gallery I tended to get too close in an effort to figure out their crowded surfaces: brass screws that unceremoniously hold their architecture together; uneven white margins that frame photographic print-outs (I could hear the groaning of the inkjet printer as it spat them out on Doran's living-room floor); paintbrush drawn margins that slither and circumscribe the homemade frames, and trenches that separate the frame from the fleshy mattresses of paint below. One after another after another Doran gives us more of the same, so his homespun architecture becomes the emphasis, not paint.

The strange thing is I had the variety show in my head on the way to Doran's exhibition at Hillsboro – a troop of harlequins doing cartwheels in my brain. But unlike his exhibition at Green on Red three years previous, I was confronted by one sure thing: UNIFORMITY. Doran wasn't breaking painting anymore, he was putting Pandora's Box back together again, and again and again and again...

First, second, third glance the 14 paintings all looked to have the same dimensions. The printed photographs that shutter most of the paintings all hang a little to the right like the human heart. The consistency, the uniformity, it's like Doran had a few too many 'Warhols' and vomited 14 times on the gallery walls – rejects from the cloning factory. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but ugly is too.

Thirty minutes after I had left Hillsboro I caught myself digging my thumb into my ribs. I was still struggling with Doran's uniformity, but I seemed to be stimming off the frustration. There was a wrongness to the whole thing. Is Doran playacting, or being serious? Serious play? Perhaps it's naive to not believe he's just exhibiting at Hillsboro to sell – a good seller they tell me. If this was a painter in a degree show you would wonder 'one-trick pony!?'

But within one of Doran's photographic print-outs I discovered a chance for an escape from this oppressiveness of uniformity at Hillsboro; or at least follow the breadcrumbs towards escape. Of course, oppressiveness maybe Doran's point, but, No! Not yet.

The painting in question is also found printed in cropped detail on a folded invitation: a glossy white calling card for the gallery. Here we find the grey-green impression of a domestic window draped in shades. There is the merest hint of a shoulder against the raked light of the shades. Doran's shoulder? His identity decapitated by the room's shadow? It's one of those Man Ray fetish moments: the figure against the window, the cropping, the stark solarisation, the noirness.

But this is just one crust on the trail to escape from uniformity at Hillsboro. We find another cropped detail of the same window in another printed photograph that shutters a painting, and then another and another and another. The same window five times over. The same grey-green shrouds them all. One after another the crops of this specific window – a bathroom, or bedroom, or home studio window – get closer and more condensed. Most of the photographs are scalped, revealing a gaping triangle of muscular paint underneath; while others have a cookoo clock door with a soft little bird peeking out (This timber shuttering with avian guests is a sure nod to fellow Irish painter Fergus Feehily, although a little less tender and a lot more abrasive).

In some ways you have to gaze through the axiom 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' to see this exhibition as art rather than a collection of individual objects for sale. With no press release we end up making it up as we go along. The exhibition is titled ‘Paul Doran’ so why not look at the exhibition through the lens of individuation? His paintings do look like large format cameras. So maybe he is looking at us from behind these little monsters rather than the other way around.

Perhaps I am reaching here to replenish the enigma I have in my head of Paul Doran. But if you miss the presence of an artist, and if that artist defeats your expectations time and again, then there is something to that. I am eager to read what Aidan Dunne thinks, considering the history the art critic has with Doran by way of reviews and essays, and not to forget Dunne's voice in awarding Doran (as part of a panel of judges) the once coveted AIB Art Prize in 2005.

For me, I choose to see this exhibition not as a collection of individual paintings, but the dismantling of one big painting. Doran is doing the same thing at Hillsboro that he has been doing for the last six years, he has just disguised it as uniformity, conformity even. This is something more than just the juxtapostioning of textures and edges and frames into an untidy object. This is more than a bundle of edges that vibrate at a tipping point between painted edge and wall – the stuff of good painting. This is an exhibition about limitations: of paint, of perspective, of a life limited by paint. Considering the context of Hillsboro being a selling gallery, this, ironically, is one big painting that cannot be sold in parts.

All said and done, Doran is a speculative painter: you don't know what you are going to get from him down the line. You are also not sure if you are going to get anything from him. Unlike some, he isn’t a slave to the gallery, collector or market. He paints selfishly, indulgently, like all good painters should. What makes Doran’s work exciting is, he is always questioning the medium of painting strictly within the frame. And if his painting signature loses a hem or gains a splinter or three along the way in his questioning of painting and doubt within himself, then so be it. Perhaps real art is a thumb in the rib.

[James Merrigan]

Through 5 September.



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