The poetic paintings of Irish artist Patrick Graham need time to be fully appreciated. They persuade the viewer to ignore the ringing cable cars and shoppers outside the gallery near Union Square and step into solitude — even if only for a moment.
“Patrick Graham — Thirty Years: The Silence Becomes the Painting” — is appropriately titled. More than 35 works by the influential artist are at the Meridian Gallery, a nonprofit arts center housed in a 100-year-old mansion at 535 Powell St.
Displayed on three floors, Graham’s paintings, collages and drawings defy easy explanation. Densely layered, often covered in milky whites and muddy grays and blacks, they include an array of images, textures and words scribbled by the artist — sometimes legible, sometimes not. They are thoughtful works, infused with religious imagery and focused on the human condition.
Curator Peter Selz says Graham’s art is “filled with anguish and mystery — and deeply steeped in the Irish artistic and historical experience.”
Graham, 68, could not attend the recent opening of his show, but sent his son Robin to read a statement. What Graham wants is for his paintings to be looked at — and looked at again.
Selz considers Graham Ireland’s foremost painter.
“I’ve rarely worked with an artist whose work is of this quality,” Selz says. “It takes a long, long time to read these paintings.”
Near the gallery’s entrance is “Dead Swan/Captain’s Hill,” a massive diptych that refers to the area where Graham grew up. In the foreground, hills dotted with tiny crosses rise in front of a black sea as red planes drop bombs from the sky.
Graham’s other diptychs, such as “Somewhere Jerusalem,” are also powerful forces to be reckoned with. As with his smaller works, he deftly combines seemingly disconnected images while exploring color, texture and pattern.
Jack Rutberg, Graham’s international agent, says he’s seen clients at his Los Angeles gallery moved to tears by the artist’s paintings.
“What works like this do is disarm people,” he says.
Rutberg first learned of Graham through the late actor Vincent Price, who was a passionate art collector. Rutberg says Price saw Graham’s work when he was on a cruise that stopped in Dublin. He was so moved by the artist he waited outside a gallery for four hours until it opened.
The exhibition will be at the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, D.C., from June 9 to Aug. 12, and at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at Saint Louis University in Missouri from Sept. 23 through Dec. 16.
Patrick Graham — Thirty Years: The Silence Becomes the Painting
Where: Meridian Gallery, 535 Powell St., San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes April 14
Tickets: Admission is free
Contact: (415) 398-7229, www.meridiangallery.org