Wednesday, November 16, 2016

RUA Annual Exhibition 2016

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine 6 November 2016

The Royal Ulster Academy's annual exhibition is usually a good opportunity to enjoy a panoramic view what's happening in the art scene north of the border and to spot some emerging talent. This year however the exhibition has a broader scope with a large number of selected artists and invited artists coming from south of the border. Conversely a number of the North's more established figures, and RUA members, are missing. Without running a fine comb through the exhibitors I notice that there's no Colin Davidson or Paul Seawright. Given the dearth of open submission shows in this country it's good to see the RUA casting its net so wide, with artists such as Karen Hendy from West Cork and Gavin Lavelle from Galway joining the many Dublin-based contributors.

There's a sombre side to the show. The  attractive and informative catalogue contains obituaries of seven members of the Academy who have died in the past 12 months. In addition to these texts, each of the deceased is remembered via two works in the exhibition. The best-known amongst them is Basil Blackshaw. He is represented by a fine portrait of his old friend the late T.P. Flanagan and by the very aptly chosen Big Brown Dog. Blackshaw was an animal lover and dog owner all his life and far preferred talking about his dogs than his art. In an interview a few years ago he was more animated about a champion greyhound he once owned than about any of his major paintings.The Irish art world is diminished by his passing.

 A feature of the exhibition is the large number of portraits, portrait busts, and generally figurative work on view. Poets and artists inspire a number of these. There's a bronze bust of a young Seamus Heaney and a ruddy and romanticised painting of Michael Longley holding a wren in one hand, some flowers in the other, and looking a tad embarrassed about it all. There's a very fine ceramic bust of Austin Clarke by Bob Sloan and nearby you can find his namesake the 1916 leader Thomas Clarke. Robert Ballagh has an austere painting of Brian O'Doherty (the erstwhile Patrick Ireland), a fellow artist who shares his interest in Irish politics. Hector McDonnell shows Neil Shawcross on a suitably red armchair amidst the contents of his studio. There's plenty of quirky and characterful portraits as well. Michael Connolly's Intern is a memorable study in gormlessness, Paul Bell's Wolf has a stolid menace, and Emily Scott's Filippa exudes character and elegance. There are so many good portraits it seems invidious not to name more. There's David McDowell's skilful pencil drawing Remember Me and Jackie Edward's burnished old man in The Heart That Asks. A few of the artists introduce a little light eroticism into the mix, these include Carol Graham's Iconic Allure of Light, and Kyle Barnes' Fixation.

 Of the many works relating to the human face or figure Francis O'Toole's One for Sorrow (above) stands out. This splendid, glowing, sinuous and troublingly ambiguous nude verily steals the show. O'Toole's meticulous painting devotes as much care and loving attention to the knots on the wooden floor as to the dimples on the subject's back.   Sculpture is very well served both in terms of quality and quantity. This seems to have been the result of a deliberate policy as most of the invited artists are well-known sculptors. As you walk into the gallery the first piece you encounter is Furrow by Eilis O'Connell, a small bronze that demonstrates those characteristic O'Connell qualities of perfect harmony and subtle suggestiveness. Further into the first gallery there's the powerful Woodquay Bull by John Behan and the playful The Visitor - a rampant bronze grasshopper by Deborah Brown that won the Mullan Gallery Award for best sculpture.The flag of abstraction is flown by Michael Warren with  Kireji, a blackened bronze slab with fissures, Stephen Deery's Deliverence, and Corban Walker with an intricate maze-like creation. Ann Butler's surreal white porcelain sewing machine and Peter Meanley's playful stoneware The Fisherman also catch the eye.

 There's plenty of paintings of the highest quality - these include The Garden Shed, an accomplished and painterly work by Clement McAleer, Breaking Wave, a fine brooding seascape by James Allen, Long Duree by Jennifer Trouton which won the Tyrone Guthrie Residency Award, Cormac O'Leary's Inisheer II, and Mick O'Dea's dramatic tour-de-force Study for the Burning of the RHA. There are two large lively works by Diarmuid Delargy and an uncharacteristically abstract piece by Neil Shawcross - the title Jazz is the clue to this freeform exercise. Our quiet woodlands are given their due by Keith Wilson with Being Here and Michael Wann's Woodland Shadow - the latter in charcoal, a medium not for the faint-hearted.

 Photography is not very well represented with less than a dozen works on show. Rory Moore's Brig Mary Jane, Westport-Baltimore 1847 is an evocation of the Great Famine. It shows a ruined and abandoned cottage against a brooding western sky. Aidan Crawley adds a further sombre note with Missing I - a study of the Somme landscape. In viewing a show with 329 exhibits it's hard to do justice to the eight video offerings which require more time to absorb than viewers usually have. Many of them can be sourced online for more leisurely perusal. Oona Doherty's Hard to be Soft featured the artist showing admirable litheness as she performed her expressive dance.

 Print does somewhat better than photography in terms of numbers. March is an accomplished lithograph by Elizabeth Magill, Margaret Mannion Kallen won the Nicholson Bass Printmaking Prize for Not a Walk in the Park, an etching and carborundum print, and Crona Gallagher produced a couple of charming copperplate etchings .

 There's plenty of fun to be had in this is an entertaining and eclectic show. You don't have to be a dog lover to enjoy Caroline Fellowes Obedience IV (a dog on a chair in a flood) which manages to be both surreal and poignant at the same time. And you'll surely smile at Stephen Johnston's photo-realist Cake in a Jar which earned him the KPMG Young Artist Award. The selection committee have done a good job in purging the show of the worthy landscapes and other stodgy fare that often dominate academy exhibitions.

 Ulster Museum

 John P. O'Sullivan
 November 2016

Monday, October 24, 2016

John Behan - Past and Present

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 23 October 2016.

John Behan's fruitful and politically-engaged career started in 1960 when a bronze bull of his was accepted by the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. The cover of the catalogue for his latest exhibition features the Bull of Easter, showing that he is still mining that mythic source for his muscular and expressive sculptures. But there's lots more on offer in this rich and varied show that revisits old themes and explores new ones. The bronzes are accompanied by a series of acrylic drawings that served as preliminary studies. Lovers of W. B. Yeats are well catered for with a number of the pieces inspired by the poet. These include: Easter 1916, Horseman Pass By, Wild Swans at Coole, and even a spectral figure that evokes those famous lines "the ghost of Roger Casement is beating on the door". The most eye-catching work is his dramatic Death of Cuchulainn, with its ominous raven perched above the slain hero. There's a lot of death about, if you include his coffin ships and chunky war chariots. Death of a Dramatist - his homage to Brian Friel - shows a meticulously detailed wicker coffin being borne to the grave, the knees of those carrying it bent under their illustrious burden.

Solomon Gallery

Dublin 2



Monday, October 17, 2016

A Day at the Races

Yuften (in green) winning the Balmoral Handicap - Firmament on right.

I should preface this little story by saying that days like this are not the norm for your average bettor and that of course you never hear about a gambler's losses. But the foregoing does confirm that if you're going to bet you have a better chance if you stick to the good quality races where form can be taken seriously. I should also pay tribute to the Racing Post website where you can research in detail every race that every racehorse has ever run.

The flat season's last major event on Saturday was the Qipco Champions Day at Ascot. This features four Group 1 races and brings together all the best horses in Europe for one last joust. And it concludes with a high class handicap over a mile - my favourite distance for betting purposes. It's the kind of day where you can just watch and enjoy the quality of the beasts - or if you're like me you just have to have a bet. As usual I'm watching it on Channel 4 - going through its death throes as ITV waits in the wings to take over. It means that in future we'll be spared the jolly hockey sticks approach of Claire Balding, but will be denied the silkier talents of the fragrant Emma Spencer.

I did a little more studying than usual for this swan song to the flat season and came up with an each-way Yankee (6 doubles, 4 trebles and an accumulator) on Quest for More (12-1), Journey (8-1), Minding (5-2), and Yuften (12-1) - as well as individual bets on the same horses and a saver on Firmament at 8-1 in Yuften's race, plus a reverse forecast on Yuften and Firmament.

1.25 Ascot: Quest for More in the opening Long Distance race was up against an O'Brien hot shot who'd finished third in the Arc, but I reckoned he was the stouter stayer and at 12-1 was very good each wayvalue. I respect mightily his trainer Roger Charlton who stated he was clearly the second best horse on form. He ran his usual brave race, lying in second most of the way and looking like the winner as he battled for the lead a furlong out - but his exertions in Paris two weeks ago may have caught him out as the fresher Sheikhzayedroad stayed on better and beat him by half a length. O'Brien's horse never got into contention. So my Yankee got going with a decent priced placed horse.

2.00 Ascot: I ignored the next race which was a sprint, these horse keep beating each other depending on draw, going, a good start and other imponderables. Many serious bettors ignore sprints for this reason. It was won in good style by The Tin Man but I would never have picked him because of collateral form.

2.35 Ascot: O'Brien has another short priced favourite, Seventh Heaven, in the Fillies and Mares Stakes. However she's a three year old and I fancied the doughty John Gosden's more experienced four year old Journey - especially at the early morning price of 8-1. She had been second lastl year and I do like horses for courses - especially at Ascot. My girl lay up in second for most of the race and bounded clear in the final furlong to win by four lengths. Her starting price was 4-1 but I had my 8-1 in the bag.

3.10 Ascot: The Queen Elizabeth Stakes over a mile featured Minding, a dual classic winner for Aidan . She has been racing over 10 and 12 furlongs recently but nobody who saw her win the Guineas could doubt her prowess over a mile. The question really was could she maintain her consistency after a long hard season. They're were a number of fresher horse in the race and she was a filly racing against colts but she just seemed a class above the rest. There was a strong pace and she hit the front a furlong and a half out and just stayed on better than the rest. The yankee was now beginning to ripen nicely. Even a place in the fourth leg would yield me a decent pot.

3.45 Ascot: The Champion Stakes - I was initially going to back Found in this race but I felt that her heroic win in the Arc may have knocked the stuffing out of her. Also, she was up against Almanzor who had beaten her in the Irish Champion Stakes and who was a fresher horse having been laid out for this race. As it transpired the latter won comfortably with Found running a noble second.

4.25 Ascot: The Balmoral Handicap - this was a mile handicap with a large field but I had narrowed it down to Yuften and Firmament. In the end I went with Yuften in my Yankee because of a race in which he beat Sir Isaac Newton, a group horse trained by Aidan O'Brien, by four lengths. He seemed very well handicapped for a horse with that kind of form - although he had run a number of inexplicably bad races when trained in Ireland by Johnny Murtagh. Also, Roger Charlton's always informative web site had told me that he was going very well in his work. I backed Firmament because he keeps turning up in these competitive mile handicaps and just getting pipped. The race was the usual cavalry charge with Yuften getting a good position on the far rail. He went clear a furlong out and held on easily despite wandering across the track. Firmament had a more troubled passage on the near side and was just beaten for second place - spoiling my dual forecast. However, Yuften's win at 12-1 meant my Yankee and associated bets yielded a substantial four figure sum. We enjoyed a bottle of Sancerre with the chicken for dinner.





Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Mild Moan about The Siege of Jadotville


I watched this on Netflix last night and found it deeply unconvincing. I have no doubt about the historical heroics of A Company and about how badly they were treated by politicians and by their own senior staff. My reservations were mostly about tone, about historical accuracy and about the actual battle. In the opening scenes the soldiers' uniforms were the wrong shade of green - perhaps they took poetic license for aesthetic or cinematographic reasons. I also had a major issue with Commandant Quinlan's saluting technique. I grew up on a series of military barracks (including the Curragh and Collins Barracks, Cork) and never saw an Irish officer use that horizontal style - it was always more a diagonal (see image above). Back in those days also the hierarchies were very strictly observed and there would be no casual banter between ranks - nor would a junior officer speak to a senior one in the manner they did in the film. I don't know where they got that scene at the end where Quinlan strikes the general - that would have provoked a major scandal and a certain end to his career. The portrayal of Conor Cruise O'Brien was also unconvincing. He was far from the cynical and worldly careerist portrayed and in fact suffered from his idealism throughout his working life. But the most unconvincing aspect was probably the depiction of the battle. If they had been overwhelmed and outnumbered in the fashion depicted, how come there was not a single fatality. There were bullets flying everywhere and not a single one had a fatal outcome on the Irish side - despite the hundreds that perished amongst the rebels and mercenaries. It must have happened differently - unless that mass they went to earned them a miracle. I'd give it two out of five. But I'm not a fan of action movies so maybe I'm biased.



Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review of Paul Muldoon - Selected Poems 1968-2014


A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 25 Sept 2016

The lot of the Irish poet has improved considerably in recent times with Aosdána, writers in residence gigs, and even tenure in universities for the better ones. The grumbling compost heap in the corner of a pub is no longer typical. Paul Muldoon represents the apotheosis of this trend with the kind of career that under-appreciated and impecunious predecessors like Patrick Kavanagh could only have dreamt about. Professor of Humanities at Princeton, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Poetry Editor of the New Yorker, and Pulitzer Prize winner are among his many achievements.

Muldoon also has the street credibility that comes from writing songs with Warren Zevon and having one covered by Bruce Springsteen. He has his own rock band at Princeton and even sports a hair style that channels the later Phil Spector. Commenting on this uncommon conjunction between high art and lower art Muldoon asserts that "coming from an Irish tradition I see no essential distinction between the poem and the song". The use of repetition and the refrain in many of his poems are also the staple diet of rock and pop music.

The new selected poems contains his personal choices from his 12 poetry collections - dating back to 1968. Reading and rereading these poems you are left with the abiding impression of playfulness. The poet is enjoying himself and so are we. He's a poet of many parts. You Can spot traces of his Northern contemporaries: Here the rural authenticity of Heaney, there the desolation of Mahon, everywhere the classical references of Longley, and there's even a soupçon of the sexual swagger of Montague - kissing and telling ("my hand on her breast"). But Muldoon has a distinct flavour all of his own - and it's the ludic spirit that predominates. The son of a farm labourer and a teacher, he brings both sides of his ancestry into his work with learned allusions from Beckett and Greek literature rubbing shoulders with pig castration and hot bricks in socks serving as hot water bottles.

He has a sensibility that can, like his beloved Metaphysical poets, consume any kind of experience. There are difficult poems, and there are obscure references, but the whole collection is leavened with humour and rueful self-awareness. Some of the poems, such as Symposium and The Old Country, are pure play. In the latter he strings together a litany of cliches to amusing effect:

Every slope was a slippery slope

where every shave was a very close shave

and money was money for old rope

where every grave was a watery grave

Another poem, Errata, is merely a list of corrections:

For 'Steinbeck' read 'Steenbeck'

For 'ludic' read 'lucid'.

But these almost throwaway pieces are counterbalanced by long sobering poems redolent with the bitter sweetness of a lost love, the brutalities of the sectarian feud in the North, or memories of growing up in rural Ireland. He is also capable of beautiful lyric moments as in: "The soft flame of a canary."

Many of the poems are built on the kind of conceits favoured by the Metaphysical Poets. Muldoon is an acknowledged admirer of John Donne and has edited his Selected Poems. This debt is made explicit in the poem Brazil where he refers to "the bracelet of shampoo about the bone", echoing Donne's "a bracelet of bright hair about the bone". Donne's The Flea is a good example of this kind of conceit, where the comparison is often more shocking than apt:

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

Muldoon plays similar tricks in poems such as The Soap Pig and the Hedgehog but most of all in Long Finish which could be sub-titled Shall I Compare Thee to a Simi Chardonnay. In this poem he use the conceit of a glass of Chardonnay to reflect on his long and rich relationship with his current wife interspersed with gory images of Northern atrocities:

that we've somehow

managed to withstand an almond-blossomy

five years of bitter rapture, five of blissful rows

Love and lost love are recurring themes. Incantata, his moving and self-deprecating tribute to the artist Mary Farl Powers is one of the most powerful pieces in the collection:

I thought of you again tonight, thin as a rake, as you bent

over the copper plate of 'Emblements',

He even throws in a reference to Dublin art politics here: "the Black Church clique and the Graphic Studio claque". There's also a more recent tribute to Seamus Heaney: Cuthbert and the Otters - a more dense and difficult work.

I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead.

Muldoon has been accused of gratuitous esotericism. John Banville described himself as utterly baffled by his collection Madoc: A Mystery - feeling it to be wilfully obscure. While most of the poems are accessible there are certainly difficult areas where we are free to allow our imaginations roam - one of the pleasures of poetry surely. He also sprinkles his poems with unfamiliar terms such as thole, thurified, bris, quag and quoof that send us, sometimes in vain, to the dictionary.

These days it seems that even the banal effusions of a Rose of Tralee are considered too demanding and "olden days" for our intellectually flighty populace. Muldoon's playful, intelligent, and accessible demonstration of the poet's art is a bracing antidote to all such patronising twaddle.

Faber & Faber

pp 228