Tuesday, November 29, 2022

More Paddywhackery from McDonagh: The Banshees of Inisherin

We all know of course that it’s nearly impossible for an Irish-made film to get bad reviews in the Irish press. Even our back-slapping book-reviewing establishment will admit to the odd stinker, but not our film critics. I do recall Neil Jordan’s High Spirits (an appalling farrago) getting treated as reverently as the latest Antonioni by a certain well-loved and now departed critic – who certainly knew better. So I went to see The Banshees of Inisherin recently with only mild expectations – heightened a degree by a mostly positive review by Peter Bradshaw (not an easy lay) in the Guardian. Readers - it left me cold and unimpressed. Now there were elements within it that I thoroughly enjoyed: the epic scenery around the Aran Islands and Achill; the soulful dog, the soulful cow, the soulful horse, the playful miniature goat and the virtuouso performance of Kerry Condon as Siobhan – sister of the afflicted Colin Farrell character. But the story line and the cast of cliched caricatures left me beyond indifferent. I didn’t believe a word of it. Now the McDonagh brothers have form in dishing up Paddywhackery – especially the older sibling. It’s perhaps a second-generation Irish thing where the smart London boys are inclined to exaggerate the priest-ridden, feckless Paddy tropes. But Martin is as guilty of that sin in this film as his brother John Michael was in the deplorable Calvary. No Irish-based film of theirs is complete without the brutal corrupt Garda or the compromised priest. The film is set in rural Ireland in 1923 so we’re not expecting latte-drinking islanders reading the New Yorker. Also, it’s a black comedy with Grand Guignol elements so we’re not expecting naturalistic characters and realistic situations. But even in comedy there has to be a reasonable foundation on which to build the story. And I couldn’t take seriously the basic premise. I just can’t believe a fiddle player would deliberately cut off his fingers – no matter how depressed he was. Neither can I believe that a priest would repeat local gossip in the confession. Or the naked Garda masturbating in his living room. And what was all this routine drinking at 2 pm? I’ve lived on isolated Irish islands with pubs and there was never such a practice – except on Sundays. The only place I encountered serious lunch-time drinking was amongst office staff in London in the Seventies. And the cliched characters: the snoopy post-mistress, the arrogant priest, the brutal Garda. Some positives of course: the surreal extension of the pigs in the kitchen trope was mildly amusing – especially that gorgeous cow. And the prosthetics were excellent – Brendan Gleeson’s fingerless hand was very convincing.  But overall a poor show Martin. The Tourist Board however won’t mind.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

RDS Visual Arts Awards 2022

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Winter edition of the Irish Arts Review.

Aideen Barry, the curator of the RDS Visual Arts Awards tell us that “What you're seeing is a cutting edge snapshot of what the future of Irish art is going to be.” A bold statement which could perhaps do without the “cutting edge”. It’s a snapshot –  time will judge whether it’s old hat, emperor’s new clothes, or the real deal . Barry is a fine artist herself with an interest in the Gothic and the “uncanny”. Her work incorporates drawing, sculpture, and film and the show that she and her fellow judges have assembled provides a rich and entertaining blend of these media. 

Inside the entrance of the RDS Concert Hall you encounter Sadhbh Mowlds’ startlingly life-like Eve (see image above). I had to move very close to ensure it wasn’t a person so well-wrought was the illusion. Duane Hansen could hardly have done better and I wager he never used his own hair to give the legs a little authentic hirsuteness. This striking, award-winning work sets the tone for a show that aside from one dull and gratuitously esoteric work (accompanied by an earnestly worthy blurb) is full of colour and technical verve. Orla Comerford’s prize-winning Oidhreacht is an innovative video depiction of her father, a woodworker, building a boat. The film is projected on to three large curved screens and the images move from abstract to figurative depending how far you stand from the screen. This provides the viewer with a taste of Comerford’s own visual impairment. It’s a technical tour-de-force, an aesthetically-pleasing encounter, and a meaningful expression of the artist’s psyche. Another arresting piece of video was Aisling Phelan’s Dual Reality. A triptych of screens delivered a well-scripted meditation on the gulf between our identity and our digital identity. The long-list of candidates for the awards, and indeed the awards themselves, were inclusive in terms of colour and our LGBGTQ community. However, there was a noticeable shortage of male contenders on both the long list and the short-list. It possibly reflects the dwindling number of men taking fine art as a subject – with a touch of the zeitgeist thrown in. (A recent Graphic Studio Dublin show featured 16 female members and nary a male one. When I queried this with the curator she replied “I’d say you weren’t a bit worried when the art world was dominated by males for centuries”. A comment that suggests her selection process may have tainted by an element of revenge for the sins of our fathers.) It was good to see that one of this beleaguered gender at least made it to the final 13 – he also represented the art of painting, somewhat neglected in our art colleges. Syzmon Minias’s small self-portraits in oil were full of character with echoes of Vuillard and Eugène Leroy. Michelle Malone’s striking tapestries of the Artane Industrial School, accompanied by video and interviews with those whose lives were touched by the abuse in these places was another moving work and a fine record of hard times.The main award, the RDS Taylor Art Award, went to Venus Patel for her film Eggshells. As a queer person of colour she has experienced abuse, including ‘egging’. The film employed the offending object in a series of colourful vignettes where the artist danced her troubles away. I was however concerned by the number of innocent eggs that were harmed in this exercise. I was entertained by being allowed sit on Sinead McCormick’s very serviceable raft Adrift and getting that islanded experience. And Myfanwy Frost-Jones alarming film that dealt with pollution in Kenmare Bay combined grim facts with distractingly gorgeous views of the South-West. The show, notwithstanding the many substantial issues it addressed, was highly entertaining and professionally presented so it’s a shame it didn’t enjoy a longer run.






Male Printmakers Banished from the Garden

A visit to the Arts Council web site informs you that: “Diversity is a core organisational value in the Arts Council’s 10-year strategy to 2025”. This aspiration tells us that if you are an organisation that hopes to receive Arts Council funding you should make sure that your activities are inclusive. This embraces gender balance, the inclusion of racial minorities and those with physical handicaps amongst other criteria. A recent exhibition by members of Graphic Studio Dublin (GSD) caught my eye in this regard. I was a board member of GSD for many years and so continue to take an interest in its activities. The exhibition that got my attention was Geomancy – The Printmakers Garden curated by Aoife Scott at the University of West England (UWE) in Bristol from the 21st to the 25th September 2022. My issue wasn’t the missing apostrophe in the sub-title, although I admit that pained me, it was the fact that an exhibition that was a showcase for GSD featured 16 women and nary a man. Now I realise that there are far more women than men in GSD (the proportion is roughly 75-25%) but unless the show was confined to women (and it didn’t seem to be) you’d expect two or three men at least. Also, amongst the surviving males in GSD are four of the major print makers in the country: Robert Russell, Niall Naessens, Stephen Lawlor, and James McCreary.


I was curious about the reasons for this omission so I contacted Aoife Scott, a member of GSD (and a recent board member) via Instagram.  She responded that “the male artists just choose (sic) not to respond or be in the exhibition.” Passing strange, I felt, that any Irish artist would pass up on an opportunity to show in England. I contacted, through a mutual friend, the four male GSD artists I mentioned earlier and none of them had been contacted. It’s perfectly possible that she contacted other male artists that suited her vision (ignoring what could be considered the cream of the current crop) who all eschewed the opportunity. But here’s the nub of the matter: realising that she was going to have an all-female lineup she should have made an effort to find alternative male representation. Especially as she was a board member and so someone who should be aware of the responsibilities of her organisation. The four I had contacted said they would have jumped at the opportunity to show there. A curator is entitled to select the artists she feels best suit her project, but when a specific studio is involved, with male and female members, she should ensure that representation is inclusive. Otherwise declare the exhibition a women only event. The other option of course is to claim that all the men are shite artists and that they were rejected on aesthetic grounds.


Being the nuisance that I am I contacted Aoife Scott again and this time didn’t get a polite response but rather an outburst of childish invective. I quote:


            “Are you threatened by female artists exhibiting together and supporting each other John? Is it that you are worried that the arts are being taken over by women…I’d say you weren’t a bit worried when the art world was dominated by males for centuries.” 


We’ll pass over the inference that I am centuries old in this cheeky response but here, naked and unadorned is our curator’s rationale for male exclusion. She is seemingly intent, through her choices, in redressing the balance after centuries of imbalance - of visiting the sins of their fathers on the current crop of male artists. In doing so she is of course repeating historical injustices. More significantly she is using an Arts Council funded organisation to carry out a political agenda that goes very much against the Arts Council’s advocacy of inclusion.


However, she is just one individual with a palpable agenda. Where was the GSD board when all this happened. For that matter, where were all the male members? I had occasion at a recent funeral to quote Dante on those who remain silent in the face of wrong-doing:


“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”


This is hardly a great moral conflict, but it should be addressed by those charged with running GSD and by its members. It was noticeable in the recent RDS Visual Awards exhibition for art student graduates how few male artists there were. I was told that this reflected the diminishing number of men attending art college. We should be encouraging more male engagement with the arts rather than ostracising men for the sins of their fathers.



Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Elvis the Movie at the Stella Rathmines


Rathmines is a long way from Dalkey so I hadn’t been at the new-dangled Stella since its refurbishment. My local was the much lamented Forum Glasthule with its perennially sticky floor.  I have to report the Stella is mighty fine. It’s comfortable (we had a couch) the service is great, and you can enjoy a drink in an actual glass while watching the film.. However, they need to get rid of those godawful chi-chi lamps. 


Elvis the Movie was disappointing. I first heard Elvis when I was standing outside a record hop at the Collins Tennis Club in 1958. The record was I Got Stung – the last record he released as a 78. The classic One Night was on the A-side – but I was struck by the pure energy of the B-side. He disappointed our rebel aspirations by entering the army and doing all those appalling films but his early records and occasional emerging into the light (especially the Memphis Sessions – check out After Loving You, Suspicious Minds and In the Ghetto) secured his place in my affections. The heritage was safe and solid despite the tawdry later years in Las Vegas.


The definitive biography of Elvis is Peter Guralnick’s highly readable two-volume classic:  Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. Reading them you realise that despite the extra-terrestrial glamour, the gorgeous voice and the universal adulation, Elvis was a simple country-boy with a fatal lack of moral courage. His biggest sin was to allow himself to be separated from his musical peers (such as Scotty Moore and Bill Black) and became the thing of a fairground hustler - Colonel Tom Parker. Cheesy merchandise a speciality. No colonel, no Tom and not even a Parker. The movie touches on this aspect of his life but it fails absolutely at giving us a more complete and complex account – it was all flash, bang, wallop accompanied by some serious ham from Tom Hanks. And even then we never got to hear one full song – one demonstration of Elvis at his prime. The corny use of Suspicious Minds to hammer home the message that Elvis was been hustled by Parker and Las Vegas villains was trite in the extreme. The guy playing Elvis gave an excellent imitation of the man and look out for a wonderful Little Richard cameo. Elvis the Movie is a mildly entertaining show-biz confection but didn’t come close to capturing the tragic trajectory of the man’s life. Nor did it want to do so.



Saturday, July 23, 2022

My Times at the Sunday Times – A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

I was saddened but not surprised to hear of the recent cull at the Times and Sunday Times Ireland. Say what you like about Rupert Murdoch (and there’s much to say), the Sunday Times was the only serious English newspaper with an Irish edition that gave extensive coverage to Irish news, sport and culture. Pick up the Observer, for example, and there’s nary a word about us unless the DUP are acting up again. 


I was very happy to have been offered an opportunity by associate editor John Burns to air my views on art, literature, and even my personal dramas (that root-canal treatment, those TB days) for nearly 12 years. This purge seems to be getting rid of some of its most-talented writers, leaving it much diminished. In addition to John Burns (an award-winning writer on culture), I rated Denis Walsh as one of the best sports journalists in the country and Justine McCarthy supplied an acerbic and articulate left-of-centre perspective on politics. Maybe a tad too left for Rupert’s taste. Mark Tighe, author of that brilliant and painstaking exposure of John Delaney’s machinations at the FAI, had already left. All it needs now is to let Liam Fay go and there will be no incentive to buy it ever again.


Irish art gets scant coverage in print and the Sunday Times Culture magazine was one of the few places where artists’ work was regularly reviewed. Let’s hope it continues to employ the services of the estimable Cristín Leach in this area – a stern judge who has ruffled a few feathers in her day. While journalism doesn’t pay handsomely, especially arts journalism, it is hugely rewarding in other ways. I cherish many delightful memories of my stint there. I travelled around the country interviewing such luminaries as Basil Blackshaw, Sean MacSweeny, and that great Cork maverick Maurice Desmond. My favourite encounter was with Gilbert & George in the Mac Belfast. Sporting their new Donegal Tweed suits (they had eschewed Harris Tweed because of Brexit), they were by turns hilarious and outrageous. Despite being gay, they strongly disapproved of gay marriage – maintaining that it was bourgeois and that gay men should be sexual adventurers (quoting John Rechy). While all my art writing was received with nothing but gratitude, my book reviewing frequently exposed me to tirades of Twitter abuse. One female writer of light-weight fiction unleashed an army of her trolls (male and female) on me for deviating, minutely, from rigorous wokeness. At least the late, and much lamented, Eileen Battersby had the grace, albeit via her agent, to write a letter to the paper challenging my views on the clearly autobiographical character in her novel. The Speakeasy section of the Sunday Times (long discontinued) allowed writers to indulge in personal stories so I was able to horrify my Cork-based siblings with revelations about child-hood episodes such as my incarceration for a year in a sanatorium in Foynes and an episode in the Dental Hospital in Cork that far outdid Laurence Olivier’s dental antics in the film Marathon Man. 


What fun it all was.