Clubs make me queasy: the forced camaraderie with arseholes you wouldn’t give the time of day to if they weren’t in the same club; the spurious loyalty at the expense of honest appraisal, the petty rules and committees, the little Hitlers that enjoy such circumscribed and uncritical milieus.
But arts clubs make me especially uneasy. I have this romantic notion that artists should exist outside the confines of regular society: free-ranging, self-sustaining and ultimately independent critical entities. That’s why I consider the smug self-perpetuating oligarchy that is Aosdana to be beyond ridicule. And the pathetic eagerness and self-abnegation shown by aspirants to join this ridiculous club as a badge of their inauthenticity as artists.
Which brings us to the RHA. Much to bitch about here. As republicans do we really need a royal academy. Why not just the Hibernian Academy. And then we have the anachronistic robes – blue and wine coloured. Why? Are they to show that like the legal profession they are not as ordinary mortals? It’s bloody ridiculous. And why does the catalogue feature every year photographs of the selection committee going about their seemingly earnest and aesthetically critical business when we all know that any old shite by an academy member will get in and that an uncanny number of old NCAD heads and worthy veterans of the Dublin art scene also get the nod no matter what. Open submission me bollix. It’s a joke.
At the opening last night, in an effort to be trendy, Pat Murphy and his RHA staff wore white t-shirts as if the were officiating at an FM104 promotion – in stark contrast to the members of the academy in their robed finery – an oxymoronic juxtaposition that just didn’t work lads. Pat at the door greeting the great and good in their opening night finery looked as if he’d been caught unawares while finishing the hanging.
Let’s move on to the art. It’s astonishing that with 585 pieces on view there was so little that actually stood out. I remember the really bad works best. There’s a truly awful, Barrie Cooke called Sitting Figure, painted in 2007 and priced bizzarely at €31,701. This work is so bad it’s either taking the piss or signifies an artist that has lost his mojo and should stick to fishing – his alleged first love. The worst piece in the show, by which I mean the last piece you would choose to hang in your house, is a flat lifeless self-portrait of George Potter. Potter is a Chestertonian figure, and an RHA stalwart, whom we probably shouldn’t mock – but if you were doing a study of pomposity you couldn’t better this image. Maybe he should just have changed the title. Then there’s James Hanley’s portrait of the Chief Justice John Murray. I’ve no doubt Murray is a pillar of probity and a sound family man but Hanley’s depiction suggests one of the more corrupt and sinister of the later Roman emperors. I could go on but I’m getting bored. Liam Belton’s "so what" still lifes – all craft and no art; worthy efforts as usual by RHA hardy annuals like Bolay and Shelbourne; Pauline Bewick’s over priced book illustrations; Richard Gorman’s slices of interior design – for the confirmed bachelor market; an over fussy Felim Egan; weird minimalist water-colours by Vivienne Roche; bowl shaped tricksy pieces by Bridget Flannery – an artist I once much admired for her austere abstract studies; and of course a whole host of academic dross. I’ll exclude James English from that – he’s changed direction a bit and remains a class act. The stand out piece was a large bleak seascape by Donald Teskey that sold for €50,000. Other than that there was the usual elegance from Eilis O’Connell , a fine spumey Gwen O’Dowd, a couple of Mary Lohans going in a new direction, and a little piece by Katherine Boucher Beug that has lingered on my mind.
And by the way can you believe that they charged for water at the opening.