Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Man Bites Dogs

Richard Humphreys
Has Labour councillor Richard Humphreys been bitten by a rabid dog? How else can one explain his unprovoked attacks on the Dogs Unleashed organisation. His frothing effusions can be found in the current edition of LifeTimes (South-East) and on his web site: http://richardhumphreys.blogspot.ie/

 He characterises Dogs Unleashed as a "highly organised, well-heeled minority" who generate a "loud volume of noise and misinformation", and later refers to them as "those who scream the loudest". All this about a group that is merely exercising its democratic right to canvass Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council (DLR) about proposed changes to its beach bye-laws.

This decent and responsible group are representative of a wide cross-section of society - and are far from "well-heeled" in most cases (a crime it seems in Humphreys' book). Dog lovers are in fact an amiable and democratic bunch who come from gated mansions, solid middle-class estates, and council-houses.  Far from "screaming", they presented their case in a coherent and well-argued fashion, complete with endorsements from leading vets. A fine example, I would have thought, of local democracy at work.

 The most disturbing part of Humphreys' triumphalist rant is that it fails to mention that the final decision by DLR last week represented not a complete victory for either side but a compromise. Both sides had to make concessions. Dogs Unleashed lost the battle for Seapoint (and its equally well-organised swimmers) but won the right to exercise dogs off leash on Killiney Beach.

Dogs Unleashed has over 5,000 members in DLR. A public meeting in Killiney Castle Hotel drew over 700 attendees. All of them felt strongly about the proposed new bye-laws and did what they could to change them by canvassing their local councillors. This I believe is what democracy is all about and should be applauded by our public representatives, not decried and sneered at. The Labour party is in enough trouble without alienating citizens who express views contrary to one of its councillors. His intolerance of democracy in action, and Tory Boy antics, would seem more suited to some right-wing group.
Tory Boy

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On the Road - directed by Walter Salles

Salles comes with a decent pedigree having directed The Motorcycle Diaries - and this film has the same epic scenery thanks to cinematographer Eric Gautier, who worked on both. The score is also impressive, all jazz and blues with Son House, Slim Gaillard and Ella Fitzgerald to name but a few. Of course the essence of On the Road is unfilmable. It's an unstructured stream of consciousness that only occasionally yields glimpses of coherence. It's largely unreadable. Everybody had a copy in the Sixties but not many did more than dip into it. The idea of the road and the freedom it entailed, especially sexual freedom, was the attraction. The sad fates of both Kerouac (died an alcoholic back living with his mother) and Cassady (dying by a railway track after yet another party) helped puncture that myth. The book was an extended love letter from Kerouac to Cassady and the film does capture this aspect of it. It's also quite dark in places and Salles depicts much of the revelry as forced and desperate. However it ends in bathos with the tramp-like Cassady encountering the newly successful Kerouac on a New York street. This bears no relation to how things ended between them. They grew apart because Cassady was disgusted with the drink-sodden Kerouac and Kerouac in turn reckoned that Cassady had been ruined by LSD. Also, the two lead actors ere far too collegiate and glamorous looking. Cassady and Kerouac were more blue-collar than Ivy League as the photo above shows. All in all though it's mildly diverting.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Portraits of the Artists 3: John Shinnors

This is my profile of John Shinnors first published in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 7 October 2012.

John Shinnors 
In October 2003 the University of Limerick unveiled Sean Scully’s monumental Wall of Light at the entrance to the university.  Senior academics from the university, local government officials, and members of the upper echelons of the Irish art scene graced the splendid occasion.  The great man himself was there, closely attended by Barbara Dawson from the Hugh Lane Gallery.  After the various speeches, certain notable guests proceeded to a grand dinner in Plassey House, the president’s domain – a handsome art-bedecked building on campus.  As Limerick’s leading artist, John Shinnors was of course invited to join this select group.  But he was having none of it.  It was time for his nightly trip to the Spotted Dog – his local in Roxborough.  While Shinnors doesn’t bite the hand that feeds him, neither does he bother to give it the occasional lick of affection.  

John Shinnors is arguably one of Ireland’s most successful artists.  All the indicators are in place:  Aosdana, the RHA annual show, the Gandon profile with laudatory essays by Brian Fallon and Aidan Dunne, the IMMA permanent collection, the Crawford collection in Cork, many important private collections, and a substantial RTE documentary: Michael Garvey’s Split Image – John Shinnors in 1997.  He has had a series of sold-out shows in Taylor Galleries over the years, oneof which involved well-documented squabble between patrons jockeying for precedence as the truck carrying the work arrived from Limerick.  Even more significantly his work sells well at auction, unlike many of his contemporaries.  Yet Shinnors remains a maverick on the Irish art scene, someone who doesn’t quite belong. This may be partly to do with the resolutely unclubbable nature of the man – it’s difficulty to imagine him enjoying a bibulous dinner at the RHA for example.  Or maybe it’s something to do with his refusal to take his role as an artist too seriously.  He sees it as a job rather than a vocation and doesn’t engage in too much navel-gazing about the meaning of his work.  Although, ironically, the work itself with its provocative and ambiguous motifs is ripe for speculative analysis.
Shinnors is a popular and respected figure in his native city.  He frequently features in the Limerick Leader and is an active participant in the life of the city – as evidenced in a recent spat with local councillor Tom Shortt.  Comedian Pat Shortt’sbrother was not amused by Shinnors description of some public art as “moronic”.  You will find his work at the university, in the Hunt Museum and of course in the drawing rooms of the Ennis RoadTony Ryan of GPA and Dessie O’Malley were early supporters.  A visit to the National Self-Portrait Collection in the University of Limerick provides an opportunity to see his magnificent, moodily lit, self-portrait.  The template surely for his scarecrows’ noses.  And it’s not all one-way traffic in Limerick.  He sponsors an annual art scholarship, the ShinnorsCuratorial Scholarship, at the Limerick College of Art.  He is also a well-known figure on the streets.  On a recent trip to the Limerick City Centre Post Office to enquire about the whereabouts of his historical paintings (Sarsfield and other heroic local figures) that used to hang there, I met two customers who claimed to know him well and offered suggestions as to the whereabouts of the missing paintings.
The art itself reinforces his outsider status.  It defiescategorization.  He’s certainly not an abstract painter in the Tyrrell mould, nor is he part of our standing army of landscape artists.  He has no truck with the neat “isms” used by critics.  “I’m Shinnorist” he jokes.  You can look at his early surreal work and see the influence of Jack Donovan, or trace the lineage of his chiaroscuro to Georges de la Tour and Caravaggio, as some critics have done.  But his mature style is truly unique.  Figurative elements emerge slowly from what seem initially to be abstract compositions mainly in black and white.  (Shinnorshas famously claimed to use five different blacks.)  He’ll cheerfully talk you through the hidden elements in each piece but it’s more fun to see what you can uncover on your own.  It takes multiple viewings to fully decipher a piece.  Over the years certain tropes recur.  The ominous magpies and the free-wheeling swallows, the disturbing scarecrows, the looming lighthouses, and the looping kites.  And always the stripes: badgers and cats, railings and washing lines.  The best of his work has a dark expressive quality – haunted and mysterious.  What the critic Brian Fallon referred to as “spookiness”.  This is particularly true of his scarecrow heads with their gaping socketsThe series of these heads he completed in 2002 are one of the highlight of his career, and one of the most impressive achievements in contemporary art in this country.  Unfortunately they have disappeared into a corporate collection and have barely been viewed by the general public.  Occasionally there is a purely decorative piece, such as Cat’s Home (1999) or some of his Friesian paintings, but these are exceptions.  He’s no formulaic artist rehashing a bunch of worn-out motifs.  He is constantly breaking out in new directions, finding fresh inspiration around him.  His regular visits to DunAengus inspired a series of large paintings that captured the striking beauty of that magical place from a unique birds-eye perspective.  This was a literal work (no shadowy ambiguity),simple and powerful.
When asked about influences he paraphrases Monet: “what I see around me is my guide”.  He is inspired by those sudden visual encounters that can happen anytime and will be the catalyst for aseries of paintings.  Shinnors is keen to assert that his recurring motifs are grounded in real-life incidents – as if he is eager to dispel any fanciful interpretations of his work.  The scarecrow was first spotted in a neighbour’s haggart, the kite on a holiday in Kilkeeand the lighthouse on a day trip to Loop Head.  He encountered the migrating swallows trapped in an old keep where they were rescued, he tells us, by our brave artist and his Harris hat.  His stimulus could be a herd of Friesians, a line of black-clad waitresses, or a magpie circling St. John’s Cathedral.  Or it could be (as in his current show) a circus tent glimpsed through railings on the Roxborough Road.  
Shinnors spent 18 months at the Limerick College of Art under the loose tutelage of Jack Donovan.  He left prematurely for London – for freedom and for financial reasons.  After the London hiatus and a variety of casual jobs he returned to Limerick and began to paint.  Initially he was strongly influenced by Donovan’s style.  “That’s the way I wanted to paint”.  He submitted works to the network of small commercial galleries that proliferated in those days – Goodwin’s Gallery was a particular favourite.  These solo forays were reasonably successful and he made a modest living supplemented by some teaching hours at the alma mater he had deserted.  His big break came in 1984 when he won the GPA Emerging Artist award.  The awards ceremony was attended by John Taylor of Taylor Galleries and he was impressed enough to offer him his first Dublin show in 1987.  
His current show in Taylor Galleries (until the 27 October) is his first one-man show since 2007.  It consists of a mere seven paintings, although one of these is the enormous Hoarding and Small Circus, weighing in at a massive 69 x 114 inches.  The other six are all oils on linen measuring 11 x 11.5 inches.  The small pieces frequently focus on nocturnal encounters along of the Roxborough Road, railings and hoardings, a splash of white from a circus tent, shadowy cat slowly emerging from darkness, tail erect.  Shinnors had been reading Jean Renoir’s biography of his father last year and he saw parallels between the influence of the Provencal sunlight on the impressionists and the influence of the artificial light on his own painting.  Hence the subtitle of the show:  Electrical Impressionism.  There are pools of various coloured lights emerging from the darkness:startling red traffic lights, orange sodium lighting, and a variety of lights from the old railway works.  The shocaptures his impressions of the world revealed by these lights. Surprisingly,he mentions Whistler’s work as a possible parallel.  Knowing this you see the connection immediately in a piece like Nocturne San-Giorgio and even more so in Nocturne in Gray und Gold -Chelsea Snow.  Although Shinnors paintings, especially Art Van Leaving (see image)are more confrontational and dramatic than Whistler’ muted work.
Having failed to track down the Shinnors paintings that used to hang in the Limerick Post Office, I eventually met up with the man himself in his studio on O’Connell Street.  I asked him what happened to the missing paintings.  He claimed that he had destroyed them and taken the stretchers for reuse.  When he was starting off as an artist he wasuffering from public indifferenceand eager to get himself noticed.  He had a family to feed.  He spoke to his patron Dessie O’Malley who arranged to get hiswork into that prime location.  When I bemoaned theirdestruction, he smiled at me, “They had served their purpose”.  

Monday, October 08, 2012

Alice Maher: Becoming at IMMA

Silly Hedge 
This exhibition is termed a mid-career retrospective. A description that seems a tad presumptuous about mortality and longevity. In fact on meeting Ms. Maher on the way in I was struck by how fragile and unwell she looked.  The lighting throughout was turned way down rendering moot the labels for each piece. Unless of course you had downloaded the iPhone flashlight app - as I had. It also caused some clumsy blundering about in the darkened warren of rooms.  I'm sure it was planned as part of the overall experience but I'm not sure it worked too well.  I also expect many social plans got disrupted as people failed to find each other in the murk.

But heigh-ho on to the work.  Alice Maher is as avant garde as we get in Ireland.  She specialises in shock and awe and is rarely less than interesting.  I've no doubt many of her pieces are based on esoteric theories from Gaston Bachelard and others but these references are lost on me. I just submerge myself in the visual abundance:  An elegant confection of snail shells, a necklace of sheep tongues, a large ball of brambles filling a cell-like room, etched ostrich eggs as precious as FabergĂ©, lots of hair, and a damn silly hedge that I nearly fell over. My favourite pieces were the video animations - there were three of them, two going simultaneously on opposite walls of one room - why I don't know.  Initially I tried to watch them like a tennis match but it was too much for me, so I just watched them both separately.  They were all very sexual with a lot of violence thrown in, especially decapitations.  A Freudian analyst would have had a field day.  Disturbed and disturbing - absorbing stuff.

Overall it was good fun but bring a torch and arrange to meet your date outside.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Profiles of the Artists 2: Donald Teskey

This is my profile of Donald Teskey first published in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on
26 August 2012.


Donald Teskey

Maurice Desmond: The Last of the Munster Romantics

This is an unedited version of my profile of Maurice Desmond first published in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 12 August 2012.


Back in the early Seventies, sitting in Henchy’s pub with the late and much lamented Sean Lucey, poet and professor of English at UCC, talk turned to Maurice Desmond’s work. Lucey memorably referred to him as “the last of the Munster Romantics”. When Lucey used the term romantic it was very much the Romantic poets he had in mind. Poets such as Aogán Ó Rathaille with his elegies for the dispossessed, or the English Romantics such as Wordsworth. A man well versed in poems such as The Prelude saw a link between Wordsworth’s pantheistic universe (a world of malevolent nature, of looming cliffs and clutching vegetation), and the dark, existential landscapes of Maurice Desmond.

Back then Desmond did appear the very model of the Romantic artist. His dress was uniform like in its strict adherence to black or dark blue. The moody ensemble capped by the shoulder-length black hair, solidly based on a pair of substantial black boots, and often accompanied by the swagger of a long, black leather coat. Cork’s own man in black. And like the Romantic poets Maurice Desmond was much possessed by death. For many years the suffering of those embroiled in the Second World War – especially those who died at Auschwitz and Treblinka, influenced his work. He created visual elegies and adagios that suggested the very earth and sky were stricken by man’s cruelty and inhumanity. This was more than pathetic fallacy. Desmond felt deeply about these matters. He found troubling Theodor Adorno’s declaration that “after Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry”. But he overcame his artistic hesitancy abiding by Adorno’s subsequent assertion that “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”.


Desmond’s work was not always thus. When he lived on Sherkin Island in the Sixties he produced a series of golden nudes and later there were waterfalls and Byronic figures set against dark landscapes. You would never describe him as having had a bright palette but the images were more Romantic than tragic. As time passed his vision has grown darker. In his latest show Flanders Fields, running in the Vangard Gallery, Macroom, until the 8th September, Desmond’s concerns move back from the Holocaust to the horrors of the Great War. Over the past number of years he has visited the sites of some of its bloodiest battles, the killing fields of Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Somme. He also immersed himself in the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon. Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est had a particular resonance for him. It nailed the myth that it is sweet and noble to die for your country. It is ugly, grotesque and painful. And a whole generation suffered this fate thanks to blinkered politicians and incompetent generals.


If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.


Wilfred Owen


These encounters with poetry and place have inspired a suite of paintings that capture the pain, anguish and desolation of those terrible times. In Flanders Field light is crushed between the bloodied earth and a black sky. You can see vague hints of chaos and destruction in the bottom half of the painting, black streaks against the blood soaked earth. A pink mist rises over the gory field, then a band of watery light topped by the doom- laden sky. These paintings cost Desmond an expense of spirit. His attitude to the exhibition is not one of achievement or exhilaration but rather one of relief. He has got it off his chest. The paintings may not be as direct as Goya’s Disasters of War, or the Great War etchings of Otto Dix but they possess the same tragic power.


There is something essentially tragic about all of Desmond’s later work. This is particularly true of this Flanders Fields exhibition. The paintings have a real brooding presence; you encounter them rather than see them, as you do Mark Rothko’s later work. They may seem dark and troubling initially but give them time and you will find solace in them. Nietzsche wrote about this phenomenon in The Birth of Tragedy:


"The metaphysical solace (with which, I wish to say at once, all true tragedy sends us away) that despite every phenomenal change, life is at bottom indestructibly joyful and powerful."

Like Greek tragedy, like the music of Mahler, or Shakespeare’s King Lear, the paintings of Maurice Desmond provide the tragic encounter that results in this metaphysical solace.”


In a thoughtful opening speech to the exhibition, Peter Murray, director of the Crawford Gallery, spoke of Desmond’s “existential landscapes”. He compared Desmond’s work with that of Francis Bacon (also inspired by horror at what man is capable of) and Dan O’Neill; and pointed to interesting parallels with the French artist Pierre Soulages. Murray also noted the introduction of verticals into Desmond’s normally horizontal universe. These verticals are crosses and blasted vines – evidence of the carnage of the Great War. He also saw the “ghost of destruction rising from the ground”. In tackling this theme an added resonance for Desmond may have been the connection with his late partner’s work. Deirdre Meaney died suddenly in France around 10 years ago, amidst the poppies that were her favourite artistic theme. The evanescence of all life and love is captured in a moving poem The Chateau written by Theo Dorgan about their relationship after Deirdre died:


Look with me to the door. Breathe in my mouth and press my lips,

My poppy lips. Remember me, such a rich and true life as we made,

Be proud of me as I have been proud of you, remember these poppies,

This lush and darkening field, this oncoming starry rush of night.


Theo Dorgan


 Henchy’s pub in St. Luke’s is a shrine to the art of Maurice Desmond. There are prime examples of his work hanging all around the pub, accompanied by a couple of pieces by Deirdre Meaney. More than frequently the creator of this work can be found sitting beneath them enjoying a pint of Beamish. Desmond is a witty and articulate companion, with strong opinions on matters political and artistic. On more than one occasion he has been denied entry to Henchey’s for some infraction of the code of conduct that governs this fine Cork establishment. He languishes outside while the paintings console us for his absence. Being denied entry is a recurring theme in Desmond’s life. Despite being one of Cork’s best-known artists, with sell out shows, and a long, and illustrious career there, he is barely known elsewhere. The late Jim O’Driscoll, owner of one of the best contemporary collections in the country (now dissipated through auction) had dozens of pieces by Desmond. His work hung amongst the Le Brocquys, O’Malleys and Croziers that O’Driscoll collected. The merchant princes, doctors, and lawyers of Cork prize his work. But outside Cork, the Irish art establishment is benignly indifferent. He had a couple of successful shows in the Hallward Gallery (now closed) in Merrion Square in 1995 and 1998, and occasional pieces in group shows. Otherwise he has not registered on the Dublin art scene – unlike such Cork artists as Dorothy Cross and Eilis O’Connell. He has never shown at the RHA. After one rejection, this fiercely proud man refused to submit again. The Academy’s loss as well as his. There have been a few efforts to get him into Aosdana, initiated by his southern peers, but these have been defeated by the Dublin/NCAD/RHA nexus that guards entry as fiercely as Cerberus guards the gates of Hell. But Dublin’s loss is Cork’s gain. The Rebel County has always gone its own way, oblivious to the currents of fashion in the capitol. Artists are also regarded differently in Cork. Its standing army of poets, musicians and painters figure prominently in the daily life of the city. People such as Ricky Lynch and Thomas McCarthy are respected contributors to its cultural wealth. An artist can feel appreciated and fulfilled without ever leaving. Years ago I asked John Taylor of Taylor Galleries why he hadn’t shown Desmond’s work. A lot of his Cork clients would have been admirers. Taylor’s response was that “Maurice is a Cork artist”. At the time that seemed a slur, suggesting that he is a provincial artist, but now I see the truth of it. The sensibility is different down south. While Dublin and the Irish art establishment looked across the Irish Sea to the UK or across the Atlantic to the US, Cork has always been more involved with what’s happening in Europe, in France and Spain particularly. The merchant princes that built the city favoured commerce with the Continent, and so do its artists and art lovers. Peter Murray’s perceptive reference to Pierre Soulages, and the more intuitive forms of expression favoured by movements such as Tachisme, place Desmond’s work in the mainstream of European art, outside the Anglophile consensus that dominates elsewhere in the country.


Desmond is a very independent man. He has never been an Arts Council grant sniffer, or wanted that cushy teaching job, or played the networking game. He followed Schopenauer’s dictum “do not degrade your muse to a whore”. Art to him is a vocation, not a job. When the conceptual artists, the video jockeys, and the slap dash charlatans have gone with the winds of fashion, Desmond’s work will endure. Get on the road to Macroom, stop at Quinlan’s high-class craft emporium, climb up the stairs to the Vangard Gallery and behold the work of a European master.

Maurice Desmond