Monday, February 25, 2013

Portraits of the Artists 5: Brian Bourke

An edited version of this profile appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 24 Feb 2013.

Brian Bourke in his studio - February 2013
There's always been something of the outsider about Brian Bourke.  He was thrown out of NCAD as part of the annual cull and later thrown out of St. Martin's College of Art for deviations from the planned programme of studies.  So he went his own way, unburdened by what was current and fashionable in the art world.  His art school expulsions encouraged him to cut out the middle man and learn directly from the great masters.  He spent his free time at the National Gallery, the Courtauld and the other richly endowed galleries and museums of London.  An encounter in the National Gallery with Antonio del Pollaiuolo's Apollo and Daphne was a seminal moment - it confirmed for him the path he would follow.  And those laurel trees took root in his imagination.  In London he also discovered the newly published Beckett and developed a taste for absurdity. This is an artist so independent that he quit the Independent Artists group because they introduced a selection policy akin to the one he despised at the RHA.  He occasionally courts this outsider image identifying himself with the exiled Sweeney, and the deluded Don Quixote. But there's nothing deluded about Bourke.  He has carved out a successful career in art and supported himself and his large family for nearly fifty years.  Nor is he showing any signs of slowing up.  His new show, opening in Taylor Galleries on 28 February, consists of 43 new paintings - all interesting some masterful.

In 1968 the Cold War was at its bitterest as Dubcek's attempt at liberalisation in Czechoslovakia was crushed ruthlessly by troops from the Warsaw Pact countries.  As war clouds gathered Bourke was going about his business in a forest studio in Bavaria not far from the Czech border.  His sombre paintings of the trees around him from that period were given a sinister edge by the inclusion of low-flying Starfighters.  These Allied fighter planes were keeping a watching brief on Germany's border and as Bourke painted they roared overhead intruding on his sylvan studies.  They were a daily reminder of the fragility of our existence at that time and an intimation of mortality as significant as the skulls he loves to include in his work.  His new show also features aeroplanes flying over woods.  These however belong to model plane enthusiasts in Belmont, County Offaly where one of his sons lives.  They provide a peaceful and playful echo of that fraught earlier period.  

Brian Bourke's first one-man show took place in the Dawson Gallery way back in 1965.  That fabled gallery was run by the late Leo Smith and his youthful assistant was John Taylor. Nearly 50 years later Bourke continues this relationship around the corner at Taylor Galleries in Kildare Street.  Bourke has seen the ebb and flow of the art market, the periods of being in fashion, and of being beyond the artistic pale.  It has been a precarious existence at times. When I spoke to him recently he described feelingly a period at the start of the Eighties when he lived "half-way up a mountain in Connemara, with no electricity or running water".  Bourke and his wife Jay (a fellow artist) had a new baby and the art market was stagnant.  Just when things were at their bleakest, the Aosdana scheme was launched.  With one bound our hero was free.  Colm O'Briain, chairman of the Arts Council at the time, was an admirer of Bourkes.  He helped the artist to surmount the hurdles that led to membership and, crucially, qualification for the Cnuas.  Bourke's career has been punctuated by such timely financial boosts.  The cottage he lives in outside Moycullen was bought over 20 years ago with the proceeds of his involvement in the Gate's Samuel Beckett festival in 1991.  The well-heeled international audience the festival attracted were quick to buy Bourke's associated work which was on display in the theatre.  A past connection with the Gate had given him this opportunity to display his wares and reap the rewards.  He spoke nostalgically of the relationship between artists and theatre folk in the old days.  He was a big admirer of James McKenna's work ("a very underrated man" he opined) in both spheres and of Deirdre O'Connell late of the Focus Theatre.  He pointed out a treasured portrait of O'Connell in a corner of the studio.  Another outsider resolutely following her star.  

Bourke is a great talker and unexpectedly a great mimic.  His stories of the old days in the Graphic Studio Dublin (GSD) are punctuated with hilarious imitations of some of James McCreery's many comic utterances.  He related an unrepeatable anecdote about Eelagh Brady (Charlie's wife) and a large handbag.  Bourke has retained an appreciation of the ladies.  There was a twinkle in his eye when he spoke of the late Mary Farrell Powers who was one of the founders of the GSD.  He painted her twice, showing her long legs to advantage in pieces that are downright erotic.  An attractive woman, many were "in lust with her" he remembered.  He also tells a story of Anne Yeats interrupting a printing session with him because she had to collect Ezra Pound from the airport and bring him to the Hibernian Hotel to meet her mother - the illustrious George, W.B.Yeats' widow.  On returning to the GSD, Anne Yeats described how Pound and her mother had sat in the lobby without a word for an hour or so and then went on their respective ways.  A scene worthy of Beckett.

Brian Bourke is both dyslexic and discalculate and it may be that these ostensible handicaps have helped to make him the artist he is today.  He is quite open about it and confesses his discalculia means an absolute dependence on Jay for managing the household finances.  Many famous artists were dyslexic, including Leonardo da Vinci, Rodin and Picasso. This is  hardly surprising since dyslexia means essentially that the right-hand side of the brain is stronger than the left. Therefore dyslexics are inclined to have more highly-developed visual skills.  In addition they often suffer in an academic environment and so turn to the practical.  He certainly has an appreciation of and enthusiasm for colour that marks him out from many of his more chromatically restrained peers.  I also got an illuminating demonstration of his practical skills.  Bourke uses his studio walls as easels for his larger works.  Our photographer asked him to pose against a couple of specific paintings which we didn't realise lacked the relevant screws for hanging on the wall.  Quick as flash he whipped out a drill, made the holes, inserted the screws and had the two large paintings in position before we could demur.

Occasionally the amiable anecdotalist gives way to pungently expressed opinions when something touches a nerve.  He has no time for alcoholic artists and is quite scathing about anyone who would glamorise that tendency:  Charlie Brady and Brendan Behan were cited.  He doesn't buy into the myth of the tortured genius damping down his fevered brain with drink.  He saw too much of it in Ireland during the Fifties and Sixties.  Another subject that gets him going is overpricing.  He has always striven to keep his prices accessible - even through the boom years.  There was an implicit rebuke here for certain artists who maintain unreasonably high prices even as the art market tumbles. 

When you consider Bourke's work across his career there is a surprising consistency between what he was doing back in the Sixties and what he is doing now.  The locales and the subjects have changed but the current show's major difference from those earlier shows is the general lightening of tone.  A painting such as Apple Tree, Ower, Autumn 2  is positively Arcadian compared to his early work.  He agrees that his palette is not as dark these days.  He worked in a lower key back then he maintains.  He likes to compare colour to keys in music, a comparison not surprising from one who wields a mean bodhran and counts Frankie Gavin amongst his friends.  All the Bourke tropes have endured however:  the preponderance of trees, the disturbed skies, the palette suffused with reds and green, the circular interludes to escape the tyranny of the rectangle (as in Small Apple Tree 1) and the painted frames. His portraits continue to be almost hieratic.  They have the stripped-down formalism of African art - examples of which abound in his County Galway cottage. They studiously avoid background detail, focusing on the sitter rather than dissipating their energy in attendant frippery.  His aim is to "avoid the Victorian".  There is also a series of exquisite minimal drawings notably Mother and Daughter 1.

There was a  hiatus in the otherwise consistent evolution of Bourke's work.  In the early 90s he was offered an apartment in New York with a view filled with the skyscrapers of Manhattan.  He painted a series of minimal, stylised and beautifully composed studies of these bleak buildings in golden and russet colours.  The show was a great success both critically and commercially.  They pointed away from Bourke's usual style and towards a more stripped down vision, not quite Mondrian yet but heading in that direction, It seemed that abstraction beckoned.  But it was a one off.  He feels now it was a response to a particular time and place - and he has never had cause or opportunity to repeat it.  He is  no enemy of abstract art, being an admirer of Charlie Tyrrell's work, but he paints in response to what he sees around him.  If he was confined to a mundane urban locale then he could perhaps escape into abstraction but in his current situation he is happy to chronicle friends, family, and especially the seasons' differences in the countryside around him.

As I was leaving Bourke's cottage I noticed an invitation from Aras an Uachtaran on the mantle-piece.  So much for my thesis of him being an outsider I thought.  This ultimate indicator of official acceptance was, however, deceptive.  Bourke and Jay have been friendly with President Higgins and his wife for many years and their friendship continues, notwithstanding Michael D's change in circumstances.