Friday, December 26, 2014

A Freakish Occurrence at Kempton

After the sturm and drang of Christmas Day I settled back for an afternoon of racing on TV - Kempton, Leopardstown, and a few decent races at Wetherby and Wincanton. I had a winner and a couple of placed horses but was heading towards breaking even by the time the last race at Kempton came up. To tip me into the profit zone I decided to put €27.50 on the favourite Alternatif - at 5/2. The quirky amount of the bet was to leave me with a rounded balance if the horse lost. I went into my Paddy Power online account and performed the transaction. I also confimred the bet - a last chance to change your mind. Having completed that fatal step it suddenly struck me that the putative winnings were 10 times what I expected. Too late I realised I had put €227.50 on by mistake. There is no recovering from this - ringing up to whine is not an option. I had to let the bet ride. Parsing the race carefully I decided that there was only one real danger - a horse of Nicky Henderson's called Theinval at around 7-1. I stuck a €30 saver on him and also did a reverse forecast on Alternatif and Theinval.

The race began in the late afternoon mist. My fellow, like a lot of David Pipe's runners made the running. From about half way (the race was two miles five furlongs) it was clear that Alternatif had the other horses struggling. Coming to the last he was four lengths clear but beginning to falter. Out of the murk came Theinval (the others were nowhere) and all the way up the finishing straight he made up the ground remorselessly. He arrived level with Alternatif at the same time as the winning post. Another stride and he'd have passed him. I couldn't split them but the commentator confirmed that my boy had prevailed. Now that was exciting.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Stephen Lawlor at the Oliver Sears Gallery

A slightly edited version of this profile appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 14 December 2014.

Stephen Lawlor doesn't seem like the superstitious type. There's too much of the trenchant Dub in him, you feel, to indulge the magical, mystical side of life. Therefore it came as a surprise, when interviewing him for his current show, to discover that he'd seen a ghost and continues to be deeply disturbed by the experience. "It doesn't leave you. It stays in your head". The incident occurred on a trip to Uttersberg, a tiny village a couple of hours north of Stockholm, in 2006. He was there to open a Graphic Studio show at the Galere Astley and was put up by his hosts in an 18th century hunting lodge that had been converted into a small hotel. He retired early and sober - determined to get a good night's sleep before the event. After he had put down his book (on Elvis) and turned out the light, he became aware of some small circles of light at the foot of the bed "like grey smoke glowing". These circles gradually coalesced into cheek-bones, ears, eyes and finally a female figure, dressed in old-fashioned apparel. The woman appeared angry and "she then lunged at me really savage". Lawlor defended himself by means of the "Ringsend uppercut" (a kick to the crotch) and the apparition disappeared. When he mentioned his experience to his land lady next day he discovered that this cranky phantom made regular appearances in the house and had once put a trio of burly Swedish tradesmen to flight when she assailed them during renovation work. Lawlor was so impressed by this incident that he returned subsequently with a film crew and made a short film about the house and its seemingly haunted room. More significantly, he asserts that the incident "has in a strange way subsequently affected my work". It's not a direct link, he maintains, "but I think subliminally there may be a connection."

Looking around his new show at the Oliver Sears Gallery you are inclined to agree. A large number of the works feature less than fully-defined, almost ectoplasmic heads. There are also a number of small cryptic portrait sculptures - some jet black, some painted. An artist who initially painted (and sculpted) stylised horses and atmospheric landscapes has thus continued his more recent focus on portraiture. This tendency began with his Beyond Carmen show in 2012. In that show his portraits were of friends and colleagues. The features in every case were blurred or obscured giving them a strangely eerie other-worldly feel. Whatever about supernatural influences he readily acknowledges a debt to Francis Bacon who would paint in features and then blur them. "Bacon had it down pretty well, to retain the character and not allow the visage to disappear." Most of the subjects in his latest show are women, some of whom seem vaguely recognisable. One of them, Icon I, contains clear hints of Leonardo's Ginevra Di Benci, while one of the few males on view suggest Holbein's Henry VIII. These new works, both portraits and landscapes, are in fact ghostly intimations of the past - but it's the history of art that they represent rather than a bizarre incident in a Swedish hotel. The clue is in the title of the show, Some Untidy Spot, taken from W.H. Auden's 1938 poem Musée de Beaux Arts - which in turn was inspired by Brueghel's Fall of Icarus. Auden's poem celebrates the old masters and the "untidy spot" is where their great dramas took place against a backdrop of mundanity, ordinary people going about their daily chores.

The shows's stand-out piece is Veil, which is based on Poussin's Orpheus and Eurydice - as seen through a veil, darkly. There's also an atmospheric version of Constable's Salisbury cathedral. Those versed in art history will have fun seeing the obvious connections between Rendezvous and Rubens' The Brazen Serpent and between Vignette and Mantegna's Adoration of the Magi. But mostly what you get are intimations and reverberations rather than direct quotations. Lawlor's knowledge of art history is encyclopaedic and many or the references will be too arcane for the average punter. But of course that's irrelevant. The show stands or falls on the integrity of the images in themselves.

Lawlor has had an unusual career trajectory. There's little in his family background to suggest he'd become an artist. But he always liked to draw and remembers fondly a substitute teacher at Westland Row, Michael Connaughton, who saw his work and encouraged him. "He said to me 'why don't you come along with me to the Grapevine Arts Centre'". After an initial rejection by NCAD he worked in an ad agency for four years before returning to NCAD to study Visual Communication. When an opportunity came up to transfer to Fine Art he spurned it because it would have meant going back to first year. "At that time a year seems forever". You can sense that he still regrets that impatient decision. "If I had, I would have engaged with painting earlier". There was an issue of self-belief also. "I didn't have the confidence to see myself as a fine artist."

However, his work load in Visual Communication was very light for a designer hardened by four years in an ad agency and as he had access to the life room he spent a goodly portion of his three years working there on his drawing skills. A major influence at that time was Roger Shackleton whose effortless draughtsmanship Lawlor strove to emulate. After art college, having no interest in graphic design, Lawlor took a series of mundane jobs until destiny took a hand. A romance with Jane Powers brought him into the orbit of the Graphic Studio where her sister, Mary Farl Powers, was one of the founders. An intense spell there enjoying the tender ministrations of James McCreary set him on the path towards creating art via the medium of print. He quickly developed a reputation for his small exquisitely rendered etchings. It also uncovered an entrepreneurial streak in him as he soon realised that he had to find a market for his work outside Dublin and the Graphic Studio Gallery. He developed a network of galleries around the country and subsequently in Sweden, the USA and Europe. "In certain years I made more money in Sweden than I did in Ireland". He also became chairman of the board of the Graphic Studio during a seminal period in its evolution and helped set it on the course that makes it one of the most secure and best-housed arts organisation in the country.

In time he began to itch against the constraints and sheer physical toil involved in print making and in the mid-90s began to experiment with paint. He also felt his commercial endeavours was interfering with his art and so he dissolved his various business partnerships to focus on his work. He found the physical act of painting very liberating compared to the rigour and precision of etching. It took him a while to find his voice. He first show devoted exclusively to painting was Three Rivers at the Hillsboro Gallery in 2008. This was followed by more landscapes in Cu in the Fred Gallery in London in 2010. But Beyond Carmen two years ago pointed in a new direction, towards portraiture and this latest show confirms that trend. He has moved from depicting friends to finding inspiration in art history. "I had an interest going back for years in old masters paintings". He used a series of iconic paintings made between 1400 and 1800 as raw material for these works. "I started to dismember them or blur them and play with them. What you are seeing is a remaking."

Lawlor doesn't feel fully part of the art establishment: "I'm a little bit outside the loop" he maintains. One reason for this may be his origins in print. "Print makers are seen as a lower form of life." A short-sighted view by some of a medium graced by Goya and Picasso. While he is a regular at the RHA's annual show, he has not been elected to Aosdána. This omission seems perverse when you consider not just his track record as a printer, painter and sculptor but also the many years of toil he put in to cementing the fortunes of the Graphic Studio during a very fraught period in its history - often to the detriment of his own artistic career. You would hope that his less than orthodox route through NCAD is not a factor, or that a certain directness in his personality is not distracting the members of Aosdána from doing the right thing.

Oliver Sears Gallery

Dublin 2

Mon-Fri: 10.00am-5.30pm

Sat: by appointment

Tel: 01 6449459



Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Martin Gale at Taylor Galleries

An edited version of this review (with a less horsey bias) was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 23 November 2011.
A martingale is a device used to control the carriage of a horse's head. There's a delicious irony in the fact that the artist Martin Gale's parents, racing folk, selected such a resonant name for a boy who went his own way and thwarted plans to guide him towards a conventional career. His father hadn't exactly followed a conventional path himself. He was an English NH jockey who worked with Vincent O'Brien, managed a stud farm and became chief handicapper with the Turf Club. Gale senior was educated at Ampleforth College, near the village of Ampleforth where his grandfather was Master of the Hounds. Gale's mother came from an Irish equestrian background in Galway. She rode work for Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochford, the Queen's trainer, during the Second World War when all the stable lads were serving in the forces. She was also the first female jockey to win a point-to-point in Ireland. The only sign of this regal equine heritage is a mounted fox's head in Gale's studio. A souvenir of his father's association with the Sinnington Hunt. However the artist hasn't strayed far geographically from the racing world. His warm and well-appointed house outside Ballymore Eustace, is just a few miles east of the Curragh. Notwithstanding their horsey proclivities the roots to his current profession can still be traced back to his family. His father, clearly a well-rounded man, was an enthusiastic amateur painter and passed on this interest to his son starting with the oil paints he gave him at the age of six. His mother's family were also painters and from an early age he remembers them all making their own Christmas cards and receiving fulsome praise for their efforts. Also, the family home was bedecked with inherited equine art including work by Snaffles and Lionel Edwards. Charles Lamb was a close friend of his mother's family and over the years they acquired many of his paintings. So there was exposure to a variety of art for the budding artist and encouragement to have a go himself. But art for his family was seen as an accomplishment not a career.

Gale's earliest formal education was a spell of private tuition at Vincent O'Brien's home in Ballydoyle, near Cashel, where his classmates were O'Brien's daughters Elizabeth and Susan. (This connection was to surface again later in life when he sold a painting to Kevin McClory, Elizabeth's husband and master of Straffan House.) He moved on to become a boarder at Newbridge College. There he remembers the positive influence of the Dominican Father Henry Flanagan who he described as "a renaissance man" with a particular interest in art. However, his sojourn in Newbridge ended prematurely when he was expelled in 6th Year after being caught while on a nocturnal adventure. Himself and an accomplice had copied a master key and would regularly head off after hours to the local tennis hops. While both were caught, the accomplice, a key member of the senior rugby team, did not share his fate. An injustice that still rankles.

But this expulsion was destiny shaping his ends. His parents sent him to Dublin to complete his secondary education at a crammer called Blackrock Academy on Upper Mount Street. This school was run by the colourful William Martin and contained a motley collection of students, male and female, whose behaviour had been found wanting in more staid establishments. His route to this new school took him past the College of Art in Kildare Street. Gale remembers being impressed by the bohemian brigade that emerged daily from this location. They seemed "freedom personified" to the closeted boarding-school boy. This planted an ambition: "I wanted to be one of them". His father however had other ideas and secured him a job as a management trainee with the Rank Organisation in Phibsboro. Drawn towards Rank's advertising department and its graphic designers he ascertained that the route to such work also lay in the College of Art. This stiffened his resolve and the aspiring artist, after a year of servitude, escaped to freedom and art school in 1968.

While he enjoyed a couple of years of steady, if conventional, tuition there - his progress was arrested by the series of student protests and strikes that brought chaos to his last two years. Formal tuition was disrupted and the students were forced to look after themselves. Sharp-eyed observers of Reeling in the Years can catch a glimpse of Gale amongst protesting art students at the time - sporting a hair style that only Guggi could envy. Some of the teachers stuck with the students. Gale speaks particularly appreciatively of Charlie Cullen. "Carey Clarke taught me how to draw an eye but Charlie Cullen had empathy".

While still at College, Gale had two works accepted for the 1971 Exhibition of Living Art so the tyro artist began to attract notice. Gerald Davis gave himself and John Devlin a two-man show in 1972 while they were both still at college. He was subsequently recruited by Bruce Arnold, who attended his Graduate show the following year, and this led to his first solo show at the Neptune Gallery in 1974. Following the demise of the Neptune Gallery, Gale was keen to join Taylor Galleries, a favoured destination for aspiring artists. He spotted his opportunity after the opening of the Living Art show in 1980. He was drinking with the various attendees in the Henry Grattan on Baggot Street where he espied John Taylor at the bar. Emboldened by a few pints he approached Taylor - a gallerist notorious for being immune to the entreaties of artists - and declared: "I was thinking of joining your gallery. What do you think?". Taylor, perhaps mellowed by his surroundings, surprisingly agreed: "yes, that seems like a good idea" and he was taken on board. In 1982 he was also selected as one of the original members of Aosdana. The cnuas was a great boost to the artist at the time. While he sold well between 1974 and 1980, the following decade was a grim time for artists. He had a growing family and it was a timely supplement to the meagre income he derived from art and driving the local school bus. These days he can comfortably manage without it. "I haven't drawn it for many years".

Martin Gale's has been called a hyper-realist, a super-realist, and even a surrealist. However he prefers to refer to himself as a realist painter and the painters he admires most such as Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper and David Hockney are all realists in their own varied ways. Closer to home he feels an affinity with the work of Colin Harrison, another realist. But Gale is a realist with a difference. He does not paint what he sees before him as a photo-realist such as John Doherty would do. It's realism refined and excluding, omitting the fine detail of photo-realism. It's plainly artifice, reality slightly out of kilter - twilight zone in the midlands. In a recent interview Gale explained his modus operandi. "The paintings are all fictions - this is not a slice of reality. I gather a set of ingredients and put them all together". If you look at Guest from his current exhibition at Taylor Galleries all the differing elements that make up the painting were encountered locally and stored in his memory bank for future use. The planes overhead came from observing the Kildare gliding club's activities, the spreading chestnut tree is about 200 yards from his home and the woman in her blue finery was spotted at a wedding a few months earlier - observing perhaps a match she didn't approve of. These disparate elements all existed as separate images that he had sketched or photographed. After they had marinaded in his imagination for a period he brought them together to create this image of something afoot in a rural setting.

A characteristic Martin Gale painting contains a preoccupied figure, or figures, in a landscape. He believes that "people are always drawn to paintings with other people in them". He still paints landscapes and finds them a good way of easing a creative block. "If you're stuck, paint a landscape - it's keeping with the language". His natural habitat is the mid-lands - the area surrounding his home near Ballymore-Eustace where he has lived for over 30 years. His subject matter is rooted in what he encounters on his daily round. He goes for regular walks with his amiable collies and will usually have a camera or a sketch pad with him. There he captures and stores images of the fields, the woods, and the local characters for possible future use.

It's not surprising that Hopper is one of Gale's favourite artists. They share a penchant for inserting preoccupied figures into their paintings - Gale's outside and rural, Hopper's inside and urban. In both cases there is a feeling you are watching a still from an unfolding drama. "I like", he says, "to provide a hint of a narrative without spelling it out" - leaving space for the imagination. Something has happened or something is about to happen. A more overtly unsettling piece from the current show, Halloween - Out Early, illustrates this. It shows two children walking down a country lane - overshadowed by trees and looming hedgerow. One wears a sinister Venetian mask - adding a touch of weirdness. The headlights of a car approach. It's twilight and something wicked this way comes.

When discussing other artists Gale surprisingly cited the Sligo-based artist Sean McSweeney as "a great influence on me". Their styles could hardly be more different. However, Gale admires him for his "love affair with the landscape" and for demonstrating that artists "don't have to be cool and detached". It's clear that Gale shares this passion for his surroundings and is creating a memorable record of his encounters with it.

Taylor Galleries,


Mon-Fri: 10am-5.30pm

Sat: 11am-3pm

tel: 01 676 6055

John P. O'Sullivan





Monday, November 17, 2014

Disgraced Again - Even the Cherubs were Sneering

Despite the hassle of getting in to town from Dalkey I do find the National Library an excellent place to do a sustained piece of writing. The atmosphere of calm, decorum and quiet scholarship inspires you to focus and create. Also there's excellent coffee to be had downstairs and the bathrooms are comfortable and well maintained. What's there not to like? Well I'll tell you what. It's the prissy and officious staff who have me terrorised with their petty restrictions. Maybe I'm paranoid but it seems that they are poised to pounce on any deviation from their often arbitrary rules. Let me count the ways. Last year, having resumed attendance after a long gap, I committed the cardinal sin of using a biro to take notes. You must use a pencil lest you inadvertently mark one of their books, or spill ink perhaps. I can to a certain degree empathise with this restriction although I did feel that the triumphant and censorious tone of the superannuated biddy who publicly denounced me for this sin could perhaps have been toned down a tad. Fine I'd learned my lesson.

A few weeks back I was doing a piece on an artist and I got out a few related books to cull some biographical details. The book contained plenty of images so to aid my research I took out my trusty iPhone and proceeded to take some photos of them. Now as I was copying notes and quotes from the text I didn't see anything wrong with copying images also. I had my flash turned off after all. Foolish assumption. A bespectacled creature, grey of beard, and pasty of pallor suddenly appeared at my elbow and with poorly concealed relish informed me that I had committed a grievous transgression of the rules. Of course the library being such a haven of quiet industry any interruption gets maximum attention from everyone in the room. Even the plaster cherubs on the walls were staring at me accusingly - one or two laughing at my plight. This public humiliation set my cheeks aglow and could indeed have precipitated a coronary incident such was my discomfiture.

Lesson learned. I became a paragon of pencil-wielding rectitude for a spell. Today however I've done it again - in spades. In the middle of writing an artist's profile I had cause to refer to an interview I had recorded on my iPhone. I carefully turned the volume down and began to listen to the interview. I had scarcely put the phone to my ear when by beardy nemesis, yes it was him again, appeared at my side. "It's against the rules to raise a phone to your ear" I was informed in a voice that carried around the glorious and ornate reading room. Texting is fine apparently but no listening. Much discomfited I put the phone away and began to take notes from a book I'd borrowed. The next thing I know, beardy is back on my case. So discombobulated had I been by my disgrace that I had forgotten my initial transgression and began writing with biro.

I feel my time here is short. I'm bound to be on some serial offenders list at this stage and may soon be marched off by that nice man who makes me take off my coat and store my bag before I come in.

Monday, November 03, 2014

After the Titanic - A Life of Derek Mahon by Stephen Enniss

An edited verion of this review was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 2 November 2014

Derek Mahon belongs to a gifted generation of Northern poets that includes Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley - all three born between 1939 and 1941. Unlike his compatriots, Mahon has not enjoyed a smooth ride through life and letters. Heaney moved south in 1972 and went on to enjoy a life padded with tenure and festooned with awards. Longley, a Belfast Protestant like Mahon, stayed put despite the fraught political landscape of the time and made his career in Northern Ireland, working for the Arts Council while writing his verse. After leaving Trinity, Mahon, arguably the most talented of the three, wandered the world for decades, changing jobs, changing homes and occasionally changing women - but all the time producing his sublime verse.

Stephen Enniss in his new biography charts this propensity for flight in such relentless detail that it becomes the leit-motif of the book. It supports his thesis that "the origins of Mahon's art lie in suffering". The book's strength lies in its linking of the various dramas in the poet's life with the resultant poetry. You may not agree with all the assumptions but it makes for an interesting read. The book stops short in 2003 so it doesn't encompass the later settled phase in the poet's life. Since moving to Kinsale permanently in that year Mahon has enjoyed one of his most creative periods. He has produced four collections Harbour Lights (2006), Somewhere the Wave (2007), Life on Earth (2008), and Autumn Wind (2010). Gallery Press published a New Collected Poems in 2011 and Red Sails new prose collection in October. When queried about his premature ending Enniss responded: "I ... felt it would be unnecessarily intrusive to bring Mahon’s life story up to the very present. I chose not to tell the story of his most recent years in the town where he still lives." This is a noble sentiment but it means we don't get any insight into the life of the poet at rest in his Ithaca, or the circumstances surrounding his latest work.

Enniss sees Mahon's personal problems beginning when he went to Trinity. Mahon probably wouldn't disagree describing himself during that period as: "a surly étranger in a donkey jacket, with literary pretensions ... careless of the academic demands". This nod to Camus suggested an early recognition of the absurdity of life and an indifference to worldly matters. During his second year, according to Enniss, he attempted suicide by jumping into the Liffey at Butt Bridge following a "personal crisis". Mahon remembers it differently and in one of the essays in Red Sails makes the comment: "Jump in the river for fun and someone will say you tried to commit suicide". The truth of the matter may be contained in Michael Longley's pithy summing up of the event: "partly theatrical, partly suicidal". Whatever about a personal crisis his studies were suffering and he was suspended from Trinity for a year for "unsatisfactory attendance". He eventually returned, after a spell working on the Isle of Man, and got a modest degree but not one that would have opened up the academic route enjoyed by many of his peers. Trinity did however give him the confidence to follow his star as a poet. Through all his existential struggles he was writing verse and contributing regularly to, and on one occasion editing, the Trinity poetry magazine Icarus.

After leaving Trinity he had an abortive spell at graduate school in London, Ontario. He then drifted for a while as an "undocumented" in the USA taking jobs in a photo shop, a book depository, and boy's boarding school. He returned to Belfast in 1967 and then moved to London in 1970. In the following years he tried a variety of careers. In no particular order he worked for the BBC, was features editor at Vogue, reviewed theatre for the Listener, and had a brief stint as a copy writer (including an involvement in a Pampers nappies campaign). In 1977 he was appointed Writer in Residence at the New University of Ulster and the following year was hospitalised in Derry for his alcoholism. This became a recurring problem over the next 15 years. He finally quit in 1993 with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and some supportive friends. The years between 1985 and 1995 were a fallow period for the poet as he fought and conquered his demon. His empathy for a fellow sufferer Malcolm Lowry is captured in his poem Homage to Malcolm Lowry: "sweating on a hotel bed in Veracruz". The only publication during that period was the 1992 chapbook The Yaddo Letter.

In the Afterword Enniss tells us how his subject moved from cooperation to disengagement as the book approached completion. Mahon wrote to him saying that "for some time now the prospect of our Book has been disturbing my peace of mind". Peter Fallon, Mahon's publisher and friend for 25 years, deplores "all the invasions of privacy" that the biography contains and believes the book to be "a betrayal of trust". Fallon was not interviewed for the book. Enniss has denied suggestions that Mahon's withdrawal may have been due to his belief that the venture was to be a critical study of the poetry rather than a life. In a recent email he stated that "Mahon has always known I was writing a biography".

Betrayal may be too strong a word. The personal life gets coverage of course but Enniss rarely digs too deep. The scale of intrusion is mild when one looks at what Larkin is enduring from biographers (a recent offering by James Booth describes in detail the kind of pornography he favoured). Mahon's alleged suicide attempt is covered as are the various spells he spent in hospitals drying out. We are also told of the comings and goings of various women but little about what went on in these relationships. Jill Schlesinger appears to be the only one of the women in his life who talked to Enniss. A disastrous sojourn in New York is alluded to and we hear of his fondness for West Village bars such as the Lion's Head, the White Horse, and McKenna's. We rarely get very close to Mahon. The "debonair Derek" that many speak of is nowhere to be found and the heroic and ultimately successful battle with alcohol is underplayed. There are some amusing anecdotes. Mahon has always been an art lover and on a trip to New York he tries to get in to a sold-out Vermeer exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Frantic dashes to the Irish Embassy and the British Embassy prove fruitless and our frustrated poet only makes it as far as the gift shop. A whiskey-fuelled row with John Montague over his Northern Ireland affiliations is less amusing - it caused a lasting rift.

The overall tone of the book suggests that the writer loves the poetry but vaguely disapproves of the poet. It's clear early on that Enniss is a bit sniffy about Mahon's academic history. There is the reproving statement that it "took him five years to gain a degree" from Trinity. He also chides Mahon about some myth making in relation his time at the Sorbonne. Apparently the year that Mahon claims to have spent there actually entailed hanging around Parisian cafes and bookshops for a few months. Mahon admits as much unashamedly in Red Sails: "I skived off and hung out at the Cinematheque, at George Whitman's Mistral bookshop, and in obvious pit-stops like the Cafe de la Sorbonne and Au Depart." The life of a flaneur around Paris was surely more apt for the sentimental education of the poet than any series of lectures. It gave him, for example, the leisure to read his beloved Montaigne properly for the first time.

Anyone reading this life will be encouraged to discover or revisit his poetry, and for this Enniss deserves credit. Mahon has been under appreciated by the general public. He is particularly astute on sources and has made good use of the early drafts to which he had access and the many archives he visited. Who would have known, for example, that one of Mahon's best known poems, A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford, dedicated to J.G. Farrell, took its inspiration not alone from The Troubles but also from a passage in one of Farrell's earlier novels The Lung. This, incidentally, is the poem that Michael Longley judged "the best poem any of us has written". Praise indeed when that "us" embraces Heaney.

A poet with a few peccadilloes is hardly a bad thing. Many of us prefer our artists to be free range, "swaggering the nut-strewn road" on our behalf. And in the end the poetry forgives all. Look at a masterpiece like The Sea in Winter, in which he casts a cold eye on his blighted province. Mahon's life as a poet has been a triumph - his legacy is assured. The substantial body of work he has produced has been described by the critic Philip Hobsbaum as "an oeuvre fit to stand beside theirs (Auden and McNeice) in literary history". The man himself is at peace in his safe haven down south. In the final essay in Red Sails, Mahon sums up his current state of contentment:

"As airports grow intolerable and seaplanes remain elusive, there's much to be said for staying put".

If suffering is the key to his poetry, as Enniss asserts, these days it is suffering recollected in tranquility.

Gill & Macmillan

pp 329



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

RUA Annual Exhibition

Nineteen Eighty-four by Neil Shawcross

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 26 October 2014.
Visitors to the Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) annual show from outside Belfast should consider the train. Arriving at Central Station you can stretch your legs by taking a 30-minute walk along a scenic stretch of the Lagan, admiring the doughty oarsmen and women as your proceed. Turn right into the Botanic Gardens and there you'll find the large, spanking new and well-appointed Ulster Museum. The RUA annual show was a moveable feast in terms of location for a number of years but since the Ulster Museum reopened in 2009 it has settled there. There are plans afoot for the RUA to secure a permanent home of its own in a five-story listed building on Ann Street but these will take some years to come to fruition.
Just as the Royal Hibernian Academy's (RHA) annual show gives us a panoramic view of the current state of Irish art, the RUA show provides an overview of what's happening in the North. There are differences in the selection process however. The RUA follow the Royal Academy (RA) model where there's a two stage selection process, rather than the more unwieldy RHA model where there's no preliminary stage. Stage one involves online shortlisting whereby images uploaded by entrants are viewed. About a third of these are shortlisted and then delivered to the Academy for actual viewing. A second selection then takes place and the academy displays around a third of these shortlisted works. There's another major difference with the RHA. The academicians of the RUA confine themselves to two pieces each. (Those over 75 are allowed a third, on the grounds, I suppose, of respect for the venerable.) Their Southern peers at the RHA can take advantage of an entitlement of up to seven pieces. For example at the last RHA show Thomas Ryan and John Behan displayed seven pieces each and others such as Liam Belton and Maeve McCarthy had six. This does tend to unbalance the RHA's annual show and make it less broadly representative than it could be. The Northern show is however smaller in scale, there are 304 works on view compared to 565 at the RHA.

The RUA has existed in one form or another since 1879. It started life modestly as The Belfast Ramblers' Sketching Club. This was the result of an initiative by John Vinycomb, a senior designer at a Belfast printing firm. It started with 16 members of his art department who had been students at the Belfast School of Art. In 1890, with increased membership, it expanded into The Belfast Art Society and in 1930 The Ulster Academy of Arts, with Sir John Lavery elected its first President. Finally, as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, the Royal prefix was granted by King George VI and it became The Royal Ulster Academy of Arts.

This early link with the Belfast School of Art remains as strong as ever with works by its alumni and graduates making up a high proportion of the show. Southern artists are also well represented. In addition to those who get in through the open submission process, the academy has a policy of inviting a number of Southern artists every year. Those from the south who made it in through one route or another include Amelia Stein, Bernadette Kiely, Francis Matthews (who won the KPMG Young Artist Award), and Tadgh McSweeney. The president of the RUA Colin Davidson has enjoyed the distinction this year of showing at all three academy shows. In addition to paintings at the RUA, and the RHA, his fine portrait of Paul Muldoon was shown at the RA's annual summer show.

Entering the 5th floor gallery, divided into three large rooms, the first thing that catches the eye is Dermot Seymour's Hiberno Hare - a large oil featuring a hare with a bloody wound on its forepaw suspended over a mythic landscape. You may miss the metaphor here but it's a powerful image notwithstanding. Nearby Colin Davidson confounds expectations by supplanting his customary portrait with Cloud - a dreamy and subtle landscape. Photography is very well represented in the show. Notable is a characteristically chilling piece by Paul Seawright which owes much of its impact to its title. In the same room, it's hard not to laugh at Oliver Jeffers Ginger Hitler - as if redheads didn't get enough unjust abuse already. Or maybe that's the point. Leonora Neary's These Rooms Within are two dark, cryptic works that evoke that space where introspection occurs.

Moving into the second room you are engaged immediately by that splash of red that characterises Neil Shawcross. He has two large pieces that dominate the space. There are also two fine luxuriant abstracts by Brian Ferran, one of which garnered him the RUA Perpetual Gold Medal. This room also features Be by Amanda Brooke - a striking hanging sculpture of a flock of birds where the attendant shadows play a prominent role. A couple of the portraits in this room give one pause. If the one of Paul Muldoon set out to be a Dorian Gray version of the poet it certainly succeeded. Nearby the portrait of Andy Irvine seems to have sucked all the strength of character out of that interesting man and left us with a weak-looking musician in a contrived pose. Two photographs by John Roch Simons are amongst the best things on view. These evocative images of an old nun carry haunting suggestions of a life wasted. A couple of quirky portraits also linger in the mind: Sheena Malone's Untitled and Lenka Davidikova's Joker. Francis O'Toole's languorous Dormit, all lush colour and eroticism, would grace any bordello.

The third and furthermost of the three rooms, whether by accident or design, contains some of the weakest work. There are a number of insipid landscapes and a couple of sub-bucolic renditions of domestic animals. There are however some good deeds also in this naughty room. These include Light Reflection and Into the Dark by Sophie Aghajanian and three cool abstract bogscapes by Jean Duncan

In general the sculpture is the least successful part of the show. This is partly due to to unsympathetic way it is displayed. Much of it is laid out cheek to jowl on tables as in a craft shop. Perhaps, given the constraints of the space, it was not possible to display each piece on a separate plinth but the the resultant juxtapositions are often a bit jarring. The highlights include Francis Lambe's Terracotta Sea Bean, Adam May's ceramic Cusp and Kate Mac Donagh's mysterious and elegant Sidhe. Two pieces reward careful scrutiny: Claire Gibson's aptly named Reflections and Karen Gibson's Chernobyl Metryoshka Doll Set - the porcelain dolls depicting scenes that are far from playful.

Print work is well represented. Elizabeth Magill's award winning Venice is impressive and there are two cool and restrained works by Keith Wilson. Sarah Rogers' Return to Hospital and Margaret Arthur's encaustic mono prints Reflective and On Thin Ice also stand out. On the video front those who check out Sizzling Babes may be surprised that the title refers to bacon rather than bathing beauties. They will have to content themselves with watching playful pigs run about oblivious of their date with the frying pan.

Looking back over the Irish art scene for the past hundred years there's an argument to be made that Belfast has been its epicentre. Paul Henry was born there as was Sir John Lavery. In the middle of the 20th century George Campbell, Colin Middleton, Dan O'Neill, and Gerard Dillon all emerged, a couple of them from its meaner streets. A little later Basil Blackshaw appeared - a precocious talent born into a sporting family in nearby Glengormley, This show gives us an opportunity to observe how the sons (and daughters) of Ulster are living up to this illustrious heritage.

Ulster Museum


Tue-Sun: 10am-5pm

Tel: 00 44 (0)28 90320819



Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Maeve McCarthy at the Catherine Hammond Gallery

An edited version of this piece (with a different image) appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 5 October 2014.

Maeve McCarthy is a highly accomplished artist who rarely puts a foot wrong. Although some would argue that her appearance on Sky's Portrait Artist of the Year in 2013 was a false move, it's to her credit that she made no attempt to conceal how disgruntled she was at her untimely elimination from the contest.
Although she's probably associated in the public's mind with portraiture, thanks to that show and to her rather bland portrait of Maeve Binchy in the National Gallery, there's far more to her work. The move from her Dublin home to the Dingle Peninsula has resulted in a series of fine atmospheric paintings depicting rural scenes. They are mostly set at dusk or later which gives them a melancholy feel. Some such as At the Crossroads (with its spectral statue of the Virgin Mary), Abandoned House, and House on the Hill (see image) are downright spooky. The latter depicts a house with one window lit - a frail beacon in the primal darkness. It's tempting to look for metaphor here, lost in the night we long for the sanctuary of our childhood homes.

Catherine Hammond Gallery


Mon-Sun 11am-6pm

tel: 027 63812


John P. O'Sullivan



Monday, September 22, 2014

A Cross Word

An edited version of this review was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 21 September 2014
Dorothy Cross is much possessed by death. Back in her udder days, the artful arrangement of bovine parts was overshadowed by your awareness of being in the presence of dead creatures. Then came the sharks (what is it with artists and sharks?), the snakes, and the odd deceased gannet. Her striking Ghost Ship lingers on in prints. At View, an exhibition of new work in the Kerlin Gallery, this underlying bass sound can still be heard. This time, in addition to a shark, we get escalation in the form of a human skull - cleft in twain to act as a repository for tiny meteorites - themselves the remnants of dead stars. There's also a door that has obviously had a hard life. It's a dead door, worn out and redundant.

Cross's career is very much alive however. This exhibition of sculptures and photographs coincides with her major new commission, the cryptic Eye of Shark at Lismore Castle Arts in Waterford. This site-specific project will be followed by Trove, an exhibition of works selected by the artist from the National Collections of Ireland, at IMMA in November.

Kerlin Gallery


Mon-Fri: 10am-5.45pm

Sat: 11am-4.30 pm


John P. O'Sullivan



Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What a Gobshite

You've got to laugh at London-born John Michael McDonagh's criticism of the quality of Irish-made films. This is the cinematic genius that gave us Calvary - a film more full of Oirishry and Irish stereotypes than Darby O'Gill and the Little People - and about 10 years out-of-date with its depiction of the Church. Only an olympian performance from Brendan Gleeson saved it from more general ridicule.

And by the way we do over-hype our own films. Even the saintly Michael Dwyer was guilty. I remember him singing the praises of High Spirits - one of Neil Jordan's many turkeys. But McDonagh is the wrong person to point this out after venting such a steaming pile of excrement on us.


The Bearded Lady and Me

I arrived in London one summer in the late Sixties hoping to get work on the building sites. Work was hard to come by that year and I found myself in Putney living on a diet of drinking chocolate (purloined from Thomas Nelson) and cucumber - sharing a tiny bed-room with my equally impoverished buddy Jim McDonald. Giving up on the labouring we decided to put our education to some use by applying for temporary office jobs. We had modest success, getting a day's work here and there manning the post room for Thomas Nelson the publishers and stuffing vouchers into Embassy cigarette boxes. Occasionally we'd get work together but more often we'd head off separately. One day we got a request to go into this office off Park Lane to man a desk while the company moved premises. I would work the first shift and Jim would do a later one.

I turned up at the appointed hour and was met at the entrance by a very friendly American man who chatted away about Ireland, he knew Cobh well, and seemed in no hurry to send me about my business. Eventually he told me to report to the 2nd floor where a Miss Finch would explain my duties. I took the lift up to the second floor and there were two young women sitting around in the reception area. The dark-haired of the duo got up and left as soon as I arrived and the blonde turned around and rose to greet me. She was tall and good looking with a very shapely figure. However, my attentions were firmly focused on her beard. She had a luxuriant goatee-style beard that matched exactly the honey blonde of her coiffured hair. I concealed my wonder as best I could - having encountered much that was weird and wonderful already in London during that swinging era. She explained to me that I had to sit at the desk while the rest of them were moving and take any messages from people who arrived. She also explained the switchboard to me but reckoned that I shouldn't receive many calls as people knew they were moving. She seemed pissed off when I mentioned that my friend wasn't going to turn up (he'd received a better offer) but said we'd manage.

About 15 minutes into my stint a short tubby man came bursting in to the office clearly agitated and in a hurry. "Where's Miss Finch, where's Miss Finch" he panted. I explained she was downstairs organising the move and offered to help him. "I have to deliver this parcel" he said, indicating a large rectangular package he had under his arm. "I'll pass it on to her" I offered in my most professional office boy manner. "No, No" he replied, "I have to hand it to her personally". "I'll go downstairs and find her. What does she look like?" "Well", I replied. "she's about five feet nine with blonde hair and she's in her late twenties". Some impulse towards sensitivity and decorum caused me to omit any mention of the beard.

About five minutes later he returned saying he couldn't find her. He then asked me in a pointed way that made me vaguely uneasy "was there anything in her appearance that would help me recognise her?" This was so pointed that I decided to fess up. "Well actually she has a beard", I replied with a guilty smirk. At this he got very angry telling me to stop messing him about, he was a busy man and so on. "No, no" I protested, "she actually has a beard". I eventually mollified him and we began discussing what kind of creature she could be. As we were indulging in this inglorious speculation, Miss Finch suddenly stormed in the door shouting angrily "how dare you talk about my beard, and I've just had it done for a party tonight". Oh dear. With that the messenger and Miss Finch kind of loomed over me in a alarming fashion - leering it seemed. Then I heard the immortal line "smile, you're on Candid Camera". Afterwards I was debriefed for a bit, they couldn't understand why I hadn't mentioned the beard in my initial description. The only rationale I could offer was that it was a tactful omission - good taste would not permit me to mention such an outlandish attribute. They assured me, by the way, that the beard was genuine. They got me to sign a disclaimer and off I strode into the West End - bemused.

A few months later I had returned to Cork and we got an excited call from an aunt in Dublin: "I think I've just seen Johnny on Candid Camera." We didn't get Granada in Cork at that time so I never got to see my ignoble TV debut.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

In Search of Camille Souter

Camille Souter Beside a Sculpture by her Son Tim Morris

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 24 August 2014

Camille Souter seems a mysterious almost mythical figure in Irish art. This impression is reinforced by a visit to the exhibition Irish Women Artists 1870-1970. There she is on display amongst long dead figures such as Evie Hone and Letitia Hamilton. Garrett Cormican, in his illuminating biography Camille Souter: Mirror in the Sea, described her as "a fish: restless, elusive, and hard to catch." That may sound a little unflattering but she plainly concurs as one of her best-known works is entitled "Self-portrait as a Cod's Head". Apart from her annual trip to Aosdána (she was elected as Saoi in 2008) she is rarely to be seen at art events and casual callers are not encouraged at her Dooagh retreat. A sign outside her studio says "Working - Private". Most visual artists, starved of recognition, welcome the attention of the media, but not Souter. She made it clear that she didn't want a photographer present and that a look around her studio is not an option. Her first comment on my arrival at her white-washed cottage was "I'm all grumpy".

This however turned out to be far from the case. Warmed up by a couple of glasses of The Famous Grouse (her favourite tipple), and smoking her rollups, she was amiable and talkative - happy, it seemed, to discuss her long and fascinating life. Although the very model of the bohemian artist, her English origins and her middle-class background still linger in what used to be called an ascendancy accent. Around her neck she sported two large silver ornaments: a fish and an aeroplane, both life-long interests. It was a surprise to see her without her distinctive crotched beret. Her daughter had cut her hair recently, she explained. "I feel sort of naked without it". She initially used it to keep her long hair out of her face while she was painting and then it became a habit. The local fishermen favoured them when she came to Achill first and she decided to crochet one for herself. When one wears out she simply crotchets another.

At the age of 84 she is still an active and resourceful woman, and shows no signs of flagging. She has given up flying (she learned while on a residency at Shannon in the early 80s) because it's too expensive and because the advanced automation these days makes it less fun. She still drives her venerable white van however. It's emblazoned with a quote from Joseph Campbell that could never be applied to its admirably industrious owner:

The Silence of unlaboured fields

Lies like a judgement on the air

Her vegetable garden is well tended and we enjoy a cucumber from it in the cheese sandwich she prepares. In her living room lies an open copy of Simon Schama's The Story of the Jews. She's much engaged by the situation in Gaza, and in the Middle-East generally, and decided she needed to do some background reading.

For someone who's had an artistic career of nearly sixty years, it's downright peculiar that she's had so few solo shows. She's had only three in all and two of those were in Dublin restaurants in the Fifties. Her last commercial solo show was in the Dawson Gallery in 1977. There have been a few retrospectives and plenty of group shows but generally she has sold her work piecemeal. The reason for this is very simple she explains. She had to do so to survive. She is proud of the fact that she brought up five children solely on her painting. "Very few artists have reared their family on their work alone". Her exacting quality control may also be a factor in this dearth of shows.

Souter's earliest break through was at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1957. She had four works on show all of which sold. Sir Basil Goulding was a significant figure in the development of her career. His early faith in her work was influential in building her reputation and in enabling her to make a living. "He was a lovely man" she recalled with feeling when his name is mentioned. She remembered his first visit to her studio in the gate lodge of Charleville House in Enniskerry in the early Sixties. He "humbly" scrutinised the work and ended up buying "quite a few" pieces. As he was writing the cheque she was so broke that she asked "do you think I could have ten shillings of it in money". Those early works all went for a guinea - she was initially going to charge a pound but decided to squeeze the extra shilling out of it. Goulding continued to buy her work throughout his life and also introduced her to other collectors such as Gordon Lambert. More significantly he ensured through his art world connections that her work was bought by institutions such as the Hugh Lane Gallery and later by the Arts Council and Trinity. Michael Scott, the architect, was another early patron who introduced her work to a wide circle of his influential friends.

Souter was born plain Betty Holmes in Northampton in 1929. Her father came to Dublin in 1932 and she went to school in Glengara Park (subsequently subsumed into what's now Rathdown School). Although no scholar ("I was a ding dong" she observed quaintly) she found someone there who recognised where her talents lay. "I'm so thankful we had Miss Garrett who taught art". She went to London after school to study nursing at Guy's Hospital. "From the age of nine or ten I wanted to save the world". Her studies were interrupted when she contracted TB and she spent nearly a year in a sanatorium. There she read voraciously, especially the Russians. After qualifying she gave up nursing, took up painting and plunged into the raffish world of Fifties Soho. She never went to college but learned her art from days spent in the National Gallery and from mixing with other artists. Perhaps some of the magic of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud rubbed off on her in places like the French House and the Colony Club. She met and married, briefly, the actor Gordon Souter. They had a daughter together and he was responsible for changing her first name - suggesting that she adopt the name of the tubercular heroine of Dumas fils' La Dame aux Camelias. After leaving Gordon Souter she went off to Italy with the artist Ralph Rumney, later to marry Peggy Guggenheim's ill-fated daughter Pegeen. He proved fickle. "He was quite ruthless" she recalled, "he had to have money". Rumney flitted off elsewhere but her Italian adventure yielded her first sales and she returned to Ireland and threw herself into the local art scene.

She had her first solo show at El Habano restaurant on Grafton Street in 1956. She also met the sculptor Frank Morris who she was later to marry. The period she spent with him in Calary, County Wicklow, she describes as the happiest of her life - and many of her finest paintings come from that period. She had four more children with Morris but their idyll was shattered by his tragic early death at 40 from septicaemia following an operation for appendicitis. Her garden in Achill contains a poignant reminder of this neglected artist's talent.

She lived on in Wicklow for another 16 years years but the combination of his lingering memory and the depredations of a newly arrived farmer on adjacent land persuaded her to leave eventually. She relocated to Dooagh on Achill Island in 1986. Achill looms large in her biography. She initially went there on holiday with her parents and had lived there for a brief period in the late Fifties before moving to Enniskerry with Morris. She moved back there, built a new studio, and has lived there ever since. It's interesting to see how many Irish women artists lived on Achill from the Irish Women Artists show. In addition to Souter, they include Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet, Letitia Hamilton, and Barbara Warren.

Souter talked very little about her own work and wasn't too responsive to questions about it. Her paintings, to use Brian Fallon's wonderful phrase, are about: "evanescence and the essential fragility and temporality of things". She steers clear of anything grandiose and chooses ordinary subjects such as flowers, fish, and unspectacular landscapes. The human figure appears only occasionally (in her boxing and circus pictures), although there is one striking painting of a pregnant woman. There was an early flirtation with Paul Klee, and a more prolonged period where she was influenced by abstract expressionism, before she settled into her mature style. Some of her very best paintings are landscapes from her two most permanent homes: Calary and Achill. She only paints in natural light and is adamant that her work is best viewed in that light also. She was critical of the RHA's artificial lighting of her work at her retrospective in 2001, she claimed that the Niland in Sligo was a more suitable venue. She doesn't use photographs or sketch pads when she's planning a work but does take notes and adds the odd "squiggle". She is fastidious about the quality of her work and famously borrowed back from Basil Goulding a painting she was dissatisfied with and then destroyed it.

She lives alone these days. Her five children have produced ten grandchildren and three great grand-children and she likes to spend time with them during the summer months. However now that they have departed she is eager to get painting again. She's hoping an impending visit to Portland Bill with the Irish Geological Association will provide some inspiration. Then it's back to the studio. "By the second week of September if anyone comes near me I'll eat them." You have been warned.

John P.O'Sullivan

August 2014


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Rebels Put to the Sword

Cork fans leaving early.


Last Sunday was bliss for fans of Tipperary hurling. Those of more venerable vintage like your current scribe would always consider Cork the real enemy, notwithstanding our recent altercations with Kilkenny. When I arrived in Cork in the early Fifties they were always just pipping us in tight matches. Ring was still a lethal force and the likes of Paddy Barry and Matty Fuohy applied cuteness and craft in equal proportions. And when I say cute I mean like a shithouse rat - not a labrador pup. I made the trek out to the Gaelic Athletic Grounds for all their encounters - and rarely returned jubilant. The great wheel of hurling fortune would turn later in that decade but my earliest memories are of Cork winning tight matches. I remember well a judicious hurley thrown by Matty Fuohy that robbed us of a Munster Final.

Heading off to Croke Park last Sunday on the DART from Dalkey I was anticipating that a young and hungry Cork team would put away a Tipp team that contained many skilful hurlers but that seemed to lack the heart for the physical battle. So sure was I that I bought some financial consolation in the form of a substantial bet on the Leesiders. I am a faithless hussy when it comes to gambling. I got a good seat in the Lower Hogan Stand and was with a Cork friend and rabid hurling enthusiast. It was such a nice day that we just stood around and watched the crowd grow rather than head off as usual to the Gravedigger's for a few pints. The North Circular Road and Jones's Road were en fete and as always the fans mingled cheerfully.

Cork folk outnumbered Tipp by nearly two to one. Last year's heroics had created expectations. The match was slow to get going but it was clear from early on that Tipp were very cranked up and seemed to be winning the physical battles. Cork were being given no room and it showed in a lengthy sequence of wides. Darren Gleeson in the Tipp goal hit a colleague almost every time with his judicious puck outs and this generated great momentum. As the game moved into the second half Tipp just pulled away and Cork couldn't keep up with them. A seminal moment in the match occurred when John O'Dwyer blocked a lethargic Cork clearance, latched on to the ball and hit a glorious point from an acute angle. This incident summed up the match. Tipp were the sharper and the hungrier.

Cork never got going. In all my years watching Cork hurling I have never seen them so put down. My friend, a personable and loquacious man, was rendered mute at the awfulness of it all. Cork fans were leaving in numbers a full 10 minutes before the end. I preserved a dignified and merciful silence while inside I gloated in a disturbingly atavistic way. Of course all this will be dust and ashes if they don't complete the deal on the 7th September. It's time to have a serious bet on Kilkenny.







Saturday, August 09, 2014

John Kelly - an Awkward Bugger

An edited version of this piece was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 3rd August 2014

Take the right turn for Union Hall on the road from Skibereen to Roscarberry and head south towards the sea. After many twists and turns you'll find yourself on the Reen Peninsula. This is the spectacularly scenic home of the artist John Kelly. A stroll around his extensive property yields many interesting and some downright surreal sights. As a herd of amiable Friesians graze nearby, you encounter a large bronze gum tree with a stylised Friesian lodged in its branches. This is Kelly's iconic Cow Up a Tree a version of which once graced the Champs Elysses in Paris. Nearby is a scale model of the Tate Gallery in London - the size of a small bungalow - and scattered around his gardens are sundry bronze kangaroos and startling abstract pieces.


Kelly has been living in Ireland for over ten years but is better known in Sydney and Melbourne than he is in Dublin and Cork. His affiliations are complicated and it shows in his retention of three passports - as if he's still making up his own mind. His father is from Cork (near Mallow) and his mother is English but the family went to Australia when he was six months old. The artist in him emerged in that country and it still remains his primary audience although he also shows regularly in London including at the Royal Academy. His web site describes him as "living in West Cork currently". The last word suggesting a provisional relationship with his father's home county. This identity issue amuses him. "I am the best known Irish Artist in Australia or alternatively a well known contemporary Australian artist here in Ireland". His disparate loyalties were demonstrated at his first Dublin solo show in the prestigious Oliver Sears Gallery in 2013. While viewers glided around sipping wine and admiring his cool spare seascapes of Castlehaven and its environs, he was tossing about in the middle of the Southern Ocean, one of the roughest and most dangerous in the world. He had taken up the position of artist in residence on the icebreaker Aurora Australis on an Australian Antarctic mission. Ahead lay a Shackelton-like experience with the enveloping ice and many adventures where his very survival was a matter of concern. The art he created on and from this trip will be shown in Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 2015.

Cows loom large in Kelly's story. His mother won a Win a Wish competition advertised on the side of milk carton that enabled her to send her talented son to art school. One of Kelly's early shows in Australia was ungratefully entitled More Fucking Cows and he's best known for his playful paintings and sculpture based on the stylised papier-mache cows created by the Australian artist Sir William Dobell - supposedly as part of a camouflage project during World War II. No large mammal was safe from his gaze. In 1997 he did a show on Phar Lap - Australia's most famous race horse - called Painting the Dead Horse (the poor creature stands stuffed in a glass case in a Melbourne Museum). That show was opened by Barry Humpheries who is a fan, as is another famous Australian Rupert Murdoch. A pivotal moment in his career came in 1999 when he was asked by the City of Paris to exhibit in a sculpture exhibition, Champs del la Sculpture II, held on the Champs-Élysées to mark the millennium. This exhibition included internationally recognised artists such as Red Grooms, Nam June Paik, Tony Cragg, and Barry Flanagan. His work caught the attention of Time magazine and his reputation was launched.

A subsequent knotty legal imbroglio with his French agent "took the air out of my ascent" and Kelly, exhausted and dispirited by these travails, initially came to Ireland 10 years ago to get away from it all. He and his wife Christina happened upon a house amid the scenic splendours of Reen and he continued his international career from this West Cork base.

Kelly's creativity has many outlets. He paints, he sculpts, he prints, he enlists the aid of computers for his steel cutouts, he flirts with installations and the conceptual and he also writes about art and art history. When asked about Australian art many of us struggle to get beyond Sidney Nolan so it's interesting to hear his views on the likes of William Dobell, Brett Whitely, and Fred Williams. He recounts at length a wonderful story about how Dobell won the Archibald Prize for a portrait of his alleged lover Joshua Smith - who came second in the competition. Dobell was then sued by Smith's followers as they felt it was a caricature not a portrait and thus ineligible for the prize. Kelly was so taken by this story that he took the Australian art historian Elizabeth Donaldson to task in a letter to Art Monthly Australia (AMA) in 2011 for her homogenised history of the incident.

Kelly is a fine writer with a colourful turn of phrase. While in the Antarctic he wrote a hair-raising blog for the Guardian and has also written extensively for AMA and Circa. He also likes to engage with the art community both here and in Australia and is not afraid to speak his mind. When the Australia Council for the Arts brought in Saatchi and Saatchi to review arts policy in Australia, the agency advocated that Australian art be branded. Kelly wrote directly to the Prime Minister of the day pointing out the blatant folly of this policy. Closer to home he wrote an open letter to the Crawford Open in 2007 taking its organisers to task over what he saw as a flawed open submission competition. Amongst other criticisms he felt that the selection process was questionable. The absence of robust reviewing of artists and art institutions in Ireland is a particular concern of his. He is very critical of the Arts Council decision to cut its funding for Circa while during the same period increasing that of the Irish Arts Review. The latter is essentially, he suggests, a commercial enterprise which famously confines its criticism to dead artists and past infamies (such as Peter Murray's excellent piece on the Bantry House collection). No contemporary gallery or art institution need fear its bite. Kelly feels that there is a clique running the art institutions that are happy to host big names from the international circuit but don't do enough to foster contemporary Irish art, and don't take kindly to questions about their stewardship.

His current show in the Doswell Gallery in Roscarbery demonstrates his love affair with the landscape of West Cork. Kelly felt his studio was becoming "like a padded cell" and decided to "be creative in front of the landscape". So he took his field easel up Ceim Hill for views of Castlehaven Harbour and the Stags and set to work. Most of the works you see were painted from there or from his perch in Myross Cemetery - high above Reen. In the cemetery he began using the grave stone of an Anne Sullivan as a plinth to hold his easel - going a bit further along the memento mori route than those writers who keep a skull on their desks. In an eerie twist he discovered from a neighbour that the same Anne Sullivan lived in the house that he now occupies. The show also features some images of his Antarctic encounters with penguins and a new series of prints done with the Stony Road Press that revisit some of his recent West Cork paintings. Kelly has also taken a keen interest in the tragic history of his locale. The scale model of the Tate Modern on his land was originally intended for a show in Melbourne where it would house a letter written in 1846 by a justice of the peace in Reen, N. M. Cummins. This letter recounted in horror the affects of the famine in Myross and South Reen. Kelly had been much engaged by the fact that Irish art has left no contemporary record of the famine such as Jean-Francois Millet's Prayer for a Potato Crop.The establishment shills that made art in the Ireland of the time would not have wanted to rock the boat. He chose the Tate because it owed its existence to a fortune made from food (initially a string of greengrocers around Liverpool) at a time when Ireland was starving.

John Kelly has been described by an Irish academic as "an awkward and obsessive artist". That statement is almost tautologous, or at least a good working definition of what an artist should be. Obsession is surely necessary to pursue any art form and being awkward means that you don't necessarily abide by the status quo or follow received wisdom. The artist as outsider has many illustrious precedents. Caravaggio was an awkward customer, as was Van Gogh. For domestic reasons Kelly plans to spend more time in Dublin over the next few years and those who care about Irish art in the capitol should welcome both his multi-faceted art and his trenchant critical contributions. Meanwhile some of our art institutions, especially those down south, should perhaps pay more attention to an artist of Irish origin honoured internationally but largely ignored here.


Thursday, August 07, 2014

Opening Address at Taylor Galleries Exhibition in Blue House Gallery Schull

Dawson Gallery and Taylor Galleries

For those here who may be unfamiliar with the Dublin art scene, Taylor Galleries had an interesting genesis. You could argue that it started life as far back as 1944 when Leo Smith founded the Dawson Gallery on Dawson Street. Over time, especially as post-war austerity ended, it became the only game in town for the upper echelons of Irish artists, especially in the 60s and 70s. There was some opposition from the David Hendriks gallery but Leo was the king, and the kingmaker. To get a gig with the Dawson Gallery was the ultimate imprimatur - you had arrived, you were a made man, or woman. John Taylor was his young fresh-faced assistant, and in the latter period of the Dawson Gallery's life, Pat began to get involved also. Leo Smith was a bon vivant with a heart condition and while returning home from the funeral of Hilary Heron in Pat Scott's car, he had a heart attack and died. Smith was a confirmed bachelor and had no family to take up the business. After a very brief hiatus, the Dawson's stable of artists, rousted up by Pat Scott, threw their lot in with John and Pat and in 1978 Taylor Galleries was born - in 6 Dawson Street. In 1990 Taylor Galleries relocated to smaller premises at 34 Kildare Street before moving up the road to the current space at 16 Kildare Street in 1996.

Blue-chip Artists

The gallery's artists at the time of Smith's death included such blue-chip names Louis le Brocquy, Tony O'Malley, Bill Crozier, Sean McSweeney, Pat Scott, Michael Farrell, Camille Souter, Sean McSweeney, and Charlie Brady. Their reputations and sales were growing. This was a mighty fine legacy for a young gallerist. Many of these artists are now dead, but the Taylors didn't just sit on their laurels - they took care of the future by bringing in the next generation of artists such as Charles Tyrrell, Martin Gale, John Shinnors, Mary Lohan, and of course John Doherty from this parish.

Amongst Dublin galleries Taylor Galleries stand for quality, a certain professionalism and an adherence to the traditional values of drawing and painting. They are certainly not afraid of abstraction as Charles Tyrrell's work will attest, and they regularly experiment with younger artists but they have a good nose for bullshit. The Kerlin may give you a scantily clad woman drawing shamrocks in green paint with her arse and a catalogue to explain what you're seeing but the Taylors can be relied upon to give you something that can be appreciated without the attendant essay. I have dealt with them as a buyer, a seller and an occasional reviewer and I have always found them to be decent skins. I remember many years ago I put together a group show, not unlike this one, at a gallery I owned in Enniskerry. I had sourced most of the work directly from the artists but was shy a couple of Sean McSweeney's to round off the show. Sean, whom I know well, had nothing available so I went along to John and asked him did he have anything in stock. He took me up to a storeroom on the top floor of the gallery - chock full of goodies - pointed to a half dozen SM's and said "help yourself". Nice guy. Another time I had bought a John Shinnors piece from a photograph (don't do that by the way) and I was very unhappy with the framing and scale of the piece and wanted to return it. It was taken back without demur and my money refunded (don't do that either).

Jim O'Driscoll

On the way here from my sister's house on Barry's Road I passed that beautifully located cemetery overlooking the harbour. It occurred to me how Jim O'Driscoll resting in there would have enjoyed this occasion and this gallery. While he lived a lot of the year in Dublin, he had a house in Rossbrin where he spent the summer resting from his legal labours. I would frequently encounter him mooching around Schull at a loose end - separated from his beloved galleries. For the rest of the year if you wanted to meet Jim, Taylor Galleries on a Saturday morning was a reliable bet. He would spend hours in there chatting with Pat and John about the state of the art world. He had a particular affinity for the Taylor's stable of artists and if you visited his house on Orwell Road you would encounter work by Louis le Brocquy, Tony O'Malley (especially) Bill Crozier, Pat Scott, Charlie Brady and many more. Jim was an insatiable buyer of art and would probably have single-handedly kept this gallery financially viable.

Me and Schull

I have been coming to Schull for more than 25 years, and I have been spending time in Taylor Galleries for nearer thirty. So I am delighted with this marriage between two of my favourite places. The advent of the Blue House gallery has certainly enhanced the cultural life of Schull. I know that John, Brian, Alyn, Keith and John have put huge time and energy into the enterprise. It makes a stroll down the Main Street that much more interesting, and Schull a more attractive venue for holidaying. It has also taken advantage of the standing army of artists in this region to ensure that we don't have to travel to Dublin to or Cork to enjoy their work. Many of the Taylor artists have Cork connections - John of course, Charlie and Tim in Allihies. And of course Pat Scott, who helped broker the Taylor take over of the Dawson Gallery was born up the road in Kilbrittain.

With the right support from you the Blue House Gallery can be a permanent feature of the Schull landscape. So roust up all your promenading barrister friends, your drinking doctors, your holidaying fat cats and the gilded remittance men that throng the streets in July and August and get them in here buying art.

Walking into this show is for me like walking into a party and finding it full of old friends - tried and tested over time. There's Micheal, there's Mary, there's Tony. I hope you enjoy their company as much as I have done.


John P. O'Sullivan

18th July 2014



Friday, August 01, 2014

Waving and Drowning

An edited version of this appeared in the Sunday Times on the 6th July 2014

When I was seven or eight years old (top row four to the right of icon) we lived in the Curragh Camp where my father, an army officer, was stationed. Down the road from our house was a large swimming pool. It measured 40 yards by 14 yards making it the largest in the country at the time. The army used it for recreation and for training its soldiers. I frequently went there on my own as all of my schoolmates were the sons of private soldiers or NCOs, and officer's sons and soldier's sons didn't mix in those socially stratified days. I had never had lessons and so just paddled around in the shallow end - enjoying the novelty of being immersed and the smell of the chlorine. One day as I was leaving the pool area to change, four soldiers in uniform decided to have some fun at my expense. They grabbed a limb each, swung me back and forth a few times, and launched me into the middle of the deep end. I came up to the surface, screaming and promptly sank again. Luckily there was someone in the pool nearby and he pulled me out - deeply traumatised and crying hysterically. The four by now discomfited villains tried to placate me and followed me into the changing room to console me while I got dressed. When I was ready they escorted me to a nearby sweet shop and asked me what I wanted. The price of my silence was to be two marshmallow mice - a sweet shop option long gone. When I got home I kept my little misadventure to myself and never told anyone what happened. I was regularly bullied at school because of my father's rank and considered this merely more of the same.

Things rested so. I tended to avoid occasions of swimming. However when I was around 14, we went on holiday to Spanish Point - all nine of us. My parents enjoyed the use of a house there for a month. Most days us children went to the beach, one of the most lethal on the west coast, while my parents spent the day golfing at nearby Lahinch. A lot of convents had summer houses nearby and you'd see the nuns in their long black swimming costumes lying on the rocks like so many seals. Paddy Hillary, Minister for Education at the time, also had a house there and I'd often see him on romantic walks arm in arm with his wife.

There were life-guards on duty at the beach but only during certain hours. These I suppose were the hours to which we should have confined our swimming. One desultory afternoon I made my way alone to the beach and started paddling off some rocks. The rest of the family were playing games in the sand dunes. The area was deserted apart from a solitary girl reading on a rock nearby. I paddled out up to my shoulders and then must have stepped off a ledge because suddenly I found myself out of my depth. I bobbed to the surface and yelled out. The girl was off the rocks in a thrice and she swam over strongly and pulled me to the shore. If she hadn't happened to be there I would surely have drowned. Thank you again Irene Kerrison. Of course I never mentioned this incident to my parents either.

You'd imagine that I would subsequently have learned to swim but despite trying on many occasions I have been unable to conquer my fear of water. I can swim on my back as long as I remain in my depth but just cannot put my face in the water. It's beyond cure. As a result of my handicap I was always very aware of keeping my children away from water when they were young lest I find myself in a situation where I would be unable to rescue them. As soon as was decent from an age perspective we got them regular lessons from a very accomplished teacher. Now they are all very strong and confident in the water and can rescue their far from amphibious father if the need arises.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Tom Phelan - Quiver at the Molesworth Gallery

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 20 July 2014

For a man who loves surfing as much as Tom Phelan it must be frustrating to live in Vienna where the mild beauty of the Danube hardly compensates for the spume filled thrills of Strandhill. But Phelan is an artist and the pain from his thwarted love affair with the waves has been transmuted into an arresting and colourful series of paintings in his new show at the Molesworth Gallery. Quiver, the title of the show, refers to a collection of surfboards of different size, shape and vintage. A surfboard is a fetish object where the aesthetics of the board are as important as its function and this gives Phelan an opportunity to play with its alluring geometry and brilliant colouring. The ambiguity of the term quiver also conveys the oscillation between abstraction and reality - between colour field and figurative. Phelan uses Casani birch panels for these paintings and the grain of the wood plays its part in the images - as well as recalling the early wooden surfboards. The surfer's field of dreams, the sea, also features in this impressive show.

Molesworth Gallery

John P. O'Sullivan



Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Nihilists at Work in South Dublin: Review of Here Are the Young Men by Rob Doyle

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 6th July 2014

The spirit of Nietzsche looms over the action in Rob Doyle's darkly exhilarating first novel. But don't be alarmed, the book's intellectual architecture is well concealed beneath the boozing and braggadocio of its protagonists. The nearest we get to an explicit acknowledgement of the great German thinker's influence is Scag's philosophical riff half way through which contains a tasty chunk of Nietzsche's apocalyptic prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra - unattributed but with added 'fuckin's.

The novel portrays the antics of four epically disgruntled teenagers in that hiatus between sitting the Leaving Certificate and heading off in the directions designated6 by their results. You may acquire a hangover just by reading about their drug-fuelled ride through late Celtic Tiger Dublin. Drugs and drink are constantly sought and consumed and most of the action stems from their effects. Getting wasted is the one solid ambition they all share. But the boys behaviour is dictated by the cosmic squalor all around them. They are living in the twilight of the idols. God is dead, school is out, Church and State have failed them - the robber barons rule the land. Their irreverence and frantic drinking is a way of dealing with the void. Beneath the surface hedonism there is a dark undercurrent of seething emotions where terror, despair, and violence lurk. We know what we're in for as soon as we reach the fly-leaf. There's a quote from E. M. Cioran - a man famous for bemoaning the "inconvenience of existence". These youthful nihilists casual misogony is only trumped my their sustained misanthropy There are a few superficial similarities to the novels of his namesake Roddy, a writer admired by Rob. They share an ear for dialogue, particularly the oath-laden demotic of Dublin. However while Roddy has colonised the north side, Rob's characters roam between Greystones and Tallaght - with frequent excursions to Temple Bar and to Killiney Hill and its environs. These are south side boys but definitely not D4. One of the quartet's mother is a cleaner for God's sake. This is different territory in other ways also, a realm beyond good and evil.

Early on we encounter a spectacularly vile anti-Bono tirade that will give plenty of readers pause. But these are just the spewings of Kearney the book's resident psychopath. He will get his comeuppance. He's just reflecting darkly the level of invective often directed by Dubliners at this amiable and enormously successful rock musician. Pure Paddy begrudgery. And if that scene disturbs you wait until you get to the snuff movie description.

In addition to the juvenile nihilism of the four characters, there is an attendant sexual anxiety that afflicts all of them except, ironically, Cocker. It's as if this last avenue to escape and transcendence is also closed to them. Matthew is weak and vacillating and he knows it - he has moral fibre issues. He's also timid with girls and when he finally gets his much sought after Jen to bed discovers that he can't perform - not surprising perhaps considering the volume of drugs he has consumed. This is a horror for any man but for the shy teenager it's a trauma that ruins everything. Jen is unfazed by the sexual failure that blights his love for her. The girls in this novel are very relaxed about sex and its trappings compared to the boys. His later encounter with her and Kearney in flagrante merely compounds his misery and rage. This is a tragic unresolved love story at the heart of the action. Cocker seems to be benignly indifferent to the girls. In fact the Cocker character is the least well-drawn of the four, as if Doyle needed a foil for the erratic antics of the other three. He alone doesn't enjoy his own chapter headings which are divided between Matthew's first person agonising and the third person descriptions of the deranged Kearney and the over sensitised Rez. Kearney has a violent streak that emerges early on. He is obsessed with ultra violent computer games and creates alarming personal web cams. His attitude to girls is brutal and pragmatic, date rape is to be admired and eventually practised. Rez is the smartest of the four. He agonises about the human condition and raises the conversation above the bestial level struck by Kearney. His girl-friend dumps him all the better to frolic abroad with a clear conscience and when he discovers her emails to a friend gloating about her pleasuring by some holiday-camp Lothario he is quite undone - most particularly by the unfavourable comparisons she makes with his own sexual ministrations.

Half way through Doyle introduces the book's most likeable character, the old punk and stoner socialist Scag - who "dreamt of the day when the working classes refuse to work". He acts as Matthew's mentor and guide around Dublin in a way that faintly echoes Bloom and Daedulus's more restrained peregrinations. He points Matthew along the path of true stoner righteousness, which means avoiding a career at all costs.

The novel turns even darker in the latter stages. A trip to the US exposes Kearney to a snuff movie and he returns to Dublin with his vicious urges cranked up a few notches. The occasional outbursts of casual violence become more regular and more extreme - his inner psychopath comes out to play. He tricks Matthew into complicity in one of his crimes and from there things escalate to a murderous and fiery denouement - in Greystones of all places. This is a fine debut from Doyle. It shines a light into a relatively unexplored region: the psyches of our youth, adrift in a world where the old verities no longer exist. And its fast-moving episodic structure makes it a rollicking good read. God may be dead, but a new literary star is born.


Lilliput Press

304 pp


John P. O'Sullivan

July 2014