Monday, April 28, 2014

Cow Dung at IMMA

Sheela Gowda's Cow Dung

This piece was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 20 April 2014

Spring is upon us. Parents with young children can grab a cultural fix and at the same time keep their little darlings amused by heading up to IMMA. The layout of the glorious formal gardens is ideal for games of hide and seek and, inside, IMMA's educational programmes provide artistic diversion should the weather not play fair.

There's usually art worth seeing as well. Sheela Gowda's Open Eye Policy is an overview of the celebrated Indian artist’s work over the past 20 years. Trained as a painter, she's a versatile artist who has expanded her reach into sculpture, installation, and photography to engage more directly with the politics of her homeland. Heartland, a manipulated newspaper image, shows a Naxalite suspect in the hands of the Indian military. Her cow dung confections and flattened tar drum installations bring us a taste of a society where the creative reuse of waste materials is key to survival. The dull browns and blacks of their daily grind are relieved here and there by the shocking red of kumkum - blood amid the sweat and tears.

Tue-Fri: 11.30am - 5.30pm
Sat: 10am-5.30pm
Tel: 01-6129900

John P. O'Sullivan

Monday, April 14, 2014

My Own Private Calvary

Stuck in town between appointments I make for my favourite refuge the IFI. The only suitable option was Calvary and as I'd been mildly diverted by The Guard by the same director (John Michael McDonagh) I decided to give it a try. Now this is crucial: I went in early to claim a decent seat so I'm sitting in the middle of the middle row - in a crowded cinema.

It starts badly with the opening lines meant to shock us into compliant attentiveness. We've heard all this stuff about clerical sexual abuse ad nauseam so we don't need it shoved down our throats again. This the film does in a way that might have been shocking 20 years ago but now seems tedious with a nasty edge. We get it.

I realise it's not meant to be realistic in a Ken Loach or Mike Leigh way but black farce needs some vague connection with actuality.  Let's count the ways this does not. The local Garda sergeant has a rent boy staying with him in full public view. The local doctor, who also seems to be the coroner, flicks his cigarettes away like a character from Love Hate and snorts coke in public toilets. He's played by Aidan Gillen who seems to have retained some tics from that series.  The cheeky wine-swilling altar boy is also a plein air painter - complete with easel.  Dylan Moran playing a fat cat with a conscience has a permanent look of embarrassment on his face - or maybe that's him acting.  The scene of him pissing on the expensive painting is plain silly and unlikely on many levels. The only coloured man in the village is cutting a swathe through the local girls and arrogantly dismisses the priest's blandishments. The gorgeous good time girl is married to the ugly butcher who is so comfortable with his cuckolding that he plays chess in the local pub with his wife's lover. And does Chris O'Dowd with his clown's face make a convincingly tragic figure? And the dialogue is mainly a series of trite rants. Nature disclaims it, a tin ear made it.

And the plot - merciful jazus.  SPOILER ALERT  Priest is threatened over the phone by a victim of abuse. Priest wanders around the village and receives constant abuse from a variety of unlikely characters - all caricatures, some plain ridiculous. Church is burned down. The most unlikely village dance in film history takes place. Priest shoots up pub because he gets drunk after his beloved dog is killed. Priest then turns up at appointed time on beach to be murdered. And is murdered. Thank God.

Brendan Gleeson walks tall amid this appalling farrago. Ben Bulben looks great. And I still miss the lovely golden retriever. But I desperately wanted to leave before the end - bored and abused. But my location thwarted me so I lingered, sighing deeply, to the silly end. And reader the audience clapped. Maybe in relief.

A Playful Provocation?

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 13 April 2014

The Books that Define Ireland
by Bryan Fanning and Tom Garvin

The definite article in this book's title is either an indicator of presumptuousness or a playful provocation. The appropriate response therefore is to scoff at the selection and to come up with a better one of your own. So let's get started. Most people seeking out books that define Ireland would probably look to literature first and supplement it with historical and political works. The authors, an historian and a political scientist, have taken the opposite tack in selecting books that they claim "have had an impact on Irish opinion." Their selection is heavy on their own disciplines and light on the literary front. The literary works they have selected we are told were "chosen for the social and political arguments they provoked". So where is O'Casey? And the absence of Joyce seems particularly perverse. His protean novel Ulysses in all its colour and garrulousness surely meets these criteria. Despite their protestations about being non-literary the authors have included Jonathan Swift, Frank O'Connor, John McGahern, and Flann O'Brien - the latter for that most literary of novels At Swim Two Birds.

Another limitation is the seemingly arbitrary decision to confine the selection to post-Reformation publications. In fact of the 31 books mentioned in the table of contents all but six are 20th Century or later. Where's Goldsmith's Deserted Village? Where's The Táin from the 12th century? Where are Diarmuid and Gráinne? Cúchulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill? Or if we accept the time constraint why not include Samuel Ferguson and Standish O'Grady's later popular versions of these Irish myths? Olivia O'Leary in a characteristically incisive and polished speech launching the book gently chided the authors for omitting such texts as these - surely formative for the Irish psyche. They are also crucial indicators of a thriving civilisation pre-dating that of our subsequent oppressors. The book was launched in the Royal Irish Academy where, ironically, many of these old Irish manuscripts are housed.

Many would be surprised to see a book by Todd Andrew's in a list of 30 books that define Ireland. I suspect that joint author Tom Garvin's family connection with Andrews rather than the intrinsic merit of Dublin Made Me prompted its inclusion. If they wanted old-IRA memoirs, Dan Breen or Ernie O'Malley would have been better choices. However it does give Garvin the opportunity to suggest the real reason for the controversial closing of the Bray-Harcourt railway line. In an unbuttoned moment Andrews told him that: "I got fed up of watching those Freemasons going in to Trinity from Foxrock at the taxpayers expense".

While applauding the inclusion of Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Great Hunger you could simultaneously bemoan the exclusion of Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger published 20 years earlier. This epic poem depicted the sexually arid lives of the priest-ridden and mother manacled farmers who worked our fecund land:

"He was suspicious in his youth as a rat near strange bread,
When girls laughed; when they screamed he knew that meant
The cry of fillies in season."

But if your stifle your quibbles about the selection and go with the flow there's plenty of enjoyment to be had from the book. Don't be put off by the academic background of the authors. This is entertainment with erudition rather than a dry and worthy tome. Its 30 self-contained chapters of about 10 pages are ideal for reading in short chunks. Each chapter gives some biographical data and a summary of the relevant book and related works. The authors have an eye for a telling quote that will encourage you to revisit many of the books mentioned. One such is Noel Browne's Against the Tide. His descriptions of the luxurious lifestyle of his namesake Cardinal Michael Browne, all champagne and hand-rolled cigarettes, and of the Labour Party leader William Norton pigging out at a state banquet, are worth the price of admission. Here's a flavour:

"Like a hungry suckling piglet, frantically probing the fat sow's belly, spoon and fork were followed by his chubby fingers and last of all his thumb, each of them lovingly and lingeringly licked dry. Fingers licked clean, he would hold a lighted scarlet and gold-labelled Havana in one sticky hand and caress his well-filled brandy glass in the other. Norton lived Larkin's 'Nothing is too good for the working classes'."

There's a strong sense of plus ca change about many of the entries. These books may or may not define Ireland but it's certain sure they didn't change anything. Fintan O'Toole's excoriating critique of Larry Goodman and beef industry is one of the best pieces of forensic investigative journalism in the history of the state. The Government's connivance in using the tax payer to rescue a flawed operation run by its supporters has obvious contemporary parallels. We seem not to have taken much heed of O'Toole's dire conclusions. And of course Nell McCafferty's Kerry babies saga uncovered a culture within the Gardai that preferred to proclaim biological miracles (twins with different fathers) rather than accept they might have been over zealous in their investigative methods.

There are many tasty morsels to be extracted from this Irish stew. Who would have known that Wolf Tone was such a good writer and such a conniving lady's man? Does this side of him get an airing amongst our prim republicans every Easter I wonder. Of his many liaisons with English ladies he prided himself on his discretion:

"Not one of those to whom I had the good fortune to render myself agreeable ever suffered the slightest blemish in her reputation on my account."

The book was planned and developed over copious pints of Guinness (according to one of the authors) and I'm sure they had great fun arriving at their conclusions. Their enthusiasm for the selected texts is infectious and you'll leave their company well entertained and better informed.

274 pp

John P. O'Sullivan

Charles Tyrrell - A Dance Within a Structure

Charles Tyrrell in His Allihies Studio

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 13 April 2014

"I like to think of Charlie Tyrrell manning the fort in wild Allihies." William Crozier

Perched high on Cod's Head, a couple of hard miles north of Allihies on the Beara Peninsula, is the house and studio of the artist Charles Tyrrell. While hardly a household name, Tyrrell is considered by many critics, and tellingly by many of his fellow painters, to be our greatest living artist. It's a delicious irony that such a rigorously abstract painter lives in one of the most scenic locations in the entire country. Like Ulysses strapped to the mast, Tyrrell has designed his studio so that light enters only through two large north-facing roof windows. He won't be seduced by the siren calls of the stunning scenery that surrounds him. While he enjoys the view, his art is aiming for something deeper than the merely scenic: "the slow forces of nature interest me", those tectonic shifts at work beneath the painted veil of appearance.

Born in Trim, County Meath in 1950, Tyrrell studied at NCAD from 1969 to 1974. This was a period of student unrest and artistic ferment. Tyrrell reacted against the stale figurative tradition that still lingered and went his own abstract way, much influenced initially by minimalist Morris Louis and more lingeringly by the abstract expressionists Mark Rothko and William de Kooning. While working in the US during the summer he saw a lot of their work in the flesh. The chutzpah of these new movements liberated him from the conservatism back home and the examples of Pollock's dripping and Louis's pouring techniques freed him from the easel. "I jumped across the Atlantic in my thinking". He met with some resistance for his stance at NCAD but when it came to his final assessment he was lucky enough to find that his external examiners were William Scott and Patrick Scott - both pioneers of abstraction in this country. The distinction he achieved, he feels, may not have happened otherwise.

That his talent was acknowledged early is indicated by his acceptance into the prestigious Living Art Exhibition in 1972, while still a student. This early recognition was confirmed when he was offered his first solo show in the Project Arts Centre in 1974. The show was opened by the Dublin-based American artist Charlie Brady and his subsequent friendship with Brady introduced the fledgling artist into the contemporary art scene. Gerald Dillon visited the show and soon Tyrrell was joining him and Arthur Armstrong for drinking sessions in Ranelagh. He speaks very warmly of Gerry (as he calls Dillon) and he visited him in hospital a number of times during his final illness. He recalls getting ten shillings from him and he inherited Dillon's hand stitched hat - a keepsake that he clearly values.

Another important visitor to his first Project show was Dorothy Walker - the dominant voice in Irish art discourse at a time and a woman with powerful institutional connections. Walker began to champion his work and it became de rigeur to have a Tyrrell in your collection. He moved into a studio in Mountjoy Square (care-taking a draughty old Georgian Building) and got a part-time job in Dun Laoghaire College of Art. He was taken on by Taylor Galleries in the late 70s - further confirmation that he had arrived.

The Eighties brought great changes in his life. He married Sandy, a student of his in Dun Laoghaire, in 1980. The following year he was selected as one of the founding members of Aosdána. His first child was born and the bohemian life in Mountjoy Square no longer seemed the ideal. The artist Danny Osborne (best known for the Wilde statue in Merrion Square) invited him to visit his Allihies home a few times and during one of the visits Tyrrell came upon the ruin of a stone cottage on Cod's Head. Encouraged by the income provided by the Aosdána Cnuas he decided that West Cork was a better place to raise a family than a decrepit house on Mountjoy Square. The ultimate decision was mainly "to do with finance". In 1984 he made the elemental move and has been there ever since. Looking back he feels it was the right decision: "it set me adrift, it was probably a good thing".

Don't ask Tyrrell to explain his painting. He's as doctrinaire as Lucian Freud in this area. "I don't claim to have any deep philosophical notions". He sees the images as distinct entities in themselves rather then representing some theme or statement. "I don't think art should be a primal scream." As William Crozier said of him: "There is no arcane reference, no symbolism, no bravado, no schmalz, no overt display of emotion." He strongly asserts the primacy of the individual's encounter with the work and will do nothing to encroach on this. "I want a certain ambiguity there which allows the user room to manoeuvre and make a connection which is meaningful for himself. The painting really only starts when somebody else approaches it."

At a public discussion in the RHA a couple of years ago Tyrrell coined the perfect oxymoron, telling us he had "a passion for grey" - influenced by "the grey of West Cork in November" (not to mention perhaps the mass of grey rock on which his studio is situated). He is adamant however that he is not a landscape painter. He "leaves the door open to landscape" but he doesn't welcome it in. Looking back at his earlier Borderland paintings he felt that maybe they "engaged a little bit more actively with the landscape". He saw this as a danger and despite their commercial success decided: "I quickly had to get out of it". The nearest you are going to get to an admission of anything personal in his work is his concession that his birthplace may have provided inspiration. "The use of definite edges, divisions and boundaries became a constant in my visual language over the years. Trim Castle and its keep is a form well etched in my image bank. Its footprint is a square with square wings." So perched on the edge of Europe, manning the fort at wild Allihies, he is nourished by childhood intimations of another fortress.

His current show at Taylor Galleries consists of 30 works on aluminium - mostly around 50 cms square. These seem to be looser and more painterly than much of his work over the past 20 years. They were painted in a "ludicrously" short period of time. "I have never done anything as intense as this". The grids are again in evidence, and grey predominates, accompanied by the familiar black rectangles, but the curved lines and unexpected splashes of colour, while hardly suggesting gay abandon, do seem more playful. Also faint ghostly traces of colour wiped away linger on the ground aluminium. The artist sees this work as "more giving and less austere" than much of his earlier painting. He also speaks of the importance of "absolute finish", getting it right. You can see this is his perfectly honed images. Take a painting off the wall and look at the back of it and you will find that the finish there is equally immaculate.

Tyrrell has always allowed the element of happy accident play a part in his painting. Like Bacon he hopes "chance will work in his favour". He starts out with a minimalist foundation such as a grid and is happy to follow the twists and turns of his encounter with the paint . He refers to his painting as "a dance within a structure". He rarely uses brushes. He just "ploughs on the paint" and then scrapes it off with Japanese spatulas. Splashing, scraping, and wiping he uncovers his images. His aim is for the image to "come together in a coherent and powerful way'. If it doesn't work out he wipes it off and starts again.

Tyrrell is 64 this year. It is 40 years since his first solo show at the Project and this robust character shows no signs of slowing down. He is eager to get back into the studio to keep the momentum going after his latest intensive creative spell. He lives alone these days but is no anchorite. He likes a pint, is warmly embedded in the local community, and enjoys his occasional trips to Dublin. He sings the praises of his local Internet providers who give him access to his dispersed family and the wider world. Tyrrell is a friendly and humorous conversationalist and talks about his work in a trenchant way that is devoid of soulful preciousness. You do sense however, beneath the amiable exterior, an iron resolve and dedication to his art. He feels the responsibility of being part of a continuum stretching back to his beloved Titian and beyond. He is currently reading The Sea by John Banville. He made the revealing comment that "there was too much Banville in the work". His quest has a loftier goal. Steering carefully between the Scylla of landscape and the Charybdis of emotion he aspires to achieve intense and timeless images that transcend their creator. Go and see.

John P. O'Sullivan