|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
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