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 ├ętranger 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