Tuesday, July 28, 2015

He'll Be on the Fiddle, I'll be on the Brush

This profile appeared in an edited form in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 26 July 2015


Mick O'Dea, a founding member of the Independent Artists group, caused consternation amongst his fellow contrarians when he accepted the offer of membership of the RHA in 1993. "Nobody had ever elected me to anything before so I said why not." His friends were horrified: "It was the equivalent of someone taking the king's coin in their eyes or a doctrinaire Republican becoming a Free Stater." A hint there of another volte face by another man associated with East Clare. O'Dea has no qualms about his defection. He describes the current RHA "as being an amalgam of the Living Art, the Independent Artists, with a touch of the old Oireachtas" and believes it has absorbed the diversity promoted by those organisations. This seems a valid assertion when you consider the range of exhibits and styles in the recent annual shows, although traces of the old academy still linger in those leaden formal portraits and in the occasional bouts of incest where academicians paint each other. O'Dea's recent elevation to the presidency of the RHA follows 30 years of energetic engagement with the Irish art scene both as artist and teacher.

Born in Ennis, O'Dea inherited a work-ethic from his parents who from modest origins built up a business encompassing a pub, a grocery shop and a farm. An influential art teacher, Jim Hennessy, at St. Flannan's College pointed him in the direction of NCAD. He chose to avoid the more obvious choice of Limerick College of Art as he knew that being so close to home would entail pub duty at weekends. "I wanted to get as far away from Ennis as I could." Following graduation at NCAD he immediately began teaching night classes there and took part time work elsewhere including King's Hospital and St. Edmundsbury Hospital - the mental health facility. He was involved with Brian Maguire and Theresa McKenna in setting up and teaching the Art in Prison programme and for a period taught art to both the Provisionals and the INLA in Portlaoise. He also taught at Dun Laoghaire College of Art for five years. All the while O'Dea was painting and honing his talent but was biding his time. "All my work in education ensured that I wasn't dependent on the art market and could develop my voice as an artist free from commercial pressure". But he was determined not to turn into a full-time teacher by succumbing to the siren call of the pension. He was given the perfect opportunity when he was elected to Aosdana. The resultant Cnuas cut him loose and in 1999 he gave up teaching and became a full-time artist.

This has been his life since that date. It hasn't always been easy. "For me the boom time wasn't a particularly good time. My main way of surviving has been portrait commissions." This uneasy survival is reflected in the number of galleries he has been associated with. After leaving NCAD he was keen to show at the Lincoln Gallery where fellow Independent Artists gathered. However after a few group shows he wasn't offered any further encouragement and through the efforts of Charlie Brady he got his first solo show in Taylor Galleries in 1983. It was very successful: "Dr. John Cooney came in and he bought a swathe of them. I took it for granted. This is what happens." The exhibition consisted of landscapes and rural scenes including cattle. His parents had always been supportive of his career choice but this success particularly resonated with his father. "When he thought of the time and effort he had to put in getting a bullock ready for market and compared it to the money I made from a painting of one he decided there must be something in this game." But disillusion was to follow this auspicious start as subsequent shows attracted scant attention and he decided to change galleries when Taylor Galleries was slow to schedule a new show. He moved on to the Rubicon for a period and following his election to the RHA he began to show at that venue. He also found a sympathetic home at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery and has been showing with him for the past 14 years - culminating in his striking trilogy of exhibitions dealing with the aftermath of the 1916 Rising: Black and Tan, Trouble, and The Split.

One of the reasons for O'Dea's erratic relationship with commercial success may be his insistence on trying new things. Many successful artists, in Ireland and elsewhere, have a signature style so that when you buy a piece its recognisable as being by that specific artist. Everyone, for example, recognises a Felim Egan. With O'Dea it's not so easy. You might get get toy soldiers, confrontational nudes, portraits, historical tableaux, landscapes and even cardboard sculptures. "My model was always Picasso" he says in explanation of this eclectic approach. "I liked the way that after Cubism he moved on to neo-classicism." Despite O'Dea's cleaving to the academy his artistic influences are from further afield. While his work is figurative he doesn't look to Orpen or to Keating but rather to German Expressionism - especially Kokoschka, Auerbach, and Schiele. The first-named perhaps predominates as an influence but Édaín, an expressive and sexually frank series of nudes he did in 1998, is positively Schielesque. By way of contrast he has a fine portrait of Brian Friel in the National Gallery.

A recurring feature of the Irish art landscape is the bitter chorus of disaffected artists whose work has failed to make it into the annual RHA show. O'Dea is very open about the matter. "It's very difficult to get in." This year there were 2,600 works submitted and only around 14% got through. These made up around 60% of the show. The other 40% is made up of work by the academicians and selected artists. The latter group is selected by the council that oversees the annual show. One of the benefits of having selected artists is that they tend to submit larger works knowing that they will be accepted. "otherwise the show would look like a stamp collection". O'Dea sees the occasional rejection entailed by the process as being part and parcel of an artist's lot. He points to his own experience with the Royal Ulster Academy (RUA). "In 2011 I was an invited artist. In 2012 I was an adjudicator. In 2013 I won the RUA Portrait Prize. In 2014 I was rejected. In 2015 I will submit again." A lesson there for all artists.

O'Dea's no nonsense approach to art is refreshing. He brings a rural authenticity into an area where urban preciousness often thrives. His impending gig at the Kilkenny Arts Festival is an exercise in demystification. It is also an indication of someone who is comfortable in his own skin and confident in his craft. For two weeks he will attend various events (concerts, plays etc.) and set up an easel to record the performers during the shows. "I'll be an embedded reporter using drawing as a media." The day after the performance he will select a participant for a more detailed painting in the studio he has set up in James Stephens Barracks. The studio will be open to the public for one and a half hours each afternoon from 9-16 August. He has already lined up Garry Hynes and Dearbhla Molloy for these sessions. He also hopes to enlist his cousin the fiddle player Martin Hayes who's performing at the Festival. "He'll be on the fiddle and I'll be on the brush." His finished portraits and sketches will be on display in a range of venues around the city.

Seeing O'Dea looking healthy and energetic in his RHA studio it's difficulty to imagine that it's just over a year since the horrific accident that nearly killed him. A pedestrian absorbed on his mobile phone walked out in front of his bike on O'Connell Street. O'Dea slammed on his newly serviced brakes and was sent somersaulting over the handlebars. He landed on his back and ruptured his spleen. Only the proximity of the Mater Hospital and some quick thinking fellow cyclists saved his life as he had suffered a massive internal bleed. Apart from having to take care of himself a bit more (" I mind the drink and take a small daily dose of antibiotics") there are no long-term effects. "I feel that I've had another chance in life." He had no hesitation in taking on the demanding role of President less than nine months later. "I feel that it's a very worthy endeavour". He sees the RHA as "a strong, robust institution run for artists that is trying to get the best artists as members." This is not always possible. When I queried the omission of certain artists from the roster of members he responded that: "Being elected to the RHA is not just an honour like being made a member of Aosdana. Now that you've been elected you must roll up your sleeves." Participation in the activities of the RHA is "an absolute requirement." This doesn't suit certain artists. O'Dea himself set a sterling example by becoming the first Principal of the revived RHA School in 2006. He is determined to make things happen during his term in office. In addition to engaging with a younger generation of Irish entrepreneurs to help reduce the RHA's considerable loan burden, he is keen to expand the programme of events in the building in Ely Place by developing the extensive basement area. He also sees his role as someone who will raise the profile of art in Ireland where he feels it lags behind other art forms through media neglect. He bemoans the absence of a supportive figure like Mike Murphy. "Within the popular media there's a general dumbing down and an omission of the visual arts - a lot of it has to do with the presenters and their priorities. We don't have a BBC4 to counteract this. There's no visual arts on the Saturday shows." He would like to see artists like Imogen Stuart contribute to the national debate. "She has a lot to say." So has this hard-working son of County Clare whose robust stewardship at the RHA should help raise the voice of Irish art and claim back some of the territory ceded to the more aggressively marketed arts.



Tuesday, July 21, 2015

George Campbell and the Belfast Boys

This piece was originally published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 12 July 2015.

George Campbell has been a slightly neglected figure in Irish art. Rebuffs from establishment critics, rows with influential dealers, and snootiness about his self-taught origins all played a part. The Spanish thought enough of him to make him a Knight Commander of Spain and named a roundabout after him in Malaga. Adam's popular Summer Loan show series, now in its sixth year, provides the public with an opportunity to view little-seen seen work from Campbell and his Belfast friends Gerard Dillon, Dan O'Neill and Arthur Armstrong. The show is curated by Karen Reihill, who also wrote the illuminating and copiously illustrated catalogue essay. Campbell lived six months of the year in Spain for much of the second half of his life and the paintings reflect his dual locations with scenes from Ireland vying with his more colourful Spanish output. Contrast Bullfight with the chilly Howth Harbour. Studies of musicians abound reflecting Campbell's live-long interest in music. We also see some rare work from the Troubles featuring gas masks and riot shields. While Campbell dominates the show, there's an abundance of riches elsewhere: Connemara Dream a late Gerard Dillon, Girl from the North by Dan O'Neill and Arthur Armstrong's Little Girl with Pram. In addition to the paintings there's a host of fascinating letters and photographs of the protagonists and their circle of friends.


Dublin 2.



Tom Climent - Season Map

This piece was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 5 July 2015

The Liss Ard Estate is well worth a visit if you find yourself in the Skibbereen area. The glorious gardens boast James Turrell's Sky Garden, arguably the most spectacular piece of public art in the country. This summer there's an additional reason for art lovers to call - a large and impressive exhibition by Tom Climent. He's yet another Cork artist whose work is inclined to blush unseen due to the closure in recent years of Cork's two commercial galleries - the Fenton and the Vangard. His initial momentum through a much vaunted graduate show, followed by various awards including the Victor Treacy and Tony O'Malley prizes, and a number of successful solo shows has slowed down somewhat. This exhibition should help propel him back to where he belongs in the front ranks of Irish artists. The bright and airy spaces of the beautiful Georgian building are an ideal setting for this most painterly of painters. The shapes and structures in his paintings are the stages on which his sensual colours dance. Is that a house? Is that a hexagon? They are the means to an end, and the end is all about colour. Gorge your eyes on paintings such as Groundwater and Mantle where luxuriant purples, greens and blues disport themselves around their ectoplasmic scaffolding.

Liss Ard Estate


Mon-Sun: 9am-9pm

Tel: 028 40000



Saturday, July 18, 2015

Peg Plunket: Memoirs of an Irish Whore by Julie Peakman

This review appeared in an edited form in the Sunday Times on the 5 July 2015.

This book has a dirty little secret. It contains not a scrap of titillation. The most radical perversion recounted involves a little mild toe play: "His unspeakable pleasure was picking, washing, and cleaning my pretty little toes." Even the brutal rape that occurs late in the book is covered by the discreet phrase "we were forced to comply with their infamous desires." This will come as a disappointment to those expecting an Irish Fanny Hill or to those who have read Peakman's previous book A History of Sexual Perversion. It's hardly Peakman's fault as she's dealing with a set of memoirs in which the writer claims "I am careful not to pen a single line that can excite a blush in the most refined cheek". Notwithstanding the dearth of dirt, this is a mildly entertaining account of the life of a charismatic and resourceful woman and of the quaint mores of a bygone era.

The book is based on the Memoirs of Mrs. Margaret Leeson written in 1798. Margaret (Peg) Plunkett was born in Delvin, County Westmeath some time around 1742 - the date is disputed by historians. Peg subsequently adopted the name Leeson from one of her early protectors. Her father Matthew Plunkett "possessed a very handsome property near Corbetstown". The memoirs were written late in her life and were an attempt both to raise money and to frighten her debtors into paying up lest they feature in her book. The original memoirs are wildly unreliable and relentlessly self-serving but they nonetheless provide a fascinating glimpse of life in 18th Century Dublin.

Peg was a high-spirited often wilful girl and her comfortable middle-class life came to an abrupt end when her father gave control of his properties to her violent and domineering older brother. After a series of savage beatings Peg decamped with a Mr. Dardis who promised to marry her - the sine qua non for sleeping with respectable girls in those days. However the sex happened but not the marriage and a disgraced Peg was ostracised by her family and headed for starvation. She decided that the solution to her problems lay in profitable compliance to men's desire. "I vowed to yield myself to the first agreeable and profitable offer that is made to me". She asks of those who might judge her: "Were you ever at the point of starvation?"

There followed a sequence of lovers and protectors who would shower her with gifts and house her in splendour. These included Thomas Caulfeild, Mr. Lawless, Mr. Leeson, and the Reverend Lambert. Keeping Peg was clearly an expensive business and she revelled in it: "Champagne is a wine I never loved but only as it was dear, and I liked to put those who treated me to as much expense as I could."

But Peg was torn between her desire for security and her adventurous spirit and was forever spiting the hand that fed her. She produced nine children by various lovers but they get scant mention and most appear to have died prematurely - one from shock after an assault on her house and another from an "inward complaint." Lawless was perhaps the great love of her life and when he fled to America to escape his debts, Peg's heart hardened and she decided to make a business out of what initially had been a way of ensuring a comfortable passage through life. "In short I was to become a compleat Coquet." Later on she leased a house on Drogheda Street with her friend Sally Hayes and it soon became the place of low resort for fashionable Dublin. Peg suffered no shame about her business. She regularly took her entourage of trollops to the theatre as a way of advertising their charms.

It seems men went a whoring as a matter of routine in those days. Her admirers included the Duke of Rutland, who was Lord Lieutenant at the time. He parked a troop of armed and mounted soldiers outside while her house while he and his friends indulged in a 16-hour revel. The Duke's notorious appetite for claret eventually caught up on him and this heroic bon viveur died from liver disease in his Phoenix Park Lodge at the age of 33.

Peg alas also came to a rather sticky end. While returning home one night she and a companion were set upon by a gang of ruffians and were robbed and raped. This assault resulted in a serious venereal infection, probably syphilis, and she died in abject poverty not long after. An attempt at a cure using mercury probably hastened her demise. She was working on her memoirs right to the very end and the last entry reads poignantly: "good heavens my fingers refuse to do their office".

The sub-title of the book, Memoirs of an Irish Whore is misleading. These are not the first person memoirs of Peg but rather a very loose biography written in the third person. It's still an interesting story but it lacks the true voice of this extraordinary woman. It's a kind of Peg for Dummies. The best bits are the occasional extracts from the original memoirs. Also, Irish readers may find the potted Irish history a bit tedious. If you want to encounter the authentic voice of Peg you will be better served by the 1995 Lilliput Press version of the memoirs edited by Mary Lyons. Or better still visit the manuscripts room of the NLI and experience the real thing.


240 pp


Monday, July 06, 2015

Don Cronin - Oblique Revisions

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 28 June 2015.

Don Cronin's public sculpture is probably familiar to anyone who travels regularly around the southern half of the country. There's his personable bull on the way into Macroom, Billy the Blacksmith outside Innishannon, and Gyrators, an abstract piece near Midleton - to name but a few. However, to catch this artist at his best you need to view his gallery work - free from the compromises often involved in public commissions. It's surprising that he's had to wait so long for his first solo show in Dublin and the Artistic Alliance is to be commended for bringing him to Bonham's. His immaculately finished abstract pieces hint at Constructivism and its disciples such as David Smith and the influential Tipperary-born sculptor John Burke. But Cronin occasionally adds a twist to the smooth amalgam of geometries that is Constructivism by inserting a slightly contrary organic note in the midst of the machined perfection. His materials include bronze, stainless steel, and aluminium. There's also a problematical experiment in polyester resin. But overall the show demonstrates an accomplished artist at the height of his creative powers. Two pieces stand out, After Bonneville in stainless steel and Stack (above) in aluminium. This work has the drama and radiance of fully realised art.

John P. O'Sullivan