Thursday, October 05, 2017

Martin Dillon - Crossing the Line


  An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 1 October 2017.   

“Of all the British politicians I met, Sir Edward Heath was the most arrogant and obnoxious”.  So Martin Dillon tells us in his entertaining and illuminating memoir. When Dillon tried to break the ice before an interview by complimenting him on his art collection, Heath’s response was “what would you know about art?”  Dillon’s book is replete with colourful stories like this involving the politicians, terrorists, journalists, artists and writers he met when covering the conflict in Northern Ireland.  Readers of this book, and of Dillon’s other works, will concur with Conor Cruise O’Brien’s description of him as “our Virgil to that inferno”.

 Dillon made his name the hard way reporting on Northern Ireland  from both sides of the political divide. It’s a credit to his impartiality that both the IRA and the Loyalist gangs were out to get him. Such has been his prowess at uncovering unpalatable truths that he has been forced to move first to France and then to the USA where he now lives. He’s had a gun stuck in his mouth by John Bingham, a UVF commander; and was warned “if you cross me I’ll kill you” by Brendan Hughes of the IRA . Apart from his reportage from the front lines, he has written a number of books on the Northern troubles including The Shankill Butchers, a chilling account of the psychopath Lenny Murphy and his henchmen. Following the publication of his latest book I suspect that he has added to his list of enemies. BBC management, British Intelligence and certain members of his own family are all on the receiving end of Dillon’s articulate indignation.

 The first 70 pages or so deal with his upbringing on the Falls Road and the colourful cast of characters that constituted his extended family. He remarks more than once on the fact that three grand-uncles and a grand-aunt from the same family were gay. Not an easy thing to be in 50s Belfast and still not easy for some living relatives. One of these grand-uncles was the artist Gerard Dillon whom the author speaks of in the most sympathetic and affectionate terms. When Gerard Dillon died he left extensive diaries which were destroyed (perhaps by his sister Molly) and an archive which somehow disappeared after Dillon’s own father died. Not all the family were happy to have their homosexual members outed. He singles out the executors of his father’s will and his late great-aunt Molly for particular opprobrium.  He is also bitter about the acquisition of a treasure trove of Gerard Dillon’s paintings by the gallerist and dealer Leo Smith. The history of Irish art could do with an extended version of his story about how Smith with the connivance of James White (who valued the paintings) acquired these works for a pittance. The missing diaries and the elegant fraud perpetrated in valuing Gerard Dillon’s paintings still rankle with Dillon. 

 The latter two thirds of the book cover his time with the Irish News, the Belfast Telegraph, and especially the BBC. He hit the streets meeting terrorists, policemen, and intelligence agents, making his reports more authoritative than many of his desk-bound colleagues. He got to know most of the main players in the North including John Hume, whom he admired for his courage in initiating a  dialogue with the IRA, and Roy Bradford, the Unionist politician, who was best-man at one of his weddings.   His time at the BBC was full of incident. He criticises its reporting of the first Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974 when he felt the corporation was too reliant on press releases from the protagonists. Later on he was unhappy with its readiness to accept the British Government party line. He also gives us plenty of detail to support the widespread belief that the British were facilitating the activities of Loyalist terrorist squads and shines a light into the murky world of double-agents such as Freddie Scappaticci.

 One curious feature of the memoir is the fractured relationship with his twin Damian. You sense the  lingering guilt at somehow leaving him behind – literally in the case of his three-year period in a seminary.  “I also felt I betrayed my twin because we had been inseparable”. They lost touch completely for many years and their relationship was never rekindled. When they met after a 15-year gap, Damian, according to Dillon, pretended not to recognise him. Elsewhere he’s giving little away. His three marriages are covered in a few laconic sentences: “I subsequently divorced Mildred and married Catherine”.

 There’s much light relief away from the grimness of the Northern conflict. His story about Oxford, the stray cat he adopted will endear him to all pet lovers. He also enjoyed the company of many literary figures. He has an amusing account of a few days spent in the company of a hard-drinking Ben Kiely (above) and he also recounts an amiable meeting in Dublin with Denis Johnston and Sean O’Faolain. One writer who didn’t impress him was the recently deceased J. P. Donleavy. He recalled a visit to the writer’s home, Levington Park,  with Gavin Essler where it was clear the writer was unenthusiastic about their presence. “He was not obviously rude but he was overbearing”. Dillon’s book is so enjoyable that we’ll forgive him, but not his editors, for the odd typo such as: “deprived” for “depraved”, “ and for that tiresome use of “ironically” when it should be “coincidentally”.          

Merrion Press

 RRP: €18.99

 John P. O’Sullivan              

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Fascinating Arc Today


If you were to believe the bookies then Enable (above) is very likely to win the Arc today. She did me a big favour in the Oaks and then won the Irish Oaks and the King George in great style. We all like to see a great horse confirm its greatness and if she wins today she’ll be up there with Noblesse, Sweet Solera, Oh So Sharp and Treve. However, she’s a filly and they don’t have a great record in the rough and tumble of the Arc – plus she isn’t value for money at 11-10. I decided last week that Aidan O'Brien's Order of St. George at 10-1 was the value in the race. He was third last year, is a stayer on a tough course, and was hugely impressive last time out. But I’m taken aback by the fact that Ryan Moore (O’Brien’s stable jockey) has chosen to ride Winter instead of his stable companion. Winter has been racing mainly over a mile and occasionally 10 furlongs so it’s hard to see how she can be guaranteed to stay 12 furlongs on a tough course. Why Ryan why? Then there’s O’Brien’s other runner Capri who won the St. Leger in doughty fashion and who will certainly be staying on along with Order of St. George. He’s probably even better value at 22-1 and should be placed. The French runners are largely being ignored but I like the Prix Foy as a prep race and the first two in that Dschingis Secret and Cloth of Stars are available a fancy prices. The latter is trained by Andre Fabre who’s won the Arc seven times so I’d risk a saver on him at 28-1. But you know if Enable does win I won’t be surprised or disappointed. It’s a race for racing lovers to sit back and relish whatever the financial consequences.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Candidate


The first time I met John O’Mahony was in the autumn of 1970. I was sitting at a table in the Rest in UCC surrounded by my cronies. I was in Second Year and an established figure amongst the arty set, being involved in both the Dramat (the studen drama society) and  Aire, the student magazine. I had also been selected for the UCC tennis team that year. A made man in our little world. Our table was approached by this slightly agricultural figure in a black duffle-coat with a shock of dark dishevelled hair and a ruddy complexion.  I had never seen him before. “Are you Johnny Sullivan?” he asked me directly. “I am” I conceded, wondering what does uncouth fellow could want of me. “Didn’t you do English and Philosophy last year?” he continued. I agreed that was so. “Can I have your first year notes?”  the young pup had  the temerity to ask. I was so taken aback at the brazenness that I meekly agreed and arranged to meet up with him the next day.

 Thus began my relationship with John O’Mahony who died full of life earlier this year in New York. That opening encounter captured one of John’s abiding characteristics – the ability not to pussy foot about but go directly for  what he wanted. This had its down sides of course, especially where women were concerned, but it took him to many places a politer person would not have reached. In Cork, that most acidulous town, he quickly came to be called The Candidate – after the 1970 film of the same name about an upwardly mobile politician. To this day old acquaintances from Cork refer to him thus.

 He too got involved in the arts scene in UCC and we frequently coincided at theatrical events and the associated social occasions. We both liked drinking and carousing. He managed to alienate himself from the affections of many of his peers at UCC when he decided to piss in the corner of a mutual friend’s living room during a party. It wasn’t so much the pissing she resented as the fact that he splashed a couple of other attendees sitting nearby. Occasionally we may even have had a girl-friend or two in common but we studiously avoided getting into any discussions about that. We were always friends but never very close friends. I knew little about his background except that he was an only child from Bantry and that his mother had died when he was in his early teens.

 Our last UCC involvement came when we both happened to do the Higher Diploma in Education a few years after graduating. We decided that it would be wise to go after an honours diploma with the associated salary boost it gave teachers. To this end we collaborated in studying separate sections of the course and exchanging notes. It worked well and we both got honours but alas neither of us ever made use of this qualification. After UCC we drifted apart. I was on my travels with the oil-rigs and he was working as an arts officer mostly around Cork. 

 After I became tired of risking my life on  drilling platforms  I ran for cover with a software company in Dublin which was looking for technical English teachers to give introduction to computers classes for students from Sweden and Saudi Arabia. It was 1979 and It provided a timely introduction for me into the world of IT.  I flourished there for five years or so. John was going through a period of unemployment and I managed to fix him up with a job there as well. However, it only lasted a few months. We had an office close to Pearse Street Garda Station and would frequently head over to Bowe’s for a pint or two after work. And occasionally during work. John did like a pint in those days and one lunch time he drank not wisely but too well. His afternoon class of Saudi students took umbrage at the state of him (each class had an official representative) and complained to our manager – a woman with a highly-defined commercial streak. Notwithstanding the fact that it was a week before Christmas he was sacked on the spot. No ASTI for him – not even a second chance.

We went our separate ways for a number of years then. I was working abroad while John remained in Dublin where he had some loose association with the Windmill Lane Studios. There was an infamous incident around that time that may have hastened his ultimate departure to the USA. He managed to engineer his girl-friend at the time into a secretarial position at Windmill Lane. She was a pretty girl with a roving eye. This roving eye landed on a singer called Terence Trent D’Arby – a bit of a star at the time and a singularly good-looking lad. She ditched John and took up with the glamorous Terence. John was incensed by this ingratitude and on encountering her in a Dublin night-club he gave her a slap. He was very drunk at the time but this unforgivable behaviour burnt all bridges to the local arts and music scene. So our bould hero hied himself off to New York. 

 He started life with the Irish Echo in New York but soon graduated (if that’s the word) to  the New York Post where he thrived. I visited New York a lot I those days and we’d hook up. His journalist credentials got us into places like the Soho Tavern and other fashionable spots. However he preferred the sleazier side of town. Billy’s Topless, Hogs and Heifer’s and that fine old Bowery bar Milano’s were our favourite haunts. John was always a bit erratic when he drank – especially when he started on the shots. A contrary, insinuating side could emerge. I remember the waitresses in Hogs and Heifers having him kicked out for excessive lip one night. He also committed the awful social solecism of hitting on one of the strippers in Billy’s Topless. Having plied her with dollar bills during her act he followed her over to the bar during the break and tried to get her to go on a date with him. The woman, a professional rebuffer was having none of it but discouraged him gently. God loves a trier.

 Then out of the blue he married an extraordinarily fat girl who was a colleague on the New York Post. This eventually turned out not to have been a good move. However there was a fine wedding in New York culminating in a pipe band from the NYPD escorting them down 5th Avenue. His wife was from California and after an abortive pub venture in upstate New York they headed west to Venice, CA – where they bought property a few minutes from Venice Beach. Things rested so for a number of years. The fat girl slimmed down and set about getting tattoos all over her new body. John was now working for the Bloomberg organisation and getting along fine. A few years ago it all fell apart. The wife fell in love with her tattoo artist and left him – there was some nasty financial fallout  from all this but over time they seem to have arrived at an amiable settlement. John however was never really a Californian so he headed back tout suit to his beloved New York – where he still had his nice rent-controlled apartment.

 Over the years he had health problems. He underwent a major heart bypass operation in the mid-80s. This left with a long scar from neck to navel but otherwise he recovered well and was soon back carousing. Then two years ago he called me for advice about the prostate cancer he had just been diagnosed with. A friend of mine and my brother-in-law had both been similarly afflicted but had come through the operation and resumed their lives in reasonable nick. I hooked him up with both of them and this gave him the data on which to make a decision. Prostate operations frequently offer you the Hobson’s choice of compromised waterworks or compromised erectile function. Being John, he took himself off to Thailand for a month to indulge his carnal side before his ability to do so was impaired. He returned from Thailand and had the operation which was reasonable successful.

 We communicated regularly over Skype for the past few years and we had dinner in Dublin twice in 2016, and went to see Juno and the Paycock. He also sent me a script he'd written for a super hero saga he hoped to have accepted for a pilot TV show. It's not my genre but it seemed pretty good to me and I sent him back some positive comments. My last contact with him was in early December 2016 when he had returned from a very lively holiday in Mexico. He included a YouTube link to demonstrate the carousing he had indulged in down there. Early in the New Year he had a fatal heart attack during a morning yoga class in New York and died surrounded by a crowd of sympathetic women in leotards. A somehow fitting end.      

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Brendan Earley - Back of Beyond

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times culture magazine on 27 August 2017

Brendan Earley operates in the rarified world of art fairs (Art Basel Hong Kong, NADA Miami) with occasional appearances in Irish museums and at Mother’s Tankstation - the mothership for his international ventures. Given the avant-garde nature of much of the work you encounter in this milieu you could be forgiven for wondering if this exhibition is a post-modern exercise in thwarting conventional expectations. The Douglas Hyde web site tells us the show runs from 28 July to 30 September and that it can be viewed in Gallery 2 and the Freeman Library. Visiting it on 21 August I was informed that the Freeman Library was closed until 4 September. Also, the exhibition is promoted with a photograph of Earley’s entitled Back of Beyond which doesn’t feature in the eponymous show. Apart from River Return that lurked unseen in the locked library, the show consists of four minimal drawings on paper of Sixties musicians in sylvan settings and a larger installation using ink on silk. The latter featured Gay and Terry Woods posed appositely amongst the trees beneath a purple parasol. Strangely strange.

Douglas Hyde Gallery
John P. O'Sullivan

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review of Valiant Gentlemen by Sabina Murray

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine 0n 20 August 2017.

The tragic trajectory of Roger Casement’s life – from humanitarian hero to death on the gallows –  continues to engage historians and novelists. Following Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2012 novel The Dream of the Celt that focused on Casement’s last days in Pentonville Prison, Sabina Murray brings us a more rounded portrait of this intriguing character. Her entertaining and historically persuasive novel blends the personal with the political through his relationships with two friends: Herbert Ward (in photo on left with Casement) and Sarita Sanford-Ward, and a host of contemporary characters. Ward was a famous explorer, writer and sculptor who travelled in the Congo with Casement and became a close friend. Sarita was an Argentinian-American heiress who married Ward and who welcomed Casement into their extended family. 

Murray’s novel borrows and tellingly makes plural the title of Sarita’s 1927 biography of her husband:  Herbert Ward: A Valiant Gentleman. Casement’s unspoken love for Ward is a recurring motif. Only occasionally is it made explicit: “Ward leaned right against Casement’s chest and Casement feels that hope – a mistaken drunken hope – flickering in his heart”. Their friendship was so strong that Ward named one of his sons after him – only to change it by deed poll when Casement was disgraced. Their gradual growing apart began when Casement’s interest in colonial abuse shifted from Africa and the Amazon to Ireland and the final break occurred when Ward heard of Casement’s recruiting activities in Germany.

Murray has stated that “historical fiction distinguishes itself by occupying a culture rendered alien to the reader through passage of time”. Her novel certain fulfils this prescription in transporting us back to the multiple milieus in which Casement and his friends operated. We follow their exploits from the Congo, to New York, London, Cape Town, Paris, Putumayo, Berlin, and there’s even an interlude on Inishmaan where Casement enjoys a pint. Murray displays a deft touch in managing harmoniously these abrupt shifts in locale and time. We are never confused as to where we are and with whom. This is a human all to human Casement. He’s Roddie to his friends (as he was in real life) and we follow the mundanities of his daily round, his eating and drinking habits (he likes a gin and tonic) as well as his excursions to Turkish baths and his adventures in New York bars. 

Murray, like Llosa before her, and most historians, clearly accepts that the Black Diaries were genuine. This is a debate that is still running however and as recently as 2012 the historian Angus Mitchell maintained that they were the result of a carefully managed smear campaign by British intelligence. Whether forgeries or not their judicious leaking had the desired effect. It assured in the short term that petitions for mercy could be ignored and in the long term it was designed to tarnish the legacy of a dedicated enemy of colonialism. The Daily Express of the day referred to him as a “pathic” and a  “moral degenerate”. Murray takes a benign view of all this with the sexual interludes depicted as victimless aspects of daily life. This attitude is confirmed by her employment of the quaint contemporary term “musical” as a synonym for gay.

While the three main characters dominate the action Murray draws in a multitude of historical figures as bit players, with a few tart judgements appended. We meet Joseph Conrad in the Congo, John Devoy in New York (Murray has a dig at the armchair Republican), John MacBride, and the indomitable Alice Stopford Green (an early influence on Casement’s burgeoning Republicanism). We are also introduced to the Irish whiskey heir James Jameson who connives in cannibalism to provide a subject for his watercolours.

Sarita emerges as the most sympathetic character of the three protagonists. The only one who is clear-eyed about her motives and consistent in her allegiances. The Casement we meet  is far from the tortured soul we might imagine from our history. Murray restores his humanity depicting a warm, personable, albeit conflicted man. We encounter him at play with the Ward children and trekking with his beloved dogs. He is at home in hammocks and in chateaux, eating bush rat and veal cutlets, socialising with lords, plutocrats and semi-naked natives. His conflicts arise from his homosexuality (a serious crime at the time) and from his slowly emerging sense that the natives in Ireland are also suffering subjugation and abuse at he hands of their colonial masters, his erstwhile employers.       

 Grove Press UK

 PP 490

 John P. O’Sullivan      

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rancid Ruminations - August 2017

Heartless Brutes

Writing, whether it's high culture or low journalism, can be a thankless pursuit. Your precious foostering with words and romantic quests for the mot juste are a matter of some indifference to most readers, and alas to many editors. A couple of weeks ago I did a small piece on Nick Miller's fine show in the Catherine Hammond Gallery. The show was called Nature Morte featuring still lifes of flowers. In reviewing it I referred to  "daffodils that haste away so soon" - a not terribly original allusion to Robert Herrick's well known poem (Fair daffodils we weep to see you haste away so soon). A judicious sub-editor in London was having none of it. For him (or her) grammar trumped poetic allusion and my words were amended to the prosaic "daffodils that hasten away so soon". While this hasn't runined my life, it certainly cast a pall over most of that Sunday.

Off the Hook

Newstalk eh - it just gets worse. If it weren't for Pat Kenny I doubt if I'd ever listen to it. The problem is I forget to turn it off after Pat and thus am regularly exposed to George Hook. How can such a thing be? I suspect that after years of riding his hobby-horses over vigorously his brains have become scrambled. His dangerous nonsense about the HPV vaccine is only the latest manifestation of a less than noble mind o'erthrown. He should take his Blueshirt/Pres boy shtick and retire to the corner of the Briar Rose where he can harumph away harmlessly. And he's not even the worst of them. That creature Paul Williams on the Breakfast show clearly loves the Gardai, clearly hates all cyclists, and generally brings his prejudices and a vulgar tabloid sensibility to everything he touches. Shane Coleman isn't too bad - a tad conventional perhaps but a pro. Chris Donoghue's heart is afixed to his sleeve - a little more objectivity lad and don't take the water charges so personally. Sarah McInerney seems to lack the substance required for a heavy news slot (listen to Jeffrey Donaldson run rings around her). Bobby Kerr is harmless but boring. Ivan Yates is a stone philistine and is only interesting when he's talking about Irish politics and occasionally horses. I know that Denis O'Brien loves soccer but there's way too much emphasis on the Premier League in England on Off the Ball. Every English-based journeyman who has ever played for Ireland is brought on to hold forth ad nauseum about fuck all - often in a semi-penetrable accent. People often cite Moncrieff as being a good deed in this naughty world but I don't buy it. His over-reliance on quirky scatological items is a bit schoolboyish and check out how snippy he gets if you text in something critical.     

Tipp Toppled 

The summer of course is now over for me after Tipp's defeat by Galway the weekend before last. It was, remarkably, the third one point margin semi-final in a row between these teams. They are well matched opponents, Galway's physicality countering Tipp's skill. This time the stakes were high as instead of Kilkenny awaiting the victors you had a limited Waterford or an inexperienced Cork. Callanan had been injured and I suspect his off day from the dead ball may have been related. Also, the tubby, self-important prick who reffed (Barry Kelly) gave Galway 17 frees to Tipp's 8 - a crucial factor. So it was hard to take. Could have gone either way if only if only etc. Put your house and your children's school fees on Galway to win the final. (I had a substantial bet on Galway to beat Tipp at 10/11.)  

Things Fall Apart

I have been on the road for much of the summer - in California for 3 weeks, in west Cork for 2 weeks, and over in Clare for a while. A litany of ailments has assailed me on my travels. In California I got a vicious attack of bursitis - a malady with which I was unfamiliar. My right elbow swelled up and became extremely painful - the slighest touch was agony and sleep was difficult. Drink deadened it occasionally but there was a double indemnity to pay next day. A kindly old buffer of a doctor in Santa Barbara eventually killed it with antibiotics and deadened it the while with pain-killers but it blighted my stay. Next up I went down to Bantry for the literary festival where I was performing with John Kelly and attending many of the events. I felt a few twinges in my foot on the way down but blamed it on a walk on Killiney Beach which can be rough and rocky when the tide is in. However it got worse and having to change gear (using the clutch) became a chore. I limped sadly around Bantry for a few days, drove on to Allihies for my wife's exhibition opening, and eventually made it back to Dublin in abject agony. I had to stop for pain-killers on the way back and next morning got my ass into A&E in St. Michael's Dun Laoghaire. (Early Sunday morning is an excellent time to go to A&E).  I explained my Killiney Beach theory to the skeptical doctor and nurses and they dutifully sent me for an X-ray and blood tests. The results of the X-ray showed no physical damage but the blood test clearly indicated gout according to my youthful and very competent Indian doctor. He gave me a prescription for tablets that would be immediately effacacious and told me to see my GP as well. My GP was cool. He had it himself a couple of times and said that I could forget all this nonsense about lifestyle changes and red wine. Here's a prescription he said, just take a few of these if you get it again and it'll be gone in a day or two. We're not finished yet. One of my daughters got me a birthday present of a massage in July. I like a head massage, a foot massage or even a gentle back massage. I also prefer if the masseuse is a female - I just feel more comfortable in that scenario, don't bother analysing it. I dutifully headed off to the venue which was reached through a side door between a pub and a hardware store (somewhere on the South Side). I am used to sweet smelling saloons with lots of smiling girls and a comfortingly oriental vibe. This smelled of sweat and embrocation. I found myself in a small room with a chunky little man with a vaguely East-European accent. Initially I attempted to weasel out of it by telling him about my back problems (that lifting my neighbour episode) but he said he'd go easy on me. He didn't. After about 3 minutes I felt a sharp pain in rib that has been with me ever since. Back to St. Michael's where X-rays revealed that while no ribs were broken, one was cracked. More pain-killers and a big patch on the afflicted area. So I'm off to Schull tomorrow with my lingering back problem, my cracked rib, my subsiding big toe, and an elbow that still reminds me off California. Hey ho. I am clearly disintegrating.    

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review of: Anne Madden: Colours of the Wind - Ariadne's Thread

An edited version of this piece was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 13 August 2017.  

 As the muse of Louis le Brocquy, Anne Madden’s place in Irish art history is secure. The permanence  of her reputation as an artist only time will tell. Her work has tended towards the decorative – with a penchant for large scale paintings often in dramatic colours such as cerise, magenta and orange. These are pleasing enough on the eye but somehow lacking that visceral or radiant element that constitutes the real thing. Her current show in the Hugh Lane illustrates her shortcomings. The myth of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur is a dark and bloody tale of sacrifice, lust and betrayal. Its essence is hardly conveyed by a show that consists of an array of candy-coloured panels, a few cosmic streamers, and some dark intimations conveyed by a brace of horned heads. The painting entitled The Labyrinth (above) is a particularly weakly executed piece lacking both geometry and poetry. The gaudy rhetoric of these works seems unlikely to lead us to “a deeper understanding of the nature of existence” which is the artists’s aim according to her blurb writer. It also begs the question as to whether the show merits three large rooms in one of our major art museums.    

 Dublin City Gallery    The Hugh Lane

John P. O'Sullivan 

Monday, August 07, 2017

Nature Morte - Nick Miller

An edited version (sabotaging the Herrick allusion) of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 30 July 2017.    

The title of Nick Miller’s impressive and expressive new show in Skibbereen can be translated as “still life”. However, the French term “nature morte” carries a resonance confirming that mortality is the issue here. The paintings were inspired by a long-term creative project at Sligo’s North West Hospice and by his mother’s terminal illness. He used a selection of her vases and other vessels to add a personal dimension to the universal truth implicit in the work. The flowers are on the turn, some petals strewn around the bases, but we still see the glory of what they were. They present to us intimations of mortality and a poignant reminder of the transitory beauty of this world. The varities chosen represent the changing of the seasons: the hazel, the honeysuckle, the blackthorn and the fair daffodils that haste away so soon. The paintings have an energy and immediacy that come from being painted at one sitting. The artist is determined to seize the time – tomorrow may be too late.

Catherine Hammond Gallery

 John P. O'Sullivan

Monday, July 24, 2017

Ana Maria Pacheco

An edited version of this piece was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 23 July 2017.     

Ana Maria Pacheco is a Brazilian artist who moved to London over 40 years ago when her homeland was ruled by a military dictatorship. She is the first non-European artist to become an Associate Artist at the National Gallery. This auspicious show, her first in the Republic of Ireland, is dominated by the sculptural installation Dark Night of the Soul. It’s a depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, no doubt influenced by her immersion in Renaissance art at the National Gallery, especially the painting of the same subject by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo. It also has echoes of the painted wooden sculptures of Antonio Francisco Lisboa from her native land. This dramatic work consists of nineteen life-sized polychrome wooden sculptures showing the naked saint pierced by arrows surrounded by brutal enforcers and grieving women.The black mask covering the victim’s head has a contemporary resonance - suggesting Abu Ghraib and and the continuing appetite for inflicting pain and humiliation on those from whom we differ.   

 Festival Gallery,  Galway  

 John P. O'Sullivan

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Vivienne Dick at IMMA


This review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 25 June 2017.

Dick has been described as the “quintessential No Wave filmmaker”. This will be seen as a
compliment in some quarters and an indictment in others. No Wave was punk with added dissonance and nihilism. These days the Donegal-born erstwhile darling of the New York avant garde is lecturing on film in the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. The show is a survey of her work from her Super-8 beginnings in 1978 to Augenblick, a new piece filmed in 2017. Although the production values have improved over the years, as have the visual aesthetics, the concerns remain the same: social and sexual politics, street life, and the history of ideas. Despite a faint whiff of didacticism the films succeed in being both entertaining and thought-provoking. Dick’s work is presented  alongside photographs by Nan Goldin – a fellow-traveller in her No Wave days. There’s a resonant early image of Dick as wide-eyed ingenue sitting next to Trixie, one of the undead from the New York club scene.

Irish Museum of Modern Art

John P. O'Sullivan

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

John Shinnors - New Paintings


This review appeared originally in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 11 June 2017. 

 John Shinnors, the Chiaroscuro Kid, is back in town after a lengthy hiatus following a serious car accident.  He has rounded up his customary entourage of animals for our delectation. His fondness for Friesians, ideal subjects for exercises in light and shade, is again in evidence and there are a number of nocturnal creatures lurking in the shadows. There are assorted cats, a badger, and a fox rapidly exiting the picture as foxes do. His familiar motifs of lighthouse and scarecrow are also employed, warnings for the unwary that there’s danger out there. You can have fun identifying the figurative elements within these ostensibly abstract paintings. His Figure at a Bustop is the most overtly sinister piece, featuring a dark silhouette against the blood-red vertical of the signpost. Thirty years after his first solo show in Dublin, Shinnors continues to be a distinctive and original voice with his unique blend of the playful and the eerily portentous.            

 Taylor Galleries
 Dublin 2  

 John P. O'Sullivan
 June 2017

Thursday, June 08, 2017

De Profundis


I would like to issue an apology to all logophiles and finely tuned aesthetes who were offended by a piece I wrote in the current (summer) edition of the Irish Arts Review. In my review of the photographer John Minihan’s work in the Under the Hammer section there is a reference to his infamous photograph of the young Diana Spencer in a “transparent dress”. The dress of course was “translucent” and not transparent. To state it was the latter is to infer that the sainted Diana was parading around brazenly in a see-through dress – a profound calumny on the blameless ingenue. A writer struggles daily for the mot juste – the exactly apposite word. In the context, translucent was that word. Transparent is a semi-synonym that just won’t do.         

John P. O'Sullivan

June 2017

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Barrie Cooke - Works from the Studio


This review first appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 4 June 2017.

The National Gallery showed good judgement in purchasing Big Hot Tub from Barrie Cooke’s current show at the Oliver Sears Gallery. Not alone has it got a signature painting by a major artist, but it has also acquired a depiction of another distinguished figure in Irish art, Camille Souter. She was a friend of Cooke’s and the inspiration for the nude emerging from the tub. The works in the show are from his studio (from which apparently more paintings will emerge next year) and compromise a mini-retropsective – spanning his career from 1960 to 2008. The quality and diverse range of the work will come as a pleasant surprise to many Cooke admirers who had grown disenchanted with his late career obsession with rock snot and pollution. There’s a glowering Sheela-na-Gig from 1960 that emanates primitive energy, a number of intimate nudes and some evocative water colours from a visit he made to South Africa in 2007. 

Oliver Sears Gallery
Dublin 2
John P. O'Sullivan 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

John Gibbons - The Messengers

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 28 May 2017.

The London-based Irish sculptor John Gibbons has described art as “a radiator for the soul”.  Despite its overtly contemporary feel, his latest exhibition makes this metaphor explicit with an array of highly-worked stainless steel sculptures laden with religious suggestiveness. These religious allusions are sometimes obvious as in Cross and elsewhere are confirmed by titles containing terms such as Temple Bell and Basilica. Messenger/Announce (above) brings to mind an antique reliquary and there are indeed relics woven into a couple of pieces in the show. But these are art relics.  Gibbons inherited a store of scrap metal from the great American Abstract Expressionist David Smith and he has incorporated pieces from this sacred hoard into his work  – the subtly different gauge reveals the artful homage. A couple of writhing ink and acrylic drawings on Melinex confirm his Abstract Expressionist affinities. Gibbons has an international reputation with work in Tate London and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona. This outstanding show demonstrates how he has earned it.

Hillsboro Fine Art
John P. O'Sullivan 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

OJ - Made In America

We’ve all had enough of OJ Simpson and his deeply unattractive personality so it took an effort of  will for me to begin watching Ezra  Edelman’s 7 ½ hour documentary on his rise and fall, and the racial politics of his times. It had received laudatory reviews so I thought I'd check it out despite my reservations. It turned out to be as good a documentary as I've ever seen. The only other contender is Shoah, but the greater significance and grim import of that horrifying saga about the Holacaust places in a different category to this extravagant and enthralling drama of a fallen football star. 

The documentary opens with copious footage of his football prowess. I had never realised what a virtuoso he was. He was a running back but not one who caught long throws from the quarter back. Simpson was useless at fielding. His forte was lateral dodging and weaving against packed defences in restricted space. We saw him win games single-handed from impossible positions. For the first time I understood the subsequent fuss and the undying admiration of grown men. He was the Brian O’Driscoll or Henry Sheflin of American Football*.

*(My more sensitive friends objected to my clumsy and oxymoronic juxtaposing of  "grid-iron" and "sphere" as a synonym for American Football so I have reverted to the simpler term.)

 He retired early to follow his Hollywood dreams and it was pretty much all downhill from there (although financially rewarding) as he made crappy movies and moved to Brentwood to become a white man. The films format is basically extensive footage, including home movies and newsreel accompanied by a chorus of friends, former friends, victims’ families, lawyers and police. We are not spared the gory crime scene and forensic details.

We trace the early relationship with Nicole and her regular returns to him despite numerous brutal beatings. We also are shown the complicit tolerance of the local police to whom he was a friend and a hero. Ron Goldman, the collateral damage in the whole bloody affair, receives deserved focus in the coverage – mainly through his still suffering father.  The farce that was the trial is covered in detail and we see precisely how it became a trial of racism in the police department rather than a trial of Simpson for murder. The evidence against him was overwhelming. The trial was held in downtown LA, rather than Brentwood, which meant that the jury was stacked with under-educated black women who had time on their hands – and who, more significantly, were all too aware of the attitude of local police to the black community. The weakness of Judge Ito meant the whole process was dominated by the high-powered collection of legal sleaze bags referred to as “the dream team”. Ito allowed Johnny Cochran with his fancy ties and the cunning F. Lee Bailey to run the show. The wretched Dearden for the prosecution was chewed up by their machinations. The infamous glove incident being the most telling example. Simpson had deliberately stopped taking arthritis medication so his hands swelled and was also wearing a surgical glove to prevent contamination. A stone farce.

 A telling statistic about the trail was that 70% of white people believed Simpson guilty while 70% of black people believed him innocent. Feelings were so high that it became clear that a guilty verdict would have caused serious rioting in LA. An irony considering Simpson’s life-long failure to endorse any kind of black political initiatives. He saw himself as an honorary white man. Once free Simpson took to golf and partying with gusto. His sense of entitlement did for him in the end as he pursued some petty dealers in his memorabilia. The use of a gun to detain some of these wretches in an hotel room meant that he got 33 years for kidnapping rather than 6 months or so for a minor misdemeanour. Poetic justice of course.  

 It was an ESPN production that showed on BBC4 so to watch it you either need access to the BBC iPlayer or VPN software to access ESPN in the USA.             

Friday, May 12, 2017

As Above, So Below







An Edited version of this appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 30 April 2017. 
It’s in our nature occasionally to lift our snouts from the trough, look upwards, and ask ourselves Captain Boyle’s deathless question: “what is the stars?” As Above, So Below aims to stimulate this spiritual questing through the work of 40 artists, ranging from Hilma af Klint to Bruce Nauman. The title of the show is taken from the opening lines of the Hermetica, one of the key texts of occultism. The dark side is explored by number of the artists (including Kenneth Anger and Cameron) who claim allegiance to the Great Beast Aleister Crowley. Patrick Pye’s stagey Old Testament scenes (with their faint whiff of El Greco) may inspire no great feelings of awe in these secular times but few will not be moved by Grace Weir’s superb In Parallel - a 20 minute video concerning Euclid’s Elements. This illustrated geometry lesson is accompanied by philosophical ruminations on man’s repudiation of nature in favour of abstraction. Give yourself time to explore this exhibition – it’s a hugely entertaining and frequently thought-provoking magical mystery tour.   Irish Museum of Modern Art   John P. O'Sullivan.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The McCanns and Anne Enright

In recent times I have have not had that show of love from the Irish Times Letters page as I was wont to have. I have included a recently rejected offering below. In praising a piece by Kathy Sheridan on the press abuse suffered by the unfortunate McCanns I added an example closer to home. I hope the august but lately rather limp organ wasn't trying to protect a sainted literary figure. Perhaps my prose lacked sparkle or my argument was mundane. For I'm sure Ms. Enright can handle a mild rebuke.
Dear Sir,
In Kathy Sheridan’s excellent piece on the hounding of the McCann family (Madeline McCann: the Stolen Decade – Irish Times 29 April 2017) by online trolls and the tabloids, she omits to mention an example closer to home. In the London Review of Books (4 Oct 2007) our own Anne Enright wrote a lengthy Diary piece stating that “Guilt and denial are the emotions we smell off Gerry and Kate McCann”. She also throws in rumours of wife-swapping and a ‘joke’ about Kate McCann having “done a Shipman” on her patients. 

John P. O'Sullivan.
See relevant LRB article:

For those who can't penetrate the LRB firewall (it does offer limited free access for one-off articles) here's Anne Enright's text:

Anne Enright

It is very difficult to kill a child by giving it sedatives, even if killing it is what you might want to do. I asked a doctor about this, one who is also a mother. It was a casual, not a professional conversation, but like every other parent in the Western world, she had thought the whole business through. She said that most of the sedatives used on children are over-the-counter antihistamines, like the travel sickness pills that knocked me and my daughter out on an overnight ferry to France recently. It would also be difficult, she told me, to give a lethal dose of prescription sleeping tablets, which these days are usually valium or valium derivatives, ‘unless the child ate the whole packet’. If the child did so, the short-term result would not be death but a coma. Nor could she think of any way such an overdose would lead to blood loss, unless the child vomited blood, which she thought highly unlikely. She said it was possible that doctors sedated their children more than people in other professions but that, even when she thought it might be a good idea (during a transatlantic flight, for example), she herself had never done so, being afraid that they would have a ‘paradoxical rage reaction’ – which is the medical term for waking up half out-of-it and tearing the plane apart.
I thought I had had one of those myself, in a deeply regretted incident at breakfast on the same ferry when my little son would not let me have a bite of his croissant and I ripped the damn pastry up and threw it on the floor. She said that no, the medical term for that was a ‘drug hangover’, or perhaps it was just the fact that an overnight ferry was not the best place to begin a diet. We then considered the holidays with children that we have known.
How much do doctors drink? ‘Lots,’ she said. Why are the McCanns saying they didn’t sedate the child? ‘Why do you think?’ Besides, it was completely possible that the child had been sedated and also abducted – which was a sudden solution to a problem I did not even know I had: namely, if the girl in the pink pyjamas was being carried off by a stranger, why did she not scream? Sedation had also been a solution to the earlier problem of: how could they leave their children to sleep unprotected, even from their own dreams?
But sedation was not the final answer, after all.
If someone else is found to have taken Madeleine McCann – as may well be the case – it will show that the ordinary life of an ordinary family cannot survive the suspicious scrutiny of millions.
In one – completely unverified – account of her interrogation, Kate McCann is said to have responded to the accusation that the cadaver dog had picked up the ‘scent of death’ on her clothes by saying that she had been in contact with six dead patients in the weeks before she came on holiday. My doctor friend doubted this could be true of a part-time GP, unless, we joked, she had ‘done a Shipman’ on them. Then, of course, we had to row back, strenuously, and say that even if something had happened between mother and child, or between father and child, in that apartment, even if the child just fell, then Kate McCann was still the most unfortunate woman you could ever lay eyes on.
And we are obliged to lay eyes on her all the time. This makes harridans of us all.
The move from unease, through rumour, to mass murder took no time flat. During the white heat of media allegations against Madeleine’s parents, my husband came up the stairs to say that they’d all been wife-swapping – that was why the other diners corroborated the McCanns’ account of the evening. This, while I was busy measuring the distance from the McCanns’ holiday apartment down the road to the church on Google Earth (0.2 miles). I said they couldn’t have been wife-swapping, because one of the wives had brought her mother along.
‘Hmmmm,’ he said.
I checked the route to the open roadworks by the church, past a car park and a walled apartment complex, and I thought how easy it would be to carry my four-year-old son that distance. I had done that and more in Tenerife, when he decided against walking. Of course he was a live and not a dead weight, but still, he is a big boy. Too big to fit into the spare-tyre well of a car, as my father pointed out to me later, when it seemed like the whole world was figuring out the best way to kill a child.
‘She was only a slip of a thing,’ I said.
I did not say that the body might have been made more pliable by decomposition. And I had physically to resist the urge to go out to my own car and open the boot to check (get in there now, sweetheart, and curl up into a ball). Then, as if to pass the blame back where it belonged, I repeated my argument that if there is 88 per cent accurate DNA from partly decomposed bodily fluids found under the carpet of the boot of the hired car, then these people had better fly home quick and get themselves another PR company.
Who needs a cadaver dog when you have me? In August, the sudden conviction that the McCanns ‘did it’ swept over our own family holiday in a peculiar hallelujah. Of course they had. It made a lot more sense to me than their leaving the children to sleep alone.
I realise that I am more afraid of murdering my children than I am of losing them to a random act of abduction. I have an unhealthy trust of strangers. Maybe I should believe in myself more, and in the world less, because, despite the fact that I am one of the most dangerous people my children know, I keep them close by me. I don’t let them out of my sight. I shout in the supermarket, from aisle to aisle. I do this not just because some dark and nameless event will overtake them before the checkout, but also because they are not yet competent in the world. You see? I am the very opposite of the McCanns.
Distancing yourself from the McCanns is a recent but potent form of magic. It keeps our children safe. Disliking the McCanns is an international sport. You might think the comments on the internet are filled with hatred, but hate pulls the object close; what I see instead is dislike – an uneasy, unsettled, relentlessly petty emotion. It is not that we blame them – if they can be judged, then they can also be forgiven. No, we just dislike them for whatever it is that nags at us. We do not forgive them the stupid stuff, like wearing ribbons, or going jogging the next day, or holding hands on the way into Mass.
I disliked the McCanns earlier than most people (I’m not proud of it). I thought I was angry with them for leaving their children alone. In fact, I was angry at their failure to accept that their daughter was probably dead. I wanted them to grieve, which is to say to go away. In this, I am as bad as people who complain that ‘she does not cry.’
On 25 May, in their first television interview, given to Sky News, Gerry McCann spoke a little about grief, as he talked about the twins. ‘We’ve got to be strong for them, you know, they’re here, they do bring you back to earth, and we cannot, you know, grieve one. We did grieve, of course we grieved, but ultimately we need to be in control so that we can influence and help in any way possible, not just Sean and Amelie, but the investigation.’
Most of the animosity against the McCanns centres on the figure of Madeleine’s beautiful mother. I am otherwise inclined. I find Gerry McCann’s need to ‘influence the investigation’ more provoking than her flat sadness, or the very occasional glimpse of a wounded narcissism that flecks her public appearances. I have never objected to good-looking women. My personal jury is out on the issue of narcissism in general; her daughter’s strong relationship with the camera lens causes us a number of emotions, but the last of them is always sorrow and pain.
The McCanns feel guilty. They are in denial. They left their children alone. They cannot accept that their daughter might be dead. Guilt and denial are the emotions we smell off Gerry and Kate McCann, and they madden us.
I, for example, search for interviews with them, late at night, on YouTube. There is so much rumour; I listen to their words because they are real, because these words actually did happen, one after the other. The focus of my ‘dislike’ is the language that Gerry McCann uses; his talk of ‘information technology’ and ‘control’, his need to ‘look forward’.
‘Is there a lesson here, do you feel, to other parents?’
‘I think that’s a very difficult thing to say, because, if you look at it, and we try to rationalise things in our head and, ultimately, what is done is done, and we continually look forward. We have tried to put it into some kind of perspective for ourselves.’
He lays a halting and agonised emphasis on the phrase ‘what is done is done,’ and, at three in the morning, all I can hear is Lady Macbeth saying this line after the murder of Duncan, to which her husband replies: ‘We have scorched the snake, not killed it.’ Besides, what does he mean? Who did the thing that has been done? It seems a very active and particular word for the more general act of leaving them, to go across the complex for dinner.
There are problems of active and passive throughout the McCanns’ speech. Perhaps there are cultural factors at play. I have no problem, for example, with Kate McCann’s reported cry on the night of 3 May: ‘They’ve taken Madeleine.’ To my Irish ears ‘they’ seems a common usage, recalling Jackie Kennedy’s ‘I want the world to see what they’ve done to my Jack’ at Dallas. I am less happy with the line she gives in the interview when she says: ‘It was during one of my checks that I discovered she’d gone.’ My first reaction is to say that she didn’t just go, my second is to think that, in Ireland, ‘she’d gone’ might easily describe someone who had slipped into an easy death. Then I rewind and hear the question, ‘Tell us how you discovered that Madeleine had gone?’ and realise that no one can name this event, no one can describe the empty space on Madeleine McCann’s bed.
Perhaps there is a Scottish feel to Gerry McCann’s use of ‘done’. The word is repeated and re-emphasised when he is asked about how Portuguese police conducted the case, particularly in the first 24 hours. He says: ‘I think, em, you know, we are not looking at what has been done, and I don’t think it helps at this stage to look back at what could and couldn’t have been done … The time for these lessons to be learned is after the investigation is finished and not now.’
I am cross with this phrase, ‘after the investigation is finished’. Did he mean after they’d packed up their charts and evidence bags and gone home? Surely what they are involved in is a frantic search for a missing child: how can it be finished except by finding her, alive or dead? Why does he not say what he means? Again, presumably because no one can say it: there can be no corpse, killed by them or by anyone else. Still, the use of the word ‘investigation’ begins to grate (elsewhere, Kate McCann said that one of the reasons they didn’t want to leave Portugal is that they wanted ‘to stay close to the investigation’). Later in the interview the word changes to the more banal but more outward-looking ‘campaign’. ‘Of course the world has changed in terms of information technology and the speed of response, you know, in terms of the media coming here and us being prepared, em, to some extent to use that to try and influence the campaign, but above all else, it’s touched everyone. Everyone.’


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Good Deed Punished

Last Thursday I had returned from a refreshing holiday in Waterville and was getting myself organised for a trip to France to visit my daughter (who lives near Lyon) and to attend the Leinster/Clermont European Cup semi-final. I was meeting up with some friends there so a few drinks and some fine dining would no doubt ensue. Returning from a walk I saw my next door neighbours getting out of their car. The husband is a tall elderly man who has been unwell and now needs a walker to get around. The wife is a small woman so I went over and gave her a hand to extract him and get him going on his walker. I left them heading up the path to their front door. A few minutes later my door bell rang and it was the wife asking me to help as her husband had fallen down and she needed help to lift him back up on to a chair. I followed her over and found him lying on his side on the ground. He’s a very big man, built like a retired rugby lock. I went behind him and grabbed him under the arms while the wife tugged from the front. It was a struggle. I gave  an extra strong jerk and suddenly felt a searing pain across my lower back. It was so extreme I had to sit down on a nearby seat – letting my man lie back on the floor. After a breather I had another go and somehow we got him upright in a chair. I sat down again and started feeling really faint. Then apparently I blacked out. I came too to find my two neighbours regarding me with some concern. I had been out for a few minutes and the woman had been concerned that I was having a heart attack. I had suddenly become the victim of the piece. I felt extremely weak but managed to stagger home across the road and took to the bed. I dozed fitfully for a couple of hours but awoke in agony with the uneasy feeling that I had done some fundamental damage to my back.     

 My poor alarmed wife managed to guide me into the car and off we went to St. Michael’s A & E in Dun Laoghaire. We were initially told there would be a four-hour wait but when they hear that I had collapsed after injuring my back I was suddenly at the head of the queue. The waiting room was full so I was pleasantly surprised at this eventuality. I was brought into an area with a row of beds, notionally separated with flimsy curtains. A coolly professional nurse did the usual blood test, and blood pressure and followed with the less usual ECG. Then ominously she inserted a cannula – usually a precursor to an extended stay. Things rested so and I was kept entertained listening to a disruptive prick in the next bed trying to get hold of strong pain-killers. “Are you a doctor?” he asked his nurse.  “I need a doctor. I’m in fooking pain”. He had apparently been itching himself all over to such an extent that his body was covered with bleeding scratches. It sounded like DTs to me but he was blaming his mother’s washing powder.    

 Eventually I was brought down for x-ray which was extremely painful as I could lie down fine but getting up involved sheer agony. Then back to the three-ring circus that is A&E. My scratcher was still there, complaining loudly. A concussion victim sat staring blankly from another bed – she’d been in a car accident last week and then got a bang in the head from a heavy door earlier in the day. There was also a very obese woman with a pleasant face who had been suffering from palpitations. Fun times. After about two hours my doctor appeared. A gentleman of the Sikh persuasion complete with turban and nice silver bracelet. He repeated all the tests the nurse had carried out including asking me what day of the week it was and who was the president. I passed with flying colours. After another hour my x-ray results came back and it was revealed that there were no broken or damaged bones – my problem was a severe muscle spasm. I was given some Paracetamol and Diazepam and sent about my business. As I was leaving I passed the scratcher talking to his long-suffering looking father “fooking Paracetamol that’s all I’m getting”.    

 So I’ll survive without any long-term damage. Just a few weeks of extreme discomfort while the muscles repair. I’ve never had a problem with my back before and so am developing empathy for those so stricken. It’s all consuming in its implications as simple tasks (such as putting on your socks) become heroic efforts.    

John P. O'Sullivan

Monday, April 03, 2017

David O'Kane - A Modest Proposal


An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 2 April 2017.  

The Cavanacor Gallery near Lifford is attached to an historic 17th century house that hosted James II during the Siege of Derry. David O’Kane (a son of the current owners) didn’t try to sit out the recession but took his award-winning talents on the road after graduation. Based in Berlin, he exhibits successfully in prominent galleries in Leipzig and Seoul. He is a versatile artist who is best known for his large-scale figurative paintings, often with an uncanny twist, but who also embraces printmaking and animation. His current show is a series of manière noire lithographs based on Swift’s infamous essay A Modest Proposal. These were commissioned by the Salvage Press to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Swift’s birth. These macabre and exquisitely executed works take Swift at his word and present us with the results of his proposal. A splendid dining table is furnished with platters of chubby babies, a butcher’s shop hangs a boy amidst the sides of beef, and Breeders shows a line of coffin-like cots, the latter piece carrying intimations of recent events in Tuam.

 Cavanacor Gallery Co. Donegal
 Tue-Sat: 12-6pm
 Tel: 085 164 2525

 John P. O'Sullivan    

Monday, March 27, 2017

Deepdrippings: Phillip Allen at the Kerlin Gallery

 An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 19 March 2017.

    The term “trippy” was made redundant in the early Seventies but on being confronted by Phillip Allen’s new show at the Kerlin Gallery one is tempted to re-employ it. Gaze into a painting such as Chin Music (Soft Octopus Version) long enough and you’ll find it gazing into you – like Nietzsche’s abyss. Allen is an English artist who has been showing at the Kerlin since 2005. As befits someone who lectures on art he is not afraid to change tack and sail off in a new direction. His last three shows could almost be by three different artists if it weren’t for one recurring feature. The title of the current show, Deepdrippings, suggests Jackson Pollock and the intertwining ribbons of black paint and the splashes  of colour confirm the connection.  Allen’s work however is more condensed, more intimate and intense, eschewing the macho scale of the American. In many of the smaller pieces the image is framed by his trademark thick border of impasto. This draws you into his disorientating cosmic visions where your eyes dance around trying to find purchase amidst the swirling riot of paint.        Kerlin Gallery Dublin.       John P. O'Sullivan

Six Nations Post Mortem

Over the course of the 5 weekends that constitute the Six Nations championships I tipped the winners of 12 of the 15 matches. The three I got wrong all involved Ireland. I thought we'd beat Scotland and Wales and lose to England. Of course we shoulda and coulda in the first two cases but there's a fatal lack of cutting edge in our back line (aside from Sexton and Murray) and we couldn't translate dominance into scores. The preponderance of home results suggest that there's not much between all the teams (excluding hapless Italy) and that England have been over hyped. I have a feeling our season will end well with Munster and Leinster well in contention for European honours. We should have 6 or 7 players in the Lions. Sexton, Murray, Furlong, Stander and O'Mahony will surely go. Best, Henshaw, Healy and O'Brien are possibilities and I'd nominate Zebo as a wild card. Best has an outside chance of being captain but I strongly suspect it'll be a Welsh man. I'll take anyone but Hartley.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Six Nations Prognostications 5 and Post Mortem 4

After the concentrated focus on Cheltenham all week it's a relief to move on to rugby where my engagement isn't financial apart from the odd bet on Stander to score the first try. I missed my week 4 forecast but would certainly have expected both France and England to win easily as they did. I thought Ireland would be too good for the previously unimpressive Welsh side but we managed to fuck it up again for a number of reasons. Henshaw's rush of blood ultimately cost us the match because the momentum was with us and a converted try at that stage would have seen them sag. However, given the amount of possession we had, we still should have won. There is a lack of creativity in the back line - especially at centre. We rely too much on Sexton to create the spark, or Murray. They were both off for periods which set us back. Also, our bloody lineout has gone to the dogs. It's inexplicable to me how O'Mahony isn't on from the start to give us more options. Toner was woeful and deserves to be dropped and Best wasn't exactly hitting his targets. England will murder us in this area unless we come up with something. Regarding this weekends matches, let's get the easy ones over with. Scotland will show that they are not as awful as they appeared against England by hammering Italy. France will confirm my poor opinion of Wales by beating them, not quite so easily. Wales rescued their season by beating us and won't be as cranked up. I had thought we would do a home town job on England but seeing the team I now doubt it. Murray is a huge loss, not least for his cover and tackling but also for his general air of being in charge. Kearney has been poor all season so I'm glad he's gone. His aerial game is as good as ever but after he makes a heroic catch he just charges aimlessly into the cover and the whole thing peters out. Payne is short of game time and I'm not sure a match against England is the place to give it to him. I'd have put Zebo there and added Conway or Gilroy on the wing. Having dropped Toner for being off form Schmidt has still omitted O'Mahony. I'd have dropped Heaslip (where has he been this season?) and rejigged the back row to accomodate O'Mahony. It's beginning to seem that Schmidt has a Leinster bias and that he's reviving that old adage about it being harder to get off the Irish team than to get on to it. I see England winning by about 12 points. I'll be very happy to be wrong as, unlike Cheltenham, it won't cost me anything.

Eh Joe at the Gate

                        Michael Colgan's valedictory season of plays by Beckett, Pinter and Friel keeps up the very high standards he helped to initiate and sustain for 33 years. I saw a great version of Pinter's The Dumb Waiter last week with Lorcan Cranitch and Garrett Lombard. This week's offering surpassed that with a virtuouso version of Beckett's Eh Joe. Not knowing the play I was wondering how Gambon was going to get on because, famously, he had retired because he could no longer remember lines. Of course, as I discovered, Eh Joe is ideal for him as there are no lines. He basically just sits there and responds visually (rather than vocally) to a disembodied woman's voice. She is the voice of his conscience reminding him of how badly he has treated various women and what now lies ahead of him. It's classic Beckett in terms of the stripped down language and the bleak intimations: "Then yourself ...That old bonfire ...Years of that stink ...Then the silence". Bracing stuff.   I knew the play was written for television - the first such one he wrote - and that it mainly features the actor's face and attendant reactions. So I was wondering how it would be staged and was thankful I had a seat close to the stage. But I needn't have worried. They filmed his face as he sat on a bed and projected it giantly onto a scrim (transparent cloth) that covered the entire front of the stage. His read covered an area close to half the size of the scrim so even a visually impaired person in the back row could monitor every twitch. And twitches there were aplenty, and tears. Gambon gave it the full rueful, sorrowful, pitiful works. It was only 30 minutes long but that was enough for such sustained bleakness.      

Monday, March 13, 2017

John Short at the Solomon Gallery

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 12 March 2017.

John Short is best known for his bright and playful water colours and prints depicting the often portly denizens of South County Dublin going about their bathing business. Short’s work keeps the best of company and can be found in Áras an Uachtaráin, the Shelbourne and in the Law Library. His new show at the Solomon extends beyond his usual haunts to embrace cockatoos and kangaroos in Australia and dancers in the South of France. Large watercolours, such as the striking Cockatoos, Sydney, require a deft touch and Short is a master of the medium. His expertise was recognised with the prestigious 2012 Artist Prize at the Royal Watercolour Society in London. He augments his paint work with ink, collage and occasionally photo transfers. There’s a sense of evanescence in some of these carefree scenes. It is suggested in the ectoplasmic outlines of his swimmers in Winter Bathing Scene, Seapoint as they disport themselves against the stern permanence of a Martello tower. His collected sketchbooks over the past thirty years are also on show, evidence of a long-standing dedication to his art and his capacity for capturing the transitory and rendering it permanent in his warm and colourful paintings.  

Solomon Gallery
Dublin 2

John P. O'Sullivan    

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Six Nations Prognostications - 3

It would be immodest to mention that I got it pretty well spot on in the second series of games. They were, I suppose, fairly predictable. England were lucky to beat Wales - but this is a poor Welsh team and England just grind out the results pragmatically. This week we can leave England and Italy to one side - England will win and get a bonus point. Ireland should also beat France - although if conditions turn nasty it could become a place kicking contest and I trust Sexton less in this regard than Jackson. Otherwise I think we are too organised for them and it would be a major shock if we lose. The Wales Scotland match is the most interesting. I fancy Scotland to win but Laidlaw is a massive loss. Apart from his decision making and sharpness around the field, his unfailing accuracy with penalties could be sorely missed. As a result it may be closer than it would have been.   

 Ireland could win all their remaining matches and still lose the championship unless they pick up a bonus point today or against Wales, or England. Today is their best chance. If we do so we can end up on 19 points. England will get a bonus point today and very likely one at home against Scotland. This would give them 18 points and if they hold Ireland to a small margin and thus get a bonus point they will also end up on 19 points. Then it comes down to points difference so Englands score against Italy today could be crucial. We'll worry about all this if we beat Wales next week.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Siobhan McDonald - Crystalline

 An edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 19 February 2017.

 Siobhan McDonald does not see herself as part of the standing army of Irish landscape painters, abstract or otherwise. Her art is more concerned with science than with nature. Despite some superficial similarities, especially in her earlier work, she discourages any attempts to place her within the landscape tradition. She maintains that her art invokes patterns generated by the invisible forces of nature rather than the visible. “From an early age I’ve always had a love of rocks. Rocks are recorders of time. As an artist who is deeply motivated by geology, the idea of landscape doesn’t fit easily with me and the world I’m looking at is not abstracted – it is connected in time layer by layer.”  She’s more interested in what lies below the landscape and what lies far above it – in subterranean readings and in the vacant interstellar spaces (see Tycho Star in her current exhibition). Her  inspiration comes from seismologists, geologists, cosmologists, and cartographers. Her subject matter comes from field work in Iceland,  Asia, and The West Indies and from museums, archives and laboratories. “I work collaboratively with cartographers, scientists, and composers combining ideas of interaction on the natural world.” She has found in recent years that painting alone cannot convey her vision. “I need to use different forms of expression”. This interdisciplinary approach is seen in her new exhibition which features pressed plants, seeds in glass vessels, ghostly after images of butterflies on antique paper, a series of mysterious white sculptures, a striking work on calf skin, a few small, eerie paintings, and even a short film with an original sound track.   

McDonald has always been a roamer. A cursory look at her CV shows how wide she has ranged with exhibitions over the past 18 years in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Galway, Paris, New York, Oslo, and at the European Space Agency in Holland. She has been singularly successful in getting travel grants and residencies over this period and has not been afraid to engage with a variety of disciplines. Her itinerant approach to showing her work is perhaps influenced by her background. She was born in New York of Northern Ireland parents. The family moved back to Monaghan when she was a child, and her accent retains an attractive trace of her Northern roots. She studied art in Belfast and Dun Laoghaire. Her first solo show took her back to New York where she lived for a couple of years and enjoyed some success before moving back to Dublin. "New York was really good to me but I always had this grá for Ireland. I wanted my base to be in Ireland".  

While she has always found inspiration from science (her first two exhibitions were titled Elements and Molecule), two specific events triggered her latest show. In 2010 she joined the Irish Geological Society on a field trip to carry out a geological survey of Iceland. "I really wanted to go just to see the landscape." Camille Souter was also on the trip. "She was so much fun." During the trip their guide took them to the edge of Eyjafjallajökull the volcano that had recently erupted. "It was like we were gazing into the core of the earth. Looking at seismology charts to explore how an earthquake can inscribe itself into scientific records I started to visualise these dark fluctuations as patterns generated by the forces of nature. My subsequent drawings of the unseen world under the microscope brought a new element of alchemy into my paintings".   

Then in 2013 McDonald won an open competition for a residency at Parity Studios in UCD working on a commission for the School of Biology and Environmental Science. “The residency at Parity Studios provided me with a real chance to deepen my interest in geology, physics and plant palaeontology.” This residency led in turn to an Arctic Circle Residency and a voyage on a barkentine (an old square rigged sailing ship) to the Arctic. While on this voyage she was lent a copy of a book about the doomed Franklin expedition. In 1845, Sir John Franklin, an experienced but ageing explorer, set off to discover the North West Passage on two ships, Erebus and Terror. They were never seen again despite a number of rescue missions being mounted. Over the years various traces were found, a letter, artefacts and a couple of graves on Beechey Island. There’s a YouTube video featuring the perfectly preserved bodies that were uncovered. Eventually the two lost ships turned up. Erebus in 2014 and Terror last year. They had become trapped in ice and the crews had died of scurvy, lead poisoning from tinned food (a new technology ironically), starvation and exposure. McDonald was fascinated with the story, "I became very upset about the whole thing. I was in the same waters they had died in".   

The trip to the Arctic also brought a new focus to a lingering unease she had always felt about climate change. She saw at first hand the diminishing ice cap and mingled with members of the scientific community who could back up opinion with hard science. She learnt about the Anthropocene, the proposed new geological epoch which begins with the Industrial Revolution. She quotes a European Space Agency scientist’s dire warning: “I told my children not to have children.” The show that resulted from these journeys is both a tacit and an explicit warning about the looming catastrophe that is global warming.   

There are two key exhibits in the show, Crystalline and Solar Skin. Crystalline is a series of white sculptures that dominate the entrance to the exhibition hall. They are an artistic response to the retreating Arctic glaciers. "This installation is made up of 166 pieces and each one represents a year since we screwed up the atmosphere". She dates this back the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The cracks on the surface represent the damage to the polar icecap. They were originated in a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) last summer and with an Irish company called Enbio. The latter developed the white material coating the surface of the sculptures. This is the protective material made from carbon and bone that will be applied to the surface of the ESA's Solar Orbiter that sets its controls for the heart of the sun in 2018. Another voyage from which there will be no return. The fact that our ice caps do not in fact enjoy such protection from the sun's rays is an irony implicit in the work.   

Solar Skin represents the sun, the hero turned villain. It is a striking piece that dominates the show visually. It consists of a large circular piece of burnished calf skin, a fine layer of woven basalt, and smoked paper inscribed with seismographic markings. McDonald worked with the conservator in Trinity whose brief includes the Book of Kells to garner expertise in this area. A pre-industrial material to balance the super science of her sculptures. She sees the original scars on the surface of the vellum "as a map of the animal's journey". Another doomed voyage.   

Some of the most poignant pieces in the show are small paintings inspired by old glass photographic plates rescued from lost Arctic expeditions. She discovered these in the national library in Oslo and she recreated the faded images in paintings that deliver ghostly intimations of the Franklin expedition. Unknown Landscapes (above) features seemingly lost figures blurred against an Arctic landscape containing ice-locked ships. A figure in the foreground looks out forlornly at the viewer. Her painting skills are evident in Pyramiden, an eerie evocation of the Soviet ghost town on the edge of the Arctic circle. Many other exhibits in the show also contain intimations of lost expeditions. She extracted seeds from plant pressings stored in the Antiquities Department of the Botanic Gardens after an earlier Franklin expedition in 1825. She is involved in a project with Kew Gardens to endeavour to germinate these old seeds. The aim is to produce plants from a period before the Anthropocene began to bite.  “These seeds represent the earth before we fucked it up.” Another exhibit, Silent Witnessing, features melanin traces from the ghosts of past butterflies imprinted on antique paper from an old display case - the original inhabitants  crumbled to dust. The faint traces of the absent butterflies is a metaphor surely for all the beauty and diversity that we are losing.  

 In addition to the paintings, photography, sculpture and found objects that constitute the show an original music score has been written by Irene Buckley to accompany a beautiful and evocative film shot during the Arctic trip. This score is based on McDonald's use of a heliograph, a old device for tracking the sun. She attached it to her Arctic ship to record the sun's track at summer solstice. The recorded pulses as the sun moved across the sky produced the notations used for the score. It also contains the sounds of dying glaciers collected by Professor Chris Bean.   

The sun is central to McDonald's show. The sound score, the large vellum piece Solar Skin, and the sculpture Crystalline all point to a disturbing truth. Since the Industrial Revolution we have been moving towards a situation where the sun has has gone from being the bringer of life to being the agent of our ultimate destruction. We have tipped the balance of nature towards extinction. The melting ice caps are harbingers of doom. Recent events across the Atlantic are not comforting. Artists, who capture the zeitgeist, have a role to play in alerting us in a way that cold science cannot. McDonald's haunting and thought-provoking show reminds us of the fragility of our situation on this vale of tears.      

Centre Culturel Irlandais
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 John P. O'Sullivan