Tuesday, October 31, 2017

RUA Annual Exhibition 2017


A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 22 October 2017. 

This review inspired some unexpected abuse on social media from a few people within the art community in the North. This was generalised name calling rather than complaints about specific content - surprisingly trite considering the sources. Particularly exercised was one whose profile photograph suggested a survivor of Franklin's ill-fated Arctic expedition. Can't imagine what got him going but there was a strong smell of injured merit. 

There was a time when the contemporary Irish art scene was dominated by artists from Northern Ireland. In the 1960s and later William Scott, Dan O’Neill, Norah McGuinness, George Campbell, Gerard Dillon, Arthur Armstrong, and Basil Blackshaw were familiar names to art lovers across the island. But things have gone quiet there. The ranks of the dead have been joined in recent years by Basil Blackshaw and prematurely by Willie McKeown following his suicide. These departures leave a dearth if you exclude Willie Doherty and Colin Davidson. Turner prize nominations and making the cover of Time magazine have moved them onto the international scene – neither are represented at the RUA’s annual showcase. The absence of any serious commercial galleries in Belfast hardly helps in the development of artistic careers in the North. Also, the continuing delay in finding a permanent home for the RUA must surely further hinder the aspirant artist. There is a proposed venue in Riddel’s Warehouse in Belfast but the project has not even reached the stage where a feasibility study can be carried out because of the absence of funding.  When you consider the wide range of artistic activities promoted and supported by the RHA in Dublin, you realise what the RUA could do with its own home. Perhaps someone needs to talk to Arlene Foster. In the absence of its own premises, the RUA continues its long and fruitful relationship with the Ulster Museum which houses its annual exhibition and facilitates many of the RUA’s activities.   In terms of a shop window, the RUA’s Annual Exhibition is thus an important event for local artists starved of commercial outlets.  It’s also an opportunity to take the temperature of the art scene north of the border and make some judgements about its health.

Last year was remarkable for the number of artists from the south that were showing but this year there are far fewer. Of the 371 exhibits, less than 20 are from the Republic. The logistics of submission is not the issue as the initial application requires only an electronic image. (Its supplicants thus avoid the annual Via Dolorosa trodden by artists whose work has been rejected by the RHA in Dublin. There an unsuccessful work  must be collected in a very public way at a circumscribed time.) There was a conscious effort to include more print work in this year’s RUA show so there is a bias towards print makers amongst the invited artists a number of whom are from the South.

The composition of the show tends heavily towards the figurative with three quarters of the paintings being either portraits or landscapes. While many of the landscapes fall into the worthy but unexciting category, there is more entertainment to be found amongst the portraits. These are generally looser in approach than academy portraits often are, although Carol Graham still embraces the old formal style. Her waxwork-like portrayal of Dr. Neill Morgan leeches all humanity out of that distinguished gentleman. William Nathan’s An Badoir takes the same formal approach to composition but adds life and character. Elsewhere there is much wit and quirkiness: Cristina Bunello’s precisely painted Becoming with its weird child wearing a wonderful patterned blouse; Michael Connolly’s haunting Saltwater Bride; and Gareth Reid’s large accomplished charcoal work Fallen Head. And while Cruft's may demur, I was much taken with Heidi Wickham's characterful Black Dog 1.

In a yearly show like this there are certain hardy annuals who will provide you with solid reliable examples in their immediately recognisable styles. This is no bad thing if you’re looking for a good-quality work typical of a particular artist. These include Brian Ferran nodding towards Klimt with his gilded abstractions;  Sophie Agajanian with her subtly lit, elegant compositions; Brian Ballard’s dark and intense landscapes and still lives; Michael Wann wielding the charcoal expertly to create his finely detailed trees; and Michael Canning with his portentous plants looming against an elegiac sky. Keith Wilson however surprises us by producing a piece of hard-edged abstraction alongside his customary soft-focus landscape. Another old stager to continue in good form was Neil Shawcross with his large painterly Envelope and Graham Gingles’s Glass Bird was a further addition to this artist’s cabinet of wonders. Elizabeth Magill’s Goat Song (above) was the painting that stood out for me when I viewed the show initially online. It’s still a fine piece in the flesh but I was disappointed in the scale – I had been expecting something larger to do justice to this dramatic composition. Angela Hackett contributed the atmospheric L'été à Nice, a work to keep you warm on a winter’s night. The style and technique employed by Anya Waterworth’s in Night Flight (1) suggests that she has not been uninfluenced by her distinguished father Basil Blackshaw.

You don’t expect much in the way of agit prop or politics in this show (Willie Doherty isn’t around) but Dermot Seymour can always be relied on for a contentious image. This time his beef is with Asahi, reminding us of  environmental issues  in his adopted Mayo. Adding to the gaiety of nations is Gavin Lavelle’s Pot of Eyes which you won’t pass without a smile. There is also an unusual work by Mick O’Dea. It features a pensive figure viewed from the back against a Rousseau-like profusion of trees and bushes

Sculpture and ceramics make up about 20% of the exhibits and there’s plenty of fine quality work. The first room features Mother and Child, Paddy Campbell’s competent but commonplace exercise in Carrara marble. It’s a classical subject but lacks the added twist you might expect from a contemporary artist. Elizabeth O’Kane’s Flow is a thing of simple, solid, beauty fashioned from blue Kilkenny limestone. I also admired Martin McLure’s Redoubt, a formidable construction in stoneware, Jay Battie’s Inner Circle, an immaculately crafted circle of slate, and Helen Merrigan-Colfer’s quirky Girl with the Birds Nest.    Print is well represented and Stephen Lawlor, one of Ireland’s best print makers, shows his considerable talents with the exquisite Was I Awake or Sleeping. Margo McNulty’s stark lithograph Curragh Camp also stands out. Others to note are Penny Brewill’s Unsuitable Pets, James McCreary’s curious Night Flying to Portlligat, and the very elegant Elegance by Anne Corry. It was also nice to see some fine examples of the neglected art of batik by Helen Kerr.

Of the photography exhibits Dominic Turner’s spare and poignant Seasonal Defeat was the most striking. Others of note were Bruce Marshall’s Portrait 1 featuring an ominous black bird and Saprophyte, a portrait of grotesque fungi; and Forest Dream a surreal staging by Ross McKelvey.   Crowding the small number of video and animation exhibits into one corner did them no favours as they contended noisily for your attention. You are distracted from experiencing fully the elegiac flavour of Caroline Wright’s Memorial to the Islanders. However, distraction was a blessed relief from Vince Ruvolo’s criminally tedious video Step Up. Notwithstanding the scenic backdrop (the Giant’s Causeway I suspect) this leaden exercise foundered miserably – its crassness compounded by how pleased the protagonist seemed to be with himself.  

In a show like this of nearly 400 works there is much that is worthy and predictable. This is not Frieze or Documenta, we don’t expect to experience the shock of the new or mercifully to encounter the outer extremes of conceptual claptrap. There’s plenty of good-quality, attractive work on view at very reasonable prices and here and there we do get a little jolt. David Crone’s Dark Plants is a striking semi-abstract study – one of the finest paintings in the show. A close contender was Diarmuid Delargy’s sinister Shark Study. Alison Lowry’s The Home Baby gives us pause as well. It clearly requires a more austere setting but its disturbing mise en scène still suggests dark doings.     

 John P. O’Sullivan
October 2017

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Yellow River at the Triskel

This review first appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 15 October 2017.    

 The Yellow River is a tributary of the Boyne which it  joins near Navan in Meath. It’s also the source of this collaboration between Seán McSweeney’s paintings and the poetry of Gerard Smyth. McSweeney and Smyth recently revisited this area where they had spent their childhoods. While Smyth has quibbled with the term “nostalgic” as applicable to the show, I’d defy anyone over a certain age with a rural background to view it without experiencing that bitter-sweet tug from the past. The restrained and evocative images by McSweeney in watercolour and egg tempera and the accessible accompanying poetry by Smyth (printed alongside on the gallery walls), bring to mind that land of “lost content” referred to in A. E. Housman’s poem, The Shropshire Lad:  “The happy highways where I went and cannot come again”. Those used to McSweeney’s dark expressive bogscapes will be surprised by the almost Japanese lightness and delicacy of many of these works. The Stations of the Cross layout of the Triskel, often a hindrance in displaying art, is ideal for this leisurely journey back to the joy and innocence of youth. Recommended.    

 John P. O'Sullivan      

Reflections on the Arc

If only all horse racing results were as predictable as this year’s Arc. In first place was Enable one of the best fillies of the modern era, albeit in a season where the colts were an average lot. (How would she have done against, for instance, Sea the Stars). She was followed home by Cloth of Stars trained by Arc specialist Andre Fabre – an Irish-bred colt by the aforementioned Sea the Stars. In third place was Ulysses, a good Group 2 horse in reality who struggles in good Group 1 races. In fourth was Order of St. George who ran a sound stayer’s race but lacked the speed to threaten these 12 furlong specialists. The only horse to really disappoint was Capri. He never got involved and his run was too bad to be true. Perhaps, like the illustrious Nijinsky, he hadn’t recovered from those recent exertions in the St. Leger. Although of course in Nijinsky’s case ringworm was an additional factor. Frankie Dettori gave Enable a great ride keeping him up with the pace and out of the scrimmaging that can happen in the Arc. The same can’t be said of Cloth of Stars (who I backed at 28-1) who was given way too much to do by Michael Barzalona. I’m not saying he would have won but he would have gone very close indeed. I suspect we’ll see him to good effect in the Breeder’s Cup – and perhaps next year. He’s very lightly raced.

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.