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