Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Birth of Modernism in Irish Art

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on 21 April 2019

David Britton’s fascinating survey on the development of modernism in Irish art covers a period when our writers were part of the European avant-garde. Our visual artists however were inclined towards the safe and conventional both in form and subject matter - catering to the taste of the newly-emergent Catholic middle-classes. A taste that favored benign landscapes, rustic idylls and artists such as Paul Henry and Sean Keating. The writ of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) ruled. But in the 1920s things began to change. A number of artists, often Protestant, Anglo-Irish and female began to travel and the old regime was assailed as new forms of art began were explored. The 47 artists chosen by Britton represent the old and the new order. He juxtaposes works by advocates of modernism such as Basil Rákóczi, Mainie Jellett, and May Guinness with more conventional paintings by James Humbert Craig, Maurice C. Wilks and the shamelessly folksy William Conor.

In 1923 Mainie Jellett and her bosom friend Evie Hone returned from Paris full of the joys of cubism – following their sojourn with Albert Gleize.  That year they exposed Dubliners to this brave new world in a group show. This was followed by their two-person exhibition the following year. Dubliners were not impressed. The Irish Times described Jellett as “a late victim to this artistic malaria”. But Jellett persisted with her vision throughout her short life in her teaching, writing, and painting.  She could be seen as the heroic mid-wife who presided over the difficult birth of modernism in Ireland. Jellett’s zeal had a missionary flavour. She maintained that “the art of a nation is one of the ultimate facts by which its spiritual health is judged and appraised by posterity." Evie Hone was a constant ally. She and Jellett along with Hilary Heron, Louis le Brocquy and others founded the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) in 1943 – arguably the single most important initiative in breaking the hegemony of the RHA.

It is striking how influential the female artists were in introducing European trends into this moribund Irish scene. An important factor was the Taylor Art Scholarship that expanded the artistic horizons of many female artists by allowing them to travel. Before Jellett and Hones’s formative stint in Paris, May Guinness and Mary Swanzy had made their forays into France. Swanzy is represented by the exquisite Sunny Landscape near St. Tropez that shows her at her brilliant best. The males were less adventurous than these pioneering women. One exception was Roderic O’Conor who went to Paris in 1886 and became a close friend of Gaughin’s and a circle of French artists.

One of the show’s charms, and it has many charms, lies in introducing us to some of the forgotten or lesser-known figures in Irish art such as Joan Jameson, May Guinness, Nevill Johnson and the wonderfully named Georgina Moutray Kyle. It also reminds us of some tragic figures like Kenneth Hall who killed himself and Dan O’Neill whose career was blighted by alcohol and bad luck. And who is now familiar with the paintings of Thurloe Conolly? Born in Cork in 1918, he was once considered “in the very first rank of our advanced painters”. He joined the White Stag group and had a successful career showing in New York, Los Angeles, London and elsewhere in Europe. He is represented by A Very Powerful Queen – a weird and wonderful piece that shows the influence of Paul Klee and African art. Cecil ffrench Salkeld is another notable character. In 1924 he took himself off to Kassel in Germany at the age of 17 to study art under Ewald Dulberg. He went on to become a major contributor to the gaiety of the nation in the 1940s and 1950s. He set up the Gayfield Press and in 1954 Founded the National Ballet. His unabashedly erotic Leda and the Swan would certainly have caused fluttering in the dovecotes of de Valera’s prim Ireland. Micheál Mac Liammóir’s Monte Carlo (influenced by Beardsley) might also have raised eyebrows amongst the more discerning. Initially it seems like a harmless trifle with its promenading toffs but when you look closer it’s replete with coded gay references. To punters used to the homely world depicted in James Humbert Craig’s Races at Waterfoot, Maurice C. Wilks stiff and stagey Cottage Interior, or William Conor’s The Street Fiddler these works would have truly shocking.

Sculpture gets a modest look in with four small pieces. We are reminded of the somewhat neglected Hilary Heron. She is another artist whose extensive travels exposed her to outside influences. A contemporary critic applauded her for bringing “ something fresh, diverting, and also very genuine to our inbred world of sculpture.” That something involved African and Sumerian influences and clear indications of knowing her Picasso.

Most of the works in the show come from private collections and so will be unfamiliar to many art lovers. Jack B. Yeats’ enigmatic We Are Leaving Now is being exhibited for the first time in 50 years. It was painted in 1928 and is believed to be a reference to the problem of emigration – a stretch I’d say. Roderic O’Conor’s portrait of his wife Rene Honta is hardly his finest hour – she seems depressed. Maybe it’s because her nose looks as if it was clumsily affixed with a palette knife as an afterthought. Contrast it to the warm and characterful portrait of his wife Madge by George Campbell or the chutzpah of May Guinness’s La Parisienne. There are two striking surrealist pieces by Colin Middleton and Nevill Johnson that owe a debt to Dali. Dan O’Neill’s dramatic homage to Van Gogh, and a tasty William Scott are amongst the many other delights on view in this absorbing exhibition. It runs until August and anyone who has any interest in art should not miss it.

State Apartments Galleries, Dublin Castle

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Lighten up Girls (and Boys)

I’ve been reviewing books and art for seven or eight years now – mostly in the Sunday Times and Irish Arts Review, and occasionally in the Irish Examiner. In that period I have rarely received any hostile response. Indeed I’ve frequently been thanked for my modest efforts. There were a couple of exceptions to this tranquil state of affairs – both relating to book review rather than art reviews. There was an issue with the much lamented Eileen Battersby a few years ago when I described the heroine of her novel as a “prig” and there was also some disagreement about her character’s taste in music – letters were exchanged in the letters page of the Sunday Times. Battersby showed more sensitivity than one would have expected from a hardened and frequently stern critic. There was also some quibbling about a piece I did on a book about the Hunt Museum. Some woman saw Nazis under the bed that were not evident to me and also suggested that I was denigrating her academic credentials – again mild enough stuff.

So nothing had prepared me for the avalanche of insult, abuse, calumny, detraction and downright vilification that descended on me a few Sundays ago following a book review I had written. The review was generally favorable and contained phrases such as: “Her entertaining and briskly-paced debut novel”. Before publication I had shown it to a well-qualified literary friend of mine and his verdict was that the author would be well-pleased with my positive response – notwithstanding a few digs at the overtly feminist agenda (men were responsible for all the evils of the post-apocalypse world depicted). Thumbing through Twitter later on the day of publication I came upon a veritable river of vituperation flowing in my direction. The initial source seemed to be a hint of displeasure from the author who deemed me “sexist” – a view echoed swiftly by her business partner. The main issue seemed an arcane one – at least to someone not versed in the details of post-Apocalypse films. I was accused of being sexist because the headline used my reference to the heroine as a “Mad Maxine” – a nod towards the post-apocalyptic hero Mad Max. However, having only seen the original film I was unaware of a more recent female character in the Mad Max franchise (Imperator Furiosa) to whom I should have compared the heroine. On such trifles apparently do the serried ranks of the sisters go to battle. After the author and her business partner had signaled their displeasure a great army of trolls joined in – all it seems banging the feminist drum. Some of them were male, including the great-bearded  “fiancée” (a quaint old-fashioned concept for a feminist) of the author. Such shows of fealty are routine on Twitter. However, they served to unleash amongst their followers increasingly strident and hysterical abuse. The wild inaccuracy of much of it suggested that not alone had most of them not read the just-released novel but few of them had bothered to look at the review either. One of them accused me of calling all women slave-owners (because I had foolishly responded to one of the male abusers - calling him an “Uncle Tom feminist”) - a stretch I’d say.

I was at first pissed off by all this and eventually bemused at both the scale of the abuse and the manifest hatred and spurious rage expressed by this mob. It’s as if mass hysteria had taken over a segment of literary Dublin. I was somewhat mollified to receive an email from an acquaintance who reviews for the TLS expressing amazement at how such a favourable review could receive such a negative reception. My words had clearly ruffled some feminist sensibilities and this sin trumped the positive review – I had deviated from the path of righteousness. However, I believe another factor was also in play.  In the back-slapping world of book reviewing in Ireland, anything less than total reverence is deemed churlish. (Read the blurbs on every Irish novel published in the last 10 years and give yourself a good laugh at the recurring names that have been overwhelmed by the quality therein.) Perhaps I hadn’t been fulsome enough in my praise, I hadn’t gushed enough. But in truth I had gone easy on a first-time author who is hardly Margaret Atwood but would like to be. The novel was an entertaining read, in a Dan Brown page turning way, not a major literary breakthrough. Incidentally, the aforementioned Eileen Battersby was an exception to the mutual adoration society that is literary Ireland – her reviews were perceptive, honest, and unsparing. But she probably had the sense to stay away from Twitter and its standing army of the easily outraged.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Troubled Vision of Maurice Desmond

An edited version of this text first appeared as an introduction to Maurice Desmond’s work on the Lavit Gallery web site.

Maurice Desmond is much possessed by a sense of the tragic. His last show, Flanders Fields  in 2012, consisted of a series of brooding and evocative paintings that captured the atmosphere of that doom-laden place. These were deathscapes rather than landscapes. In this new show he continues to engage with the bleaker aspects of human existence. The skies are still eerie and troubled, the earth is still reddened with redundance of blood. These are landscapes without a consoling hint of the pastoral - they pulse with dark, entombed memories. But Desmond has always believed that the saddest songs are the sweetest and that we find, as Nietzsche asserted, “metaphysical solace” in art and music through the contemplation of the tragic. We find this in Greek Tragedy, in the music of Mahler, and in Shakespeare’s King Lear. You might think recent work inspired by a visit to Gougane Barra would bring some harmony and solace to counter this troubled vision. However what these new works indicate at best is the monumental implacability of nature – the stony indifference of the universe. While Desmond is now somewhat of an outsider on the art scene, he continues to create work that will endure beyond the current fads and fashions.

Lavit Gallery, Cork.
From 25th April 2019

John P. O’Sullivan
April 2019

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Post Mortem

Apart from a freakish piece of good luck on the betting front it is hard to work up any enthusiasm for the final day.  In the first race Sir Erek, the hot favourite and a hugely promising horse, broke a leg in mid-race. The camera mercifully moved away quickly from the frightful image of the poor creature floundering - but it surely ruined my appetite for the rest of the day’s racing. The Gold Cup was of poor quality. The winner Al Boum Photo had won recently at Tramore - hardly the place you’d normally find Gold Cup horses running. It is owned by Joe Donnelly, a classmate of mine in CBC Cork. I commenced my betting career across the road from CBC in his father’s betting shop on MacCurtain Street. Native River ran disappointingly, maybe needing it softer and himself and Might Bite rather cut each other’s throats vying for the lead. Elsewhere I thought Minella Indo was way overpriced for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle so I had a modest each way bet on him and he won comfortably at 50-1. He once again demonstrated that trainer Henry de Bromhead is always a man to consider at Cheltenham. We Have a Dream came second for me in the County Hurdle at 20-1 - undone by his top weight.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Day 4 Thoghts

Day 3 was very disappointing from a betting point of view though I made a small profit thanks to Sire du Berlais. My faith in Jessica was misguided. Walk to Freedom ran a stinker in the Pertemps - making multiple mistakes and never getting involved. Supasundae ran a decent enough race but clearly doesn’t stay three miles. Maybe she should have run her in the Champion Hurdle after all. He’s won two Grade 1’s over two miles.

Today I’m just having three bets. In the Gold Cup I’m sure all romantics will want Presenting Percy to win but he’s too short for me and his profile lacks the substance I’d expect. Nichols’ horse Clan Des Obeaux could continue his good run but I’m not sure he’s going too last the distance. I’ve backed Native River at 5-1. Not very original as he’s last year’s winner but he’s tried and tested over the course and distance and this race has been his plan all year. Elsewhere Sir Erek is apparently a certainty for the Triumph but not for me at odds of 4/5. I’ll have a nibble at the County Hurdle though. We Have a Dream is a class above the rest of the field and despite his weight is good value at 20-1. Again I’ll have a saver on Gordon Elliot’s Eclair de Beaufeu at 11-1.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Day 3 Thoughts

Although I had a profitable Day 2 with Band of Outlaws and Envoi Allen both winning and also having them in a double, this modest success was overshadowed by Wicklow Brave’s narrow defeat at 28-1 in the Coral Cup. He was caught on the line after looking a certain winner - costing me financially and emotionally. But hey that’s the fun of the fair - it’s all about passionate engagement. Tiger Roll and Alterior both won as predicted but at prices too short to involve me - I enjoyed both of them anyway. Alterior toughed it out like a champion while Tiger Roll strolled unconcernedly to victory. Both Envoi Allen and Band of Outlaws won easily - and I suspect we’ll hear about both again.

Day 3 should see Jessica Harrington getting off the mark. I think Supasundae is certain to be at least placed in the Stayer’s Hurdle and I feel she may prick the Paisley Park bubble. She also has a fancied runner in the Pertemps Final at 2.10. Her Walk to Freedom is closely linked form wise with Sire du Berlais and Cuneo on the December Pertemps heat at Leopardstown. However, he needed that race and despite his weights should be a decent each way bet at 12-1. Jessica reckons he’ll improve. I’d save on Sire du Berlais. The Ryanair Chase seems to be dominated by the Irish runners. Both Monalee and Road to Respect could be running in the Gold Cup but have gone for this consolation prize instead. In the latter’s case I think this distance suits him much better but I felt Monalee was a more genuine contender for the bigger prize so will favour him. Elsewhere I think Mullins’ Real Steel is overpriced at 7-1 in the opening race and I fancy Henry de Bromhead to confirm his Cheltenham pedigree winner with Sinoria in the 4.50 - a reasonable 13-2 at the moment.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Day 2 Thoughts

An excellent Day1. It started with a disaster in the first race where Elixir de Nutz didn’t run and Angel’s Breath ran a stinker. Mullins’ horses are inclined to relish soft going and Klassical Dream stepped up on his previous form. I avoided the Arkle and my selection in the Ultima never figured. But all changed in the Champion Hurdle when all the favourites disappointed and my choice, Espoir D’Allen, won readily at 18-1. A Plus Tard won equally easily for me at 11-2 in the 4.50 race and I was only denied am unprecedented treble when Discorama was denied by a narrow margin in the last -  the third horse was 47 lengths behind.

But that’s the past now and so we look ahead to Day 2. Altior and Tiger Roll will probably win the Champion Chase and the Cross Country race so these races are best watched. I don’t back short-priced horses (was not involved in the Benie Des Deux debacle today - the whining on Twitter was a joy to behold) so I’ll just watch these races. In the 1.30 I think that Gordon Elliot will get off the mark with Battleoverdoyen. He won his maiden at Navan by 13 lengths on yielding going. The 2.10 is a Novice’s Chase so I will ignore that as a betting proposition too. I do love a handicap hurdle so the Coral Cup at 2.50 is very enticing. I’ll do a couple each way. Wicklow Brave has recent form that places him close to today’s Champion Hurdle winner Espoir D’Allen so at 14-1 he’s worth a few bob. Dancing on My Own at 12-1 finished close to Klassical dream last time out so he’s also a decent speculative punt. Willie Mullins has the favourite Uradel but I’d prefer longer odds in such an open race. In the Fred Winter at 4.50 I like Joseph O’Brien’s Band of Outlaws and I think Gordon Elliot could also win the bumper with Envoi Allen. The wind tomorrow may blow all this off course but they’ll keep for Saturday in that case.

Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

An edited version of this review was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 10 March 2019.

In her role as co-founder of Tramp Press Sarah Davis-Goff has bemoaned the dearth of women writers cited as influences by those who submitted work for publication. She saw it as a wasteful dismissal of “the experiences, viewpoints and brilliant work of women.” Her enjoyable debut novel suffers from no such deficit. A recent New Yorker article by Laura Miller noted how feminist dystopian narratives are now enjoying a boom – encouraged perhaps by the TV adaption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Miller cites: Future Home of the Living God (breeding controls) by Louise Edrich ; The Water Cure (beleaguered girls on an island) by Sophie Mackintosh; Vox (verbal constraints on women) by Christina Dalcher; and Red Clocks (breeding controls again and the uselessness of men) by Leni Zumas. Davis-Goff may have read none of these works but her novel has certainly tapped into the prevailing zeitgeist as she includes elements of all of them in her very own Irish dystopia. But fear not an earnest feminist polemic, this is a ripping yarn, an entertainment not a tract.

The central character and narrator is Orpen, a young girl, who grew up on Slanbeg, an island on the west coast deserted apart from her mother Muirinn and her taciturn partner Maeve. Her childhood is a pastoral idyll of hens, and gardening and rock pools and “snug as a bug” after a bath. However from an early age this idyll has added martial training. Orpen is brought up to be a warrior by her mother and Maeve  – strong, hard and adept with knives. She is told that “We’re never safe. The only thing we can do is be prepared.” Beyond the island is a semi-deserted wasteland patrolled by hordes of skrake. These are zombie-like creatures who roam our blighted isle and from whom one bite is fatal - it transforms the bitten one into a member of their murderous, albeit mouldering (bits of them tend to fall off) tribe. We don’t know from whence these monsters came but sensitive men may feel there’s an accusatory metaphor lurking in there somewhere. Nor are we told what caused the apocalypse, but two things are clear: it happened in the distant past and men are responsible. Only the crumbling remains of towns and villages remain and trees grow from the middle of the road. “Men are dangerous” we hear and the whole dystopian mess was caused by “the men making the decisions and women suffering for them.” All the characters in the book are female apart from a rather wet male character called Cillian who gets bullied by every woman he encounters. Orpen even thinks about “putting him down” at one stage. However, late in the book the normally stoical Orpen feels a stirring of something else:  “He kisses me. I think about it for the whole rest of my life.” Biology still works.

The action involves a quest by Orpen that takes her from her island fastness. Her immediate concern is a cure for Maeve, stricken by the skrake. However she also hungers for a life beyond her narrow islanded existence, and for the companionship of  a peer group. She sets out on a journey across Ireland to Phoenix City – a dimly-perceived haven based on overheard conversations between Muirinn and Maeve who had to leave there because of Orpen’s birth. “We left because you were pregnant and you weren’t meant to be.” On the road she encounters skrake, a few other lost souls, and eventually finds her peers in the form of a group of banshees. It was only a matter of time before there was a move to rehabilitate the negative stereotypes around banshees. There we were thinking of them as doleful harbingers of death that you’d be better off avoiding. But in Davis-Goff’s novel they have become powerful, liberated women who patrol our ravaged land seeking out and destroying the marauding skrake.

Chapters alternate between the past and the present showing us how Orpen got where she is today.
Davis-Goff captures well the naïve, and permanently wary voice of Orpen. Brought up in isolation, her perspective is circumscribed by the world-view of her mother and her partner and glimpses of the old world from carefully hoarded scraps of old books and magazines. We are so far removed from civilization that Orpen’s mother doesn’t even have names for the days of the week – “summer sol” and “winter sol” divide the time. The story focuses on Orpen, her inner life  and her development. The action along the road is mostly confined to bloody jousts with the skrake. The author has a fine grasp of revolting detail and for those who like their Grand Guignol the blood, snot and entrails are piled on with visceral relish.

The conclusion is left so open-ended that you wonder if a sequel is planned, or even a series of novels. I see distinct possibilities for a film or TV series with Orpen as the hero. A kind of Dirty Harriet, or Mad Maxine, for the apocalypse.

Tinder Press
PP: 272
RRP: ??

John P. O’Sullivan
March 2019

Monday, March 11, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Day 1 Thoughts

Day 1 of Cheltenham is always my favourite with the Supreme Novices Hurdle, the Arkle Chase and the Champion Hurdle to relish. This year however I am filled with uncertainty about all three races. Mind you this is probably a healthier state than being filled with certainty. The Supreme is a complete conundrum. There’s six horses for whom I can convincingly make a case – and they make up the first six in the betting. Elixir de Nutz was my early choice but he’s a front runner and may set it up for a finisher. He beat Grand Sancy last time out narrowly – but staying on strongly, a good sign. He also beat Southfield Stone who has beaten the joint favourite Angel’s Breath – albeit getting five pounds. The other favourite, Al Dancer, may be just a good handicapper so I’m letting him go. The imponderables are the two Irish horses Klassical Dream and Fakir d’Oudairies. The latter won very easily already at Cheltenham and the former is Willie Mullins’ first choice. I’ll have a bet of course but a restrained one on Elixir de Nutz e.w. and Angel’s Breath – plus the forecast on the two. In the Champion Hurdle I think Gavin Cromwell’s Espoir D’Allen at 18-1 might be worth an e.w. bet. Melon ran a great race last year but I can’t forgive his lamentable last run where he jumped appallingly. I find it impossible to separate those at the head of the market (Lauriana, Apple’s Jade and Buveur D’Air) so I’m avoiding them in favor of this outsider at a decent price. Elsewhere I like Discorama in the last race – trained by my former greyhound trainer Paul Nolan. He ran very well here last year and has excellent recent form. I’ll nibble at Henry de Bromhead’s A Plus Tard in the previous race. De Bromhead’s horses invariably run above themselves at Cheltenham. My mother always counseled me to avoid handicap chases but it’s hard to ignore Singlefarmpayment in the Ultima Chase. You do like to be involved no matter how problematical the race.

The Keeper - to Have and to Hold at the Model Sligo

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 10 March 2019.

The Niland Collection is a monument to the will and indefatigable energy of Nora Niland – the Sligo County Librarian who started the collection 60 years ago. The Model in Sligo is celebrating the woman and her heritage with an exhibition, curated by its director Emer McGarry, that encompasses 100 works from the Niland collection together with a small and quirky selection from the collection   of former director Jobst Graeve. Accompanying these are four fascinating contemporary video works that relate to the importance of collecting and what can be lost when we don’t “keep”, or “keep” properly.

A seminal work in the Niland Collection is Leaving the Far Point by Jack B. Yeats (see above), painted in 1946 and given to his wife Cottie as a birthday present in 1947, the year before she died. It’s an imaginary scenario with Yeats, Cottie and his favourite uncle George Pollexfen taking a walk along the beach near Rosses Point – where his uncle had a house, and where the artist spent 20 happy summers. Pollexfen had died in 1910 so this much later work represents the aging Yeats looking back at an idyllic period in his life. However, the painting has a significance beyond its personal resonances for the artist. He presented it to the people of Sligo in 1954 and it was the seed from which the Niland collection emerged. Nora Niland had borrowed five other works by Yeats from the Capuchins for the inaugural Willian Butler Yeats Summer School and she decided she would like to add them to her solitary painting and start to build a Yeats collection for the county he loved so well. She raised the money by public subscription, with a little help from the Arts Council, and paid off the good friars – and thus the Niland collection was born. It now has 52 works by Jack B. Yeats – making it the most significant collection by the artist outside the National Gallery of Ireland. Niland was a determined and well-connected woman - her family owned the Niland Cash and Carry business in Galway. Money for art in the west was tight so she used her connections to approach wealthy individuals and local businesses. Arts organizations such as Friends of the National Collections were also very helpful. A major boost to the fledgling project was a bequest of 35 paintings from the Irish-American James A. Healy – a successful stockbroker. “They formed the core of the collection” according to McGarry. Another fertile source has been artists themselves to whom Niland regularly wrote asking for work. Work also arrived unbidden. As recently as last year Sean McSweeney’s family donated five paintings by the popular local artist. McSweeney was an avid supporter of the Model up to his much mourned death in 2018.

The collection has expanded well beyond its initial Jack B. Yeats emphasis and it now consists of more than 300 paintings that provide a comprehensive survey of 20th Century Irish art. Emer McGarry has gone for a salon hang format to enable as much of the collection as feasible to be put on show. The exhibition is dominated numerically by the Jack B. Yeats paintings (23 of which are displayed), many of outstanding quality. There’s a nice contrast between the elaborate formal and the fraught practical in his treatments of two funeral scenes: The Funeral of Harry Boland and An Island Funeral. The father, John B. Yeats, gets a look in with his famously prevaricated over self-portrait – 11 years labour and still unfinished. There’s also his charming portrait of a languid William B. Yeats reading in the garden. Elsewhere an exquisite small work, Grey Pool, by Sean McSweeney catches the eye. There are strong works by Mainie Jellett (Abstract Composition) and Mary Swanzy (Abstract) and women artists generally are well represented. There’s also an unusually expressive work, Bog Sun, by that purveyor of restraint and decorum Patrick Scott.

The Niland collection is accompanied by work from the Jobst Graeve Collection – on temporary loan to the Model. This featured quirkier and more idiosyncratic work – a leather jacket here, a cow’s nipple shoe there, elegant craft work, and some agitprop paintings (such as Rita Duffy’s striking Belfast Pieta). The benefactor himself features, naked of torso and full-length of pleated skirt, in a Mick O’Dea portrait that the charitable will assume is an essay in the mock-heroic.

The third strand of this ambitious and absorbing exhibition features four well-presented and accessible pieces of video art by  four contemporary artists. Sadly one of them, Susan Miller, died between the shows’s gestation and the actual opening. It is ironic indeed that her exhibit is called The Last Silent Movie. In it we hear snatches of dead and dying languages accompanied by sub-titled translations. This artist’s dying word encompassing the dying words of other civilizations and tribes.

Perhaps more pertinent to the theme of collecting is Ed Atkins’ Trick Brain. Atkins film takes us on a tour of André Breton’s Paris apartment as it was when he died in 1966. A veritable cabinet of wonders, it was crammed with weird and wonderful artifacts with a noticeable bias towards the bizarre, the African and the surreal. Bretons’s family wanted it preserved as a museum but the French government demurred and the collection was sold at auction and dispersed in 2003. Money trumps the common good in today’s art world.

Turner Price winning artist Elizabeth Price’s video A Restoration views with a jaundiced eye the “taxonomical recklessness” shown to artifacts recovered from Knossos on Crete by Sir Arthur Evans and his team during their excavations in the early 20th century. Collecting and preserving the past requires rigour and integrity – qualities that Evans appeared to lack.

The fourth video work by Taus Makhacheva tales us to a village in Dagestan where every resident is an expert tight-rope walker – a necessity more than a sport in a land of gorges and ravines. We see aerial maestros walk across a rope suspended over a gorge while carrying works of art. It’s a metaphor with many applications: art as a precarious occupation and the difficulties of building a collection being the most obvious.

Curator of the show and Director of the Model Emer McGarry emphasizes that the collection is still a living one and acquisitions will continue where funds permit. “We definitely want to add works of museum quality”. This year already it has acquired The Racecard Seller, a characterful early work by Jack B.Yeats, from the office of the Taoiseach. It’s on loan for two years but history has taught us that works loaned to the Niland Collection tend to stick around – especially if they’re by Yeats. And rightly so. They are at home. Yeats has said “From the beginning of my painting life every painting which I have made has somewhere in it a thought of Sligo”.

John P. O’Sullivan
March 2019

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Brian Eno – 77 Million Paintings

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 27 January 2019.

Brian Eno has come a long way from his early incarnation as a glammed-up synthesizer player with Roxy Music nearly 50 years ago. In addition to his pioneering work in ambient music, he’s known for his creative collaborations with such recherché figures as John Cale and Robert Fripp. Torn between visual art and music since his art school days, Eno arrived at the insight that these media could overlap and that he could make visual objects that changed in time like music. Hence his installation at the RHA where the title 77 Million Paintings refers to the ever-changing visual array he has created using computer software that generates infinite variations from a basic set of 296 images painted on slides. One wall of the large upstairs gallery has a screen featuring this kaleidoscope of abstract shapes as they imperceptibly fade one into another – accompanied by a haunting soundtrack also randomly generated. The space is otherwise in darkness apart from three mysterious mounds of pebbles lit from above and constantly changing colour. You make your way through a perimeter of 12 silver birch trees to the sanctuary of four comfortable sofas where you can immerse yourself in the infinity of images..

John P. O’Sullivan

January 2019

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Six Nations 2019 Prognostications

So how’s it been for you so far? First things first – the championship is over and England have won. Even if they lose away to Wales they have garnered enough bonus points and will undoubtedly get more (Italy and Scotland at home). If they lose to Wales they will still probably have a minimum of 20 points - and maybe 21 if they lose narrowly. If Wales win all their matches the will have 20 points – they will hardly get bonus points away to Scotland or at home to England and Ireland. The clincher is points difference – if they both finish on 20 or 21 points then England should have a vastly superior points difference. Anyway I doubt it will come to that. I think that Wales are overrated and the English juggernaut will roll over them and sadly give England the Grand Slam.

Ireland have been poor so far – for many different reasons. Against England they were suffering from injuries and the aftermath of injuries in crucial areas. Murray and Sexton played but neither of them was anywhere near their 2018 form. Nor were they against Scotland and this has caused a leadership dearth – particularly in attack. Henshaw was close to being a disaster against England and we missed Kearney’s experience at full-back. In addition to these crucial areas we have had no continuity in the centre or the second row. Also, the back row is missing Leavy and O’Brien is far from back to his best. Oh and Rory Best is well over the hill – play Cronin from the start please. We missed Ringrose’s creativity against Scotland and Henderson’s intensity in both matches. In both matches also we looked short of an alternative offensive plan once our usual tactics had been negated – as they were in both matches. We’ll probably win all our remaining matches if we get a few of our injured back to to full power – although the Wales match should be very close.