Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ocean - Mary Lohan

A slightly edited version of this appeared in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on the 18 May 2014.

The title of Mary Lohan's new exhibition seems very apt. The limitless expanses of sea and sky that she portrays inspire that oceanic feeling. Lohan has stripped the romance of specific place out of this show and it shows in her titles. There's no Misty Morning Glencolmcille and the like - the paintings are named strictly by number and form as in Circle I, Square IV and Rectangle V. These seascapes are composites of all the seas she's ever known. While clearly not abstract images, they are are more formal and tightly structured than much of her previous work. The feeling of a new severity is enhanced by a slight thinning of her usually florid impasto and by the number of pieces where the dark blue of the sea approaches an almost funereal black. In a few paintings her horizon line tilts surrealistically off the horizontal, suggesting we're at sea, and her tondos echo this impression by providing a porthole perspective. A couple of works, featuring bands of land, sea and sky, look like refugees from an earlier show but should be equally cherished.

Taylor Galleries, Dublin.

John P. O'Sullivan.





Finely Tuned Aesthete and Rough Farmer Have A Right Row on Ryanair

Off to London for the weekend on a cultural expedition (Lear at the National and Matisse at the Tate), I follow my usual routine: cheap flight to Stansted on Ryanair, making sure to get priority boarding and a seat at the front of the plane. It's late morning and the flight is almost full so I settle back as the stragglers board - my shoulder bag safely stashed in the locker directly above me. A stocky bearded guy stops beside me with a put upon wife in tow, her body language suggesting servitude and long suffering. He directs her peremptorily to move aside my bag while he attempts to shoe-horn a large, hard-shelled, bulbous (like himself) bag into a space that clearly isn't there. "Mind my bag" I interject mildly, mine is soft with an iPad inside. His struggle isn't getting him anywhere so he then directs the wife to remove my bag completely. I immediately go from mild annoyance to terminal velocity rage. "Don't touch that bag I roar", standing up grabbing it back from his poor discomfited wife and restoring it to its original position. Bulbous boy then barges into me and attempts to take it down again. I barge right back - and a full scale wrestle breaks out. I notice amidst the chaos that he's alarmingly sturdy - notwithstanding his shape. The full plane is being well amused by this cabaret and a couple of staff members get involved. I have visions of the Gardai and a night in Coolock Garda station. Instead, with remarkable sang froid, the female flight attendant placates us by saying there's plenty of room elsewhere and swiftly places his offending bag in a nearby locker. We both sit down - he's directly across the aisle from me - and silence reigns for a few minutes. Then, after the plane is airborne, he turns to me and says "I'll deal with you on the other side".  "Are you threatening me" I respond in my most carrying voice (and that's pretty carrying). "Because if you are I'll arrange to have you met by the police in London". He denies he's threatening me but then suggests I might have an accident going down the steps. "You're full of piss and wind" I respond and we both settle back to brood.  I open my Irish Times and read Brian Lynch's mild bleatings about Aosdana - no great argument in the piece, just trust me it's a good thing seems to be the gist of it. He is a member mind you.  However at the start of the article there's a well-known quote from Patrick Kavanagh's Epic:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

My antagonist picks up his book and I sneak a look at the title - expecting, I'll admit, a penny dreadful. In fact it's Sacred Keeper by Peter Kavanagh, a biography (or hagiography) of the self same Patrick Kavanagh. I'm titillated by this coincidence. Before we land at Stansted I tear out the Kavanagh quote from my newspaper and pass it across to the bellicose one. He reads it carefully, smiles and quotes back at me "I made the Iliad from such a local row" - a later line from Epic.  I point to the locker and say "that's the half rood" and suddenly we're the best of buddies. He reaches across and we shake hands and we chat all the way to disembarkation - exchanging anecdotes about Kavanagh. It turns out he's a farmer from North Meath - not far from Kavanagh's Inniskeen. I still make sure he's not directly behind me when I walk down the steps.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Colin Davidson's Jerusalemites

Colin Davidson in His Studio 

A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 11 May 2014.

The genesis of Colin Davidson's new exhibition lies in a series of conversations between Davidson and the gallery owner Oliver Sears. The discussion began when Davidson sought a theme for a new exhibition - one that would incorporate the power of a unifying concept. His previous show at the gallery in 2012 featured a disparate collection of his striking headscapes. There were poets, painters, rock stars, and a few friends. These all worked well individually but Davidson wanted to do a show that embodied a vision greater than the sum of the individual paintings. Both Davidson and Sears share backgrounds blighted by sectarian conflict and it was not surprising that Israel was initially proposed as a theme by Sears. His mother was a Holocaust survivor. She was thrown from a train bound for Auschwitz and survived the war by being passed off as the daughter of the family maid. Growing up in London amidst Polish Jews traumatised by their war time experiences he admits to "a heavy and confusing legacy". For him the notion of Israel as a sanctuary for Jews is not an abstraction but a visceral reality. Davidson born in 1968, grew up in South Belfast during the Troubles and experienced there "a tangible lurking fear". His unease was frequently reinforced by the deaths of people known to him. Far from being embittered by these histories both share a passionate belief in the power of love and tolerance in healing their damaged communities.

Davidson mulled over the idea of Israel for a few days and then suggested that Jerusalem would be a less contentious theme. Israel is a divided country where many of the population don't term themselves Israeli. Jerusalem, alternatively, has a magical, mythical, and above all inclusive quality.  All creeds, Moslem, Jew, and Christian are happy to be termed Jerusalemites. Davidson is "interested in the common humanity that we all share" and felt this idea could be explored through paintings of people living there. So Jerusalem it was. They travelled to the city last January armed with a few introductions. The aim was to select 12 subjects - a number with obvious religious resonances. The guiding principle of selection was to make the subjects chosen as representative as possible of that ancient city. Many of those selected would not be comfortable in the same room, and indeed one at least threatened to pull out when learning of the identity of another sitter. The chosen 12 include a professor, the Mayor of Jerusalem, a prominent opponent of illegal settlements, two Holocaust survivors, the founder of the Israeli cinema, a renowned children's book author, a Nobel prize winner, a hotel worker, two doctors, and a Benedictine abbot. Sears handled logistics and organised the line up in a Jerusalem hotel where Davidson took photographs and did the multiple sketches on which he bases his paintings. Davidson returned to his studio in Bangor and worked his raw material up into the powerful, sombre paintings that confront you. A decision was made to identify the subjects in the show by their first names only. Those au fait with the politics of Israel may identify a few but I suspect not all of them. The backgrounds of the paintings are neutral and offer no help, the names may offer some clues as to religion, but only the apparel of the Benedictine abbot actually proclaims the man. The latter was born in Belfast around the same time as Davidson so they had plenty to talk about during the sittings. Davidson is passionate in his antipathy to divisive labels and gets "angry and frustrated with our inability to see each other as fellow human beings". 

One of the most significant moments in recent Irish history - Queen Elizabeth and Martin McGuinness shaking hands at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in June 2012 - occurred  in the presence of an earlier set of Colin Davidson's headscapes. Afterwards the monarch was introduced to the artist and brought on a guided tour of the paintings which included heads of Brian Friel, Basil Blackshaw, Michael Longley and other prominent figures from the arts. Some may wonder why Davidson hasn't tackled a sectarian conflict closer to the Irish Sea than the Red Sea. The situation at home is in fact never far from his mind. He is clearly affected by his early experiences in South Belfast and he intends to begin a project involving events "closer to home" over the next 12 months. 

There have been many twists and turns in Davidson's career as an artist and he remarks on the role that chance often plays. Taken on by the legendary Tom Caldwell directly after art college his early work consisted of landscapes and urban scenes, competent but modest in ambition. He describes it as "genre painting". He also ran a successful graphic design company for almost ten years. He had his first solo show in 1997 with Tom Caldwell and became a full-time artist in 1999. His later paintings: the Belfast series and his Window paintings (urban scenes viewed through windows) were well received and he became a successful participant in the burgeoning art market.

In 2012 his work took a new direction - a road he is still travelling with his current show. He had met Peter Wilson (Duke Special) initially about 20 years previously and on renewing their friendship more recently he decided he'd like to do a portrait of the musician. He was an admirer of the music and also intrigued by his look: the velvet clothes, the eyeliner, and the Medusa hair. He decided that he wanted to make the portrait larger than life size - befitting, perhaps, his sitter's persona. He had been working on a series of large window paintings and found a blank canvas just under four foot square that matched his ambitions. This became the start of something big in more ways than one. He exhibited the painting at the RHA annual show where it won the Ireland-US Council/Irish Arts Review Portraiture award and appeared on the cover of the Irish Arts Review. Then Peter Wilson introduced him to Glen Hansard and the resultant large-scale painting was used on the cover of Hansard's best-selling album. It was also selected for the BP Portrait Award in London. His career took a sharp upward turn. Paintings of Paul Brady, Roddy Doyle and Mark Knopfler followed as well as a who's who of the Northern Ireland arts scene including Heaney, Blackshaw, and Friel. What was initially intended as a one-off became a new phase and Davidson embarked on a series of exhibitions and commissions featuring these monumental heads. Davidson likes to get close to his subjects and speaks particularly warmly of Michael Longley, a close neighbour, and Basil Blackshaw. He painted the last portrait of Seamus Heaney before his death and it's poignant to compare that elegiac image of the fading poet with Edward Maguire's 1974 version (in the National Gallery of Ireland) of a virile, ambitious Heaney complete with Beatles hair style. The latter a painting much admired by Davidson.

Visitors to the show will be struck by the sombre and reflective expressions of the subjects. The scale of the work (127 x 117 cms) means that this impression is magnified. Davidson's Jerusalemites are posed looking slightly away from the viewer so neither we, nor the artist, seem to engage them. He has captured them in the quiet moments of reflection and reverie. Davidson entitled a recent exhibition "Between the Words". When sketching a subject he usually chats away for a while but as he progresses lets conversation die and waits for that quiet moment when the sitter looks inward, oblivious of the artist and his activities. While Davidson is also interested in the topography of the face, it's that reflective moment that is the essence these works. That moment that in different people may induce feelings of meditative calm or gnawing unease. In either case it's a uniquely human experience where beyond the noise we feel more fully the fragility and transitoriness of life. T. S. Eliot took a bleak view of this moment in Four Quartets:

Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;

The 12 paintings are best viewed as one exhibit and would lose some of their power if split up. One piece alone is merely a reflective individual. Together they demonstrate that these disparate individuals, professor and plongeur, Jew and Muslim, share something unique that lies beneath the spurious labels and beyond the pomp of power. Davidson is eager not to be seen as offering any easy solutions. "It's important that there's no perception of being patronising. I'm coming at it as a painter, not offering answers". But of course the answer is implicit in the work.


Friday, May 02, 2014

Lithe Young Men Cavorting in Their Underpants

If your fancy turns towards lithe young men cavorting in their underpants then the Abbey's current production of Twelfth Night is the place for you. Even if it doesn't, I'd go along anyway. The director Wayne Jordan (sounds like an early Sixties pop star) lays on the homosexual sub-text with a trowel. We even get a finale where the entire cast cavort in their underpants like followers of Isadora Duncan and then bizarrely all take a shower together - a bathhouse reference no doubt.  But in the meantime we all, gay and straight, have a lot of fun. It's hard not to love this play for the language alone: the rapid fire badinage and the memorable lines. Sir Toby Belch providing many of them describing Maria as: "a beagle through bred". You may have qualms about  the prolonged abuse of poor Malvolio but we're not really taking any of it too seriously - just enjoying the ride. There are of course lacunae and it's too bloody long. The main technical problem is convincing the audience that Sebastian and Viola are as identical as all the characters in the play regard them. This production gets closer than most in this regard - but it's always an issue. Nick Dunning is brilliant as Sir Toby Belch even if I would expect someone as partial to "cakes and ale" to be a tad more rotund. Maybe they should have given him a pillow - but then of course he couldn't have done his climactic shower scene at the end. Malvolio played by Mark O'Halloran damn nearly steals the show - he's every inch the actor, down to his yellow stockings and cross-garters. Anyone who doubts Shakespeare's ability to give us a good laugh these days should head along there. Avoid the coffee in the bar though - probably the worst in Dublin - coloured water. And as for the bombastic prick doing the pre-show announcements, somebody needs to retune him. If we want to be hectored we'll go to a Greek tragedy.