Friday, January 12, 2018

Recent Reads - January 2018

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson
Patricia Highsmith was a fascinating character right down to the snails she carried around in her handbag and her voracious sexual appetite. She became an active and predatory lesbian while still a school girl – at a time (the late 1930s) when it was very much a love that dare not speak its name. No married woman or visiting journalist was spared her advances and she had a hit rate that would put Don Juan to shame. She was also a decent writer of entertaining novels – usually with a dark flavour. However, her biographer spends way to much time analyzing her books in detail – she was no Dostoyevsky. Her life, especially her tortured relationship with her mother, was more interesting than her work and this book would have been better if it were a third shorter than its 500 pages.

The Rub of Time by Martin Amis
I prefer Amis’s non-fiction to his fiction – especially in recent years. Earlier in his career I enjoyed Money and London Fields. But The Moronic Inferno, The War Against Cliché and Koba the Dread worked better for me. His latest entertaining collection throws its net wide embracing poker, porn, politics and literature. There’s even a piece on the Tangerine Terror across the Atlantic. There are very few duds and I especially liked his two essays on Philip Larkin where his ongoing admiration is tinged with some recent reservations. There’s also a very astute piece on Nabokov and of course something on his hero Saul Bellow. It’s not all high art – there’s a very good piece on the renaissance of John Travolta and a rather sad piece on his fading tennis skills.

Sticky Fingers – the Life and Times of Jann Wenner by Joe Hagan
I expected to enjoy this a lot more than I actually did. Maybe I grew weary of the relentless confirmation of what a prick the founder of Rolling Stone actually is. He had the gumption to realize that he could monetize the whole sex, drugs, and rock and roll scene that developed in San Francisco in the Sixties and didn’t much care who he stepped over to accomplish this. His interaction with people like John Lennon and Mick Jagger are occasionally interesting – the Stones were not amused that he called his magazine after them and threatened legal action. He pointed out that they had in turn taken their name from a Muddy Waters’ song and in the end there was a compromise whereby he let Jagger control a UK edition (which quickly foundered). There’s plenty of entertaining tittle tattle about sex and drugs and who was sleeping with who – everybody with everybody it seems. The early drug-fueled chaos of producing the magazine is amusing but it’s now a corporate advertising platform that not many people care about. I gave up about half-way through its 550 pages. I may dip in again if I’m stuck.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This is a stone masterpiece. I avoided it for a long time because I felt queasy about the basic premise – uneasy spirits chatting in a grave yard while Abraham Lincoln mourns his recently deceased young son. But it works. The chatty corpses in Limbo are in denial about their state and look back towards their unfinished business on earth. They also take a keen interest in whether Lincoln’s son will linger restlessly with them or pass over fully. Their conversations are punctuated by contemporary accounts of Lincoln and his son, how he died and how the family dealt with the tragedy. It came as the American Civil War was in full spate and many thousands of families were mourning their dead. It’s a sophisticated and thought-provoking novel and it has sent me off to discover Saunders’ earlier works (all short story collections).

Midwinter Break by Bernard McLaverty

This is hardly the classic I was expecting from all the laudatory reviews I read over the past 6 months. It was a reasonably convincing portrait of a marriage stuck together by old custom that endured despite the yearning of the female partner for something more spiritually satisfying. She had survived a shooting in Northern Ireland and also felt the need to keep a promise to God. The husband’s relentless drinking (morning, noon and night) seemed unconvincing to me. The ice metaphor was a trifle crass also I felt – a bit too obvious. It kept me mildly entertained – no more.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Rancid Ruminations - December 2017

Wherein I decry false Gods and fashionable concerns

The Katie Taylor Farrago

Katie Taylor seems like a very decent woman and is an impressive and dedicated boxer. However I do cringe when I see her being declared a world champion and sporting great after beating a sequence of very limited opponents. The pool of talent in women’s boxing (amateur and professional is very shallow). Nobody can blame Eddie Hearn for trying to carefully contrive a career – a man has to live. However, I’m not impressed with the craven connivance of her cheer-leaders in the Irish sporting press who sing her praises as if she’s a Sonia O’Sullivan or a Brian O’Driscoll – sporting greats tested and proved in the cauldron of genuine competition. Her latest opponents included an overweight nail technician (OK I made that up – but that’s what her appearance suggests) from South America and a chubby clerical worker from the USA. An earlier opponent (Viviane Obenauf) was so friendly that she have her a little kiss towards the end of their fight. Also, this business of parading her in her bra and knickers before the weigh-in embarrasses both me and her. She’s clearly not that kind of girl. I agree with her father – she should retire and reclaim her dignity.

Devastation for Irish Soccer Fans

It is of course devastating for Irish soccer fans (“the best fans in the world” ©) that they have been thwarted of a summer drinking and whoring in Russia. However, I have a small and sad confession to make. I was delighted to see our team fail to qualify for the World Cup. It is an agglomeration of uncreative journeyman (apart from Coleman who’s injured) and would have disgraced us again on the world stage. The Danes did us a favour by exposing our shortcoming on a smaller stage. Also, I listen to a lot of radio and I find that an inordinate amount of time (especially on Newstalk) is dedicated to painfully detailed analysis of mostly forgettable matches – the self-regarding lads on Off the Ball (where everyone is a legend) are particularly guilty. The lead up to the actual event would have would have dominated the airwaves exposing us to the interminable and banal forecasts of retired middle-of-the-road footballers - all of course received by our fan-boy presenters as if they were the mordant utterances of the Delphic Oracle. Is it any wonder that we have the most politically illiterate and inactive population in Western Europe when they expend so much time and energy on so much vacuous shite.

The Christmas Debacle

For me it gets worse every year. The run up now starts in late November and it’s unsafe to enter any large shop as the never ending Christmas songs assail us: Last Christmas by Wham seems particularly ubiquitous this year. The liver damage starts around the 10th when the endless procession of compulsory social events begins. Then there’s the present buying – I’m very bad at this and just throw money at it when inspiration fails again. I would love to go away to somewhere remote but family imperatives rule and I am loth to desert my dogs. In some ways it’s almost worth all the hassle for that glorious feeling on Stephen’s Day when you wake up and realise that it’s over and you can look forward to an afternoon of racing and turkey sandwiches. (But the lurking awfulness of New Year’s Eve stops you getting too cocky.)

Repeal the 8th Amendment

I intend to absent myself from the forthcoming feeding frenzy around the repeal of the 8th Amendment. I’ve always been very queasy about the whole abortion issue and find the idea of marching for the right to terminate life (however flawed) both inglorious and inherently distasteful. But I am fully aware of the ugly pragmatics of abortion and am sure that if I found myself inconveniently pregnant I would do what I had to do despite the pricking of conscience and the bad taste. Therefore I feel it’s women’s right to choose and will leave them to it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Montague Goes Back to UCC

Head Librarian of UCC John Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Wassell

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Irish Examiner on 29 November 2017.
A portrait of the poet John Montague by Northern artist Colin Davidson was unveiled in the UCC library on Wednesday 29 November in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Cork, the President of UCC and the CEO of Cork County Council. This is an account of how the painting of one of UCC’s best-loved and most influential English lecturers came about and how it ended up in its ideal location.

In April 2014 I drove to Bangor, Co. Down to interview the artist Colin Davidson for a profile I was writing for the Sunday Times. Colin has been in the news recently for a portrait of Queen Elizabeth and for his painting of Angela Merkel that appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s person of the year edition. At that stage, three years ago, Davidson was best-known for his portraits of the North's leading literary lights: Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and Michael Longley amongst others. Having lunch with Davidson after the interview I asked why he had omitted the Tyrone-bred John Montague from his pantheon of painted poets. I had been an admirer and acquaintance of the poet since I first encountered him in UCC in the early Seventies. I remember him bringing a sexual dimension to Wordsworth's poetry that caused some fluttering in the dovecotes - especially in the serried ranks of nuns that filled the first two rows in the lecture hall. Montague found Wordsworth's Nutting a particularly juicy source of speculation. 

Through beds of matted fern, and tangled thickets,
Forcing my way, I came to one dear nook

More significantly, Montague was generous with his leisure time and often held court in Henchey’s pub in St. Luke’s. He inspired and encouraged a number of aspirant young poets including Thomas McCarthy, Sean Dunne, William Wall, Maurice Riordan and Theo Dorgan.

Davidson said he’d love to paint him but had difficulty getting hold of him as he was mostly out of the country. I offered to see what I could do to enable a sitting. Given Montague's age it was agreed that it should be sooner rather than later. He had been living in Nice for a number of years but I knew he returned every summer to his house in Ballydehob. I got his phone number and email address from Theo Dorgan and sent off a speculative email. A number of calls and emails ensued. Apart from a very brief word with Montague all of the dialogue was conducted with Elizabeth Wassell - his formidably protective third wife. There was a window of opportunity in late August 2014 when they were in Schull. The draughty house in Ballydehob had apparently been abandoned for the comforts of a hotel. 

Before the appointed day for the sitting I got a chance to see the great man in action one more time. An old UCC sparring partner, Eamon O'Donoghue, arranged to bring the poet over from his French base to do a reading during the Claregalway Garden Festival in July 2014. The bold Doctor O'Donoghue had bought and heroically refurbished an old Norman castle in the town and this was the venue for the reading. I met Montague beforehand. He was having a glass of white wine and some cheese in an anteroom. He looked frail but still retained that roguish twinkle. He's never been the greatest of readers, his mild stutter often intruding, so I was a bit apprehensive about how he might perform. It seemed good that he was taking the precaution of having a few glasses of wine beforehand for fortification purposes. I needn't have worried. Inspired perhaps by a very large audience, or the wine he continued to drink, he gave a fine robust reading - even cracking the odd joke. The last I saw of him was with his diminutive wife and the estimable poet Mary O'Malley who were supporting him on either side as they led him to the car that would take back to his Galway hotel.

A couple of months later, in August 2014, the portrait sitting happened in Grove House in Schull. Davidson was granted an hour during which he took photographs and did a number of preparatory sketches. The sitting went well according to the artist. Apparently the two Northern boys found common cause in their speech impediments - Davidson also has a mild and not unattractive stammer. I looked forward to seeing the end result. One dud note was sounded by Davidson about the encounter. Apparently Montague’s wife had insisted on sitting in - thereby inhibiting somewhat the rapport Davidson likes to build with his sitter. 

Following the completion of the portrait, Davidson invited me up to Bangor to check out the finished article. My daughter, who accompanied me, was well impressed with the portraits  of Ed Sheeran and Brad Pitt that lay about the studio. There amidst them on a easel was the painting of Montague. Colin who had only met him that once was eager to hear conformation that he had done him justice. His fears were groundless. He had captured perfectly that sardonic Montague expression and the inevitable twinkle in the eye. I was delighted with it and so subsequently, and more significantly, were Montague and his wife. Now the next job was to get somebody to buy it for UCC which seemed its ideal home.

I called to see the director of the Glucksman Fiona Kearney early in 2015. She said she would love to house it in the permanent collection but didn’t have the acquisitions budget to buy it. Not discouraged I decided to seek out a private individual to donate it to the college. Ideally it would be a UCC alumni who liked art and poetry and who recognised Montague’s contribution to the institution. I went first to the wealthiest member of my extended family who had studied at UCC, as had generations of his family before him. He told me, with regret, that he had been active lately in the property market and couldn’t help because of his “unimpressive liquidity”. I also drew a blank amongst my old CBC buddies who listened patiently but baulked at the asking price which seemed to confirm their feeling that art was a conspiracy against the laity. Time went by and sadly Montague died in December 2016 without seeing the work appropriately housed. However, at the funeral of a relation of mine in Wilton in early 2017 I ran into solicitor and art lover Michael O’Connell who suggested I contact Gerry Wrixon - former president of UCC. He apparently had been a friend and admirer of Montague’s. I also knew, from my time in Cork, that he was an avid art collector. I sent him a detailed email - enclosing an image of the piece. He responded quickly and generously and the deed was done. So now three years on, all legendary obstacles overcome, Montague’s sardonic smile and twinkling eye will be gazing benignly on the toiling undergraduates of the institution he graced for many years

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Death of Stalin - a brief review

Armando Iannucci has made a career out of taking the piss out of people in high places, as viewers of Veep and The Thick of It will attest. Therefore it came as no surprise that he was doing the same with the Death of Stalin. However, having read as much as I have about that brute and his creepy sidekick Beria, I couldn’t help feeling queasy about this film. Despite the impressive setting, the attention to detail around the uniforms etc., and the actual historical framework on which it was built, it still felt wrong to treat a subject as evil and destructive as Stalin in a humorous manner. He was responsible for millions more deaths than Hitler but can you imagine the fuss that would be generated if the Holocaust was treated thus. It was like watching Carry On Up the Kremlin. This impression was reinforced by seeing Paul Whitehouse as Mikoyan channel Kenneth Williams with his fixed sneer and gurning. It was also difficult to take seriously the incorrigibly mild Michael Palin as Molotov. Steve Buscemi as a very slim Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as a very fat Beria were both superb. And a late appearance by Jason Isaacs as military hero Zhukov well-nigh stole the show. It was all very entertaining but for me it left a very bad aftertaste. Of course satire is to be encouraged where our ruling classes are concerned, when they’re alive – it may give them pause. But what’s the point, other than entertainment, of satirising the dead.  I would love to see that period of Russian history, with all its violence and manoeuvring, receive a dramatic rather than a comic treatment.

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