Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Lost Weekend in Ravello (an encounter with a rare medical condition)

An edited version of my excursion into esoteric medical conditions appeared in the Sunday Times Speakeasy column on the 15 November 2015.

Last month we were invited to a 50th birthday party in Ravello. A beakerful of the warm south before we battened down the hatches for winter. It took place over a long weekend at the Hotel Carouso - perched on high over the Amalfi Coast. Our first stop is Herculaneum to see the petrified city that was buried by Vesuvius in 79 AD. This is well worth the detour on the road from Rome. We roamed around the buried city catching glimpses of mosaics, frescoes, bath houses, and bakeries all indicative of a wealthy and sophisticated society. The ghoulish were catered for in the clusters of grinning skeletons in the cellar areas. Vesuvius stood green-clad and seemingly benign overlooking its handiwork.

We were due in Ravello by late afternoon the next day so we decided to take the scenic route via Sorrento and Positano. It was an interesting ride on a very narrow road that hugged the coast - a precipitous drop to my right as I weaved past the heavy oncoming traffic. Finally we climbed the steep hill into Ravello a town made famous by Gore Vidal and before him Wagner.

The revels began around 7 pm. A lengthy session of aperitifs and canapés were followed by a meal of roast suckling pig. We wanted to keep our powder dry for the gala dinner the following day and so headed to bed early. The next morning we did a bit of local sight-seeing and then returned to the hotel to relax. D decided to go for a swim and I lay down to watch a film from the hotel's library of classic films. (Laurence Olivier's Hamlet.) At some stage I fell asleep and was still drowsing when D. returned to the room. She began to potter around and I assumed she was getting organised for dinner. Lights were turned on and off, doors opened and closed. When the pottering persisted and no productive activity seemed to be ensuing I enquired somewhat querulously: "what are you doing?" "I don't know where I am" was the alarming response. My initial reaction was "get a grip" but it quickly became clear that she was genuinely disorientated - as distracted as the Ophelia I'd just been watching. She kept repeating the same questions: "Where are we? Who's going to dinner?" I rang our daughter in Dublin on Skype in an effort to jog her out of her fugue. They exchanged a few pleasantries but shortly afterwards she had no memory of having spoken to her. I encouraged her to dress for dinner but she didn't know what to wear and asked me to select a dress for her. This was a dramatic deviation from the norm. We eventually pulled together a reasonably presentable outfit - I had to comb her swim dishevelled hair - and headed down for dinner with some trepidation.

We were seated amongst friends and amid the general volubility her virtual muteness wasn't noticed. Mercifully she came out of her disorientation during the meal and began to chat normally. However she didn't eat a morsel of the delicious food and was more than a little bemused. She had become aware of the hole in her recollections of the day. After a decent interval, we retired to our room but before doing so I confided in our host our reason for leaving the party early. Five minutes later his wife, who is a doctor, and a medical colleague were in our room. They were concerned that it could be a minor stroke - we should return to Dublin as soon as possible for tests. A phone call to my brother-in-law in Cork confirmed this solution.

Her GP in Dublin sent her off to St. Vincent's. She did however offer the hypothesis that it could be a rare condition called Transient Global Amnesia - often brought about by swimming. It involves a temporary total loss of short-term memory accompanied by repetitive questioning - but with no long-term implications. Arriving at Vincent's A and E to find it crammed and chaotic we headed south to the Blackrock Clinic where we were attended to immediately (via our health insurance). A day of tests followed and at the end of it the prescient GP's theory was confirmed. A memorable weekend but three hours of it forever lost to one of us.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts

It's hard to think of a historical work that I've enjoyed as much as this 2014 biography of Napoleon by Andrew Roberts. It helped that my ignorance of the details of the great Corsican's life made it more like a thriller than a history book. It's well-wrtten too and not burdened by academic up-its-arseness. It's clear that Roberts is an admirer but it never strays into hagiography and he casts a beady eye on such incidents as the massacre at Jaffa and the precipitous execution of the Duc d'Enghien. There's a tad too much detail about his many battles for my taste but the book is excellent on the manoeuvres of the various players on the European stage and the shifting alliances. Russia is in Prussia is out. Prussia is in Russia is out. The Brits are consistently out and worried mainly by Napoleon's trade embargoes. The rot for Napoleon started with his badly managed Russian campaign and culminated at Waterloo when they all ganged up on him. Unlike 20th century dictators Napoleon brought order, civic codes and processes, and civilisation to the areas he conquered and was a generous supporter of architecture and all the arts (and a looter of other's treasures it should be said). He was an indefatigable letter writer and Roberts is the first historian to have had complete access to his entire output. The result is a lot of intimate detail. His romantic interests were never confined to Josephine (and her bad teeth) and throughout his life he enjoyed the attentions of actresses and singers as well as those of his wife. Josephine was eventually dumped for a strategic marriage with a Prussian princess. Even in the midst of battle he liked to enjoy the company of his latest lady friend. He is portrayed as a man who worked hard, encouraged promotion based on merit, and was extremely courageous. His troops loved him for the way he moved amongst them easily. His ruthlessness isn't ignored either and the way he supplanted the post-revolutionary leaders was a masterclass in political manoeuvring. The dying fall of his life on St. Helena is covered in all its poignant detail as he pottered amiably about his remote prison - charming most of those with whom he came into contact. It's a riveting read really. France could do with him today.


Friday, November 06, 2015

Glimpses of John Montague


John Montague is well into his eighties now and his public appearances in Ireland have become a rarity. He spends most of his time in the kindlier climes of Nice and only returns to his West Cork house during the summer months. He's inclined to sleep in the comfort of a B&B in Schull and use his house near Ballydehob to work and to organise his archive. Anytime I have seen Montague in the last 20 years his current partner has been pretty much welded to his side. She's a diminutive and rather intimidating American woman called Elizabeth Wassell. She's quite extraordinary looking: a tiny figure with great watchful eyes, a lubricious mouth, and a tight skull cap of dyed red hair. She's something of a novelist in a minor key but her role in life is clearly to minister to the great poet and control access to his presence.

I have bumped into Montague from time to time over the past 40 years. He was a lecturer n the English department in UCC while I was a student there. 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. 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


Montague mingled with the students socially and particularly with the College poets including Sean Dunne, Theo Dorgan and Greg O'Donoghue. I'd often see him in Henchey's pub in St. Luke's with Sean Lucey, the Professor of English - a charming man whose life sadly went off the rails later.

Montague's arrival coincided with my last year in UCC and I moved on with my gentleman's degree in English and Philosophy. I didn't encounter him again until about 20 years later when I was staying in D'Arcy's B&B in Wellington Road in Cork - a raffish venue much favoured by artists and writers. I was informed when I checked in that Montague was in the next room to mine - Claire D'Arcy assumed correctly I would know him. There was no sign of him that evening but after I returned from having a few pints with my old buddy Maurice Desmond in Henchey's it became clear that he was back in his room. The next morning we went down for breakfast and the bould Claire marched us straight over to Montague's table so we could breakfast together. Montague was as courtly as ever and introduced us to the new girl friend Elizabeth. We discovered at breakfast that we were both heading to Skibbereen for an art exhibition so I agreed to give them a lift. He was waiting for me on the steps outside at midday - sitting in the sunshine reading to his new girl from the collected poems of Thomas Hardy. Nice. We enjoyed a pleasant journey south punctuated with a pit stop in Rosscarbery for a pint. It had turned cold and I remember how solicitous Montague was towards Elizabeth - proffering her his jacket as she shivered fetchingly. I didn't see much of him in subsequent years apart from occasional encounters in the old Shelbourne Bar. He always stopped for a chat and was unfailingly affable. He never lost that mischievous twinkle in the eye.

Over a year ago I was interviewing the artist Colin Davidson for a profile I was writing for the Sunday Times. Colin had done portraits of most of the North's leading literary lights: Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and Michael Longley amongst others. I observed that he had omitted Montague from his pantheon and he agreed but said the reason was he had difficulty getting hold of him. I said I'd see what I could do to enable a sitting to happen. Given Montague's age it was tacitly agreed that it should be sooner rather than later. I knew he lived in Nice for a lot of the year so we would have to get him on one of his summer visits to Ireland. I got his Nice number and email address from Theo Dorgan and sent off a speculative email. A number of phone calls and emails ensued. Apart from a very brief word with Montague all of the dialogue was conducted with Elizabeth. There was a window of opportunity in late August when they were in Schull through which Colin could climb. More of which anon but in the meantime 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. 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 to the castle. Elizabeth sat by his side gazing up at him adoringly the while. Around him were clustered an artistic elite: Brian Bourke, Mary O'Malley and Jay Murphy amongst others. 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. He began with that very slippery and sexual poem The Trout, which he dedicated to the memory of his old buddy Barrie Cooke. He also did that beautiful tremulous love poem All Legendary Obstacles:

All legendary obstacles lay between

Us, the long imaginary plain

The monstrous ruck of mountains

He continued through many of his best known poems, including Like Dolmens Round my Childhood and concluded with Landing, a tribute to his current wife:

"beside whom I now belong . . . my late but final anchoring”

There seems something wrong with that metaphor - a hint of captivity perhaps - but who am I question the great poet.

After the performance they inflicted the usual book signing debacle on the poor guy. The last I saw of him was with his tiny wife and the estimable Mary O'Malley who were supporting him on either side as they led him to the car that would take back to the hotel. The sailor is definitely home from the sea.

A couple of months later the portrait sitting happened in the Grove Guest House in Schull. Colin Davidson was granted an hour during which he took photographs and did a number of his preparatory sketches. The sitting went well according to Colin. Apparently the two Northern boys found common cause in their stutters - Colin also has a mild and not unattractive stammer. I look forward to seeing the end result. A museum or academic institution in the North or in Cork would seem apt. Or perhaps a benefactor could buy it for the Writer's Museum.

I had hoped to get an interview with Montague while he was in Schull but I was made aware by Elizabeth that I had used up my time allotment. In fact Lara Marlowe had done an excellent piece on him in the Irish Times not too long ago and I'm not sure I could have improved on it. She asked him the one question I would certainly have asked. It was the same question Montague asked Samuel Beckett in an interview just before he died: "Tell me Sam, looking back, has it all been worth while?". To which Beckett replied in the predictable negative, adding "and what's more I watched my mother die". When asked the same question by Marlowe, Montague was less bitter but did intimate that things could have been easier for him materially. A bit of a surprise that coming from a man with a winter retreat in Nice. But perhaps he feels underappreciated - that some of the rewards and plaudits that decorated his old buddy Seamus Heaney could have come his way.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Makiko Nakamura - Journeys

This review first appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 11 October 2015.

Makiko Nakamura is a Japanese artist who moved to Dublin in 1999 to commune with the shade of Samuel Beckett. She returned to her native Kyoto last year. Her early work here inclined towards the cryptic with greys and blacks predominant. Her exemplar's influence could be seen both in the rigorous minimalism of these virtually monochromatic paintings and in their finely-honed finish. Her current show featuring 39 new works hasn't entirely abandoned this early tendency. The large painting North Temple is almost uniformly black apart from the shadow of a grid beneath the surface. It's an imposing piece imbued with a dark serenity that suggests Rothko. There are still quite a few of these moody meditations in the show but they are leavened by others that demonstrate a lighter and brighter palette. Yellows and blues abound and Les Ailes Rouges is a luxuriant red. Also, her characteristic underlying grid has been replaced in many cases by circles - producing softer cells. Her technique involves the application of layer upon layer of paint, constantly erasing and reworking so that the completed work shows traces of the stages in its creation. These are painterly palimpsests for our mediative contemplation.

Taylor Galleries


John P. O'Sullivan


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

An Italian Journey


We flew into Rome's Ciampino airport with Ryanair. This is a good tactic if you're heading south as even someone as useless with directions as I am can quickly find their way onto the main autostrada between Rome and Naples. It's a very busy route with loads of trucks but as it's mostly three lanes so progress is excellent. The Italians like to drive fast.

Our first stop is Herculaneum to see the petrified city that was buried by Vesuvius in 79 AD. We planned to stay in a nearby hotel so I cunningly saved the directions from the hotel website and had them displayed on my iPAD. That's when our heartaches began. We got to the outskirts of Ercolano no problem but then were thwarted by multiple sets of roadworks. The directions took us up on pavements, through tiny streets, into a teeming ghetto, and finally to a dead end where stern featured loiterers observed our impotent manoeuvres. Eventually, sweat pouring from me, we managed to reverse back up to a main road and began to drive around in speculative circles. Lost, irreparably lost and no GPS to offer advice. At a busy junction I saw a police car parked off the road so I pulled in to ask directions to the hotel. He pointed over my shoulder to a building directly opposite where I'd parked. A lucky break. We were at our destination - the Hotel Herculaneum. The surrounding area was pretty scummy (filthy streets and slums) - but the hotel was clean and roomy with very helpful staff. Their car park was down an alley way nearby and it had a tiny chicken run in the corner. I distributed bread to the doleful fowl.

The visit to the site was well worth this detour on our road to Ravello. Fascinating glimpses of mosaics, frescoes, bath houses, and bakeries indicating a wealthy and sophisticated society. The ghoulish were catered for in the clusters of grinning skeletons in the cellar areas. Vesuvius stood green-clad and benign overlooking its handiwork. There were absolutely no decent restaurants in the vicinity of our hotel so we settled for a cheap and cheerful pizzeria. And so to bed.

We were due in Ravello by late afternoon and so decided to take the scenic route via Sorrento, Positano and Amalfi - rather than the direct route towards Salerno. It was an interesting ride. We mostly hugged the coast on a very narrow road perched high above the sea - a precipitous drop just to my right as I weaved past the heavy oncoming traffic. Every now and then a bus would appear necessitating careful manoeuvring and occasional reversing. A feature of the towns on the way such as Positano and Amalfi was the lines of cars parked along the edges of the road on the approaches. These left us with one and a half lanes to operate with. The locals all live on houses up the sheer mountain side where cars presumably cannot go. Hence the debacle. God knows what it's like at the height of summer. Eventually we got to Amalfi - a beautiful town but teeming with tourists. We continued up the mountains towards Ravello. After a few miles we came to a dead halt as there was a traffic light ahead. We waited for nearly 15 minutes before we could take off again. Half the road up was pretty much reduced to one lane.

Ravello doesn't allow cars enter but our hotel (the Carouso) mercifully took our car from us and we settled in to enjoy the revels. A lengthy session of aperitifs and canapés followed before we settled down to a meal of roast suckling pig and many refills of wine. We kept our powder dry for the gala dinner the next day and headed to bed early. We set out the following morning on a tour of Ravello accompanied by a large umbrella. It was pissing rain. The cathedral is a reasonable sight but the Villa Rufolo is the prime target for tourists with its spectacular views, wonderful selection of trees, and poignant reminders of former glories. I could have done without the Guido Harari exhibition of photography inside featuring artfully arranged portraits of Tom Waits, David Crosby, Keith Jarrett etc.

Back then to the Carouso for lunch which featured parmigiana, pizzas, a delicious pasta dish and umpteen salads, meats and cheeses. I won't even mention the desserts which I righteously eschewed. For the afternoon I withdrew to my bed-chamber and watched the Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet which was available from the hotel's superb video library. The gorgeous Jean Simmons, a fantasy female from my teenage years, played Ophelia.

The main event of the weekend began at 7.30 pm with the gathering for aperitifs. I was chagrined to see that most of the men had turned up suited and tied. I had gone for an elegant pair of dark trousers and a sportive orange shirt. Time showed me the wiser in this regard as the weather turned decidedly humid with an electric storm burgeoning Wagnerishly outside. The food continued to excel wth a pasta and clam starter followed by a grilled sea bass confection. Then there were speeches in which the three birthday boys received their rightful dues. Their generosity in sponsoring the lavish event was rightly acknowledged. After the meal and the speechifying some hard-core dancing ensued. I have retired from that sphere of activity but can still appreciate the pleasure it gives to its adepts - particularly the women who come alive on the floor. After a decent interval I retired to my room to continue my reading - Andrew Robert's fine biography of Napoleon.

The next day we had to return precipitously to Dublin for medical reasons (an interesting but transient condition). The quick route over the mountains was blocked my mud-slides so we had to descend to Amalfi and follow the tedious (but scenically stunning) coast road to Salerno. Not for the nervous driver - one moment of inattention will certainly cause disaster. The autostrada back to Rome airport caused little excitement until I almost careered into the back of a traffic jam on the outskirts of the city. Great brakes on that little Corsa. A full weekend we had of it.


Friday, October 16, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet


After a 15 month hiatus between booking and looking my appetite was well whetted for this much heralded theatrical event. I tried to avoid reading the reviews but somehow it leaked out that what we had was a first-rate Hamlet in a second-rate production. And so alas it proved. Let me count the ways. First of all why is Laertes black? It's a distracting casting decision. Polonius his father is white, Ophelia his sister is white and there's no sign of a black mother. Nor is there any suggestion in the play that he is black. I hope it's not tokenism so that a black actor has a significant role in a major production. I'd be perfectly happy if the whole family were black. I'm just worried about the spurious inconsistency and seeming arbitrariness of it. Then there's the problem of Ophelia. I have never been so glad to see a character die off. She gave a ridiculously mannered and over to top performance that robbed her eventual death of all it's poignancy. You felt that the poor creature was so demented that we were all better off. And her rushed diction was often unintelligible. Another problem, and this was design not acting, was lumbering Horatio with a large rucksack for most of the play. I know he's a student but this was a clumsy and distracting device. The rest of the cast were fine although I would have preferred my Gertrude a bit more sensual. It was good to see Jim Norton as Polonious and the estimable Ciaran Hinds as Claudius.

There were other issues for me. The giant scale of the stage was such that I felt a lot of the action was diminished by it. And there was too much bloody running. Nobody seemed to walk off stage everyone seemed to exit frantically - running hard. You could excuse it for mad Ophelia or angry Laertes but it was a general malaise. Hamlet is always edited for length by directors but this one seemed to cut many of the really significant scenes. I didn't mind too much the cutting of the initial scene with the ghost in the battlements but much else was hewed off as well. The role of Polonious seemed to suffer particularly badly and the gravedigger's scene was also reduced.

But despite all the forgoing, Cumberbatch was magnificent - even when they dressed him in those silly costumes (an Indian head dress, a tshirt with King on the back) to convey his antic disposition. He looks the part physically and declaims the verse with panache. His presence and power ruled the stage whenever he was on it - which let's face it is most of the play. He single-handedly saved the production from tilting into mannered mediocrity.

And I hated the cover of the programme (see image). A silly conceit that undermines the whole business.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Hunger in Havana?

Simon Carswell may be a former journalist of the year but he's got his facts very wrong on Cuba. In an otherwise competent piece on US/Cuba relations in the Irish Times last Saturday (26 September) he tells us that "children with bellies swollen from hunger play in the streets" of Havana. In two lengthy recent visits to Cuba where I travelled all around the island, steering clear of the tourist traps, I never came upon a malnourished child. On the contrary, I was repeatedly surprised at how, even in the smallest villages, you'd encounter well-nourished children turned out smartly in their school uniforms. But don't take my word for it. A World Food Programme Report in 2015 stated that: "With its comprehensive social protection programmes, Cuba has largely eradicated hunger". It's true that their diet may not be very exciting, consisting mainly of beans and rice, but nobody goes hungry. Perhaps Washington-based Mr. Carswell has been spending too much time with Republican politicians from Florida.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Oliver Comerford - The Longest Road

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 13 September 2015

The title of Oliver Comerford's new show, The Longest Road, invites speculation. It could merely refer to his extensive travels during which he takes the photographs that underpin his paintings. Or it could perhaps refer to another kind of journey. A journey beginning and ending in darkness with occasional flashes of light in between. Such is the suggestiveness of these atmospheric works. Comerford selects a group of images from the thousands harvested on his road trips and uses them as the foundation for a coherent set of paintings. These are not photorealist exercises. They are more about recreating the mood of a passing instant than of capturing the minute physical details of place. They reflect the artist's experiences as seen through a car window, darkly. There's a sense of alienation and isolation in these works. It's mostly dusk, a distant glow in the sky is being overtaken by darkness. Oncoming cars approach blindingly. A smudged moon illuminates the indifferent landscape. An ominous mountain looms, a road curves into the unknown, a troubled river threatens. These are glimpses of an evanescent world. We are just passing through.

Kevin Kavanagh Gallery

Tel: 01-4759514

John P. O'Sullivan


Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Charles Tyrrell - New Paintings

An edited version of this piece was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 30 August 2015.

It's fitting that the West Cork Arts Centre has honoured the memory of Jim O'Driscoll, naming its ground floor gallery after a man who was an indefatigable supporter of art in the region. It's a shame it refers to him as "James" however. He was known as "Jim" throughout the art world - and the legal world. He would have loved to have been around for the current exhibition where Charles Tyrrell, who he much admired and collected, continues his manoeuvres on aluminium. Tyrrell refers to his painting as "a dance within a structure". The metal is engraved with a grid and then scored loosely - allowing the paint to circulate sinuously. When we view Tyrrell's work we keep looking for signs of the spectacular landscapes and seascapes around his home in Allihies. An easy option he righteously avoids. He works from a studio with only a skylight - like Ulysses negotiating the Sirens. Occasionally we think we've caught him with his defences down - as in A5.15 (above). That's surely an elegiac sunset over the Atlantic framed within a dark coastline. Also, a number of the smaller pieces with their strong horizontals contain intimations of landscapes. But mostly this stern, stately, abstract work exists in a realm beyond the painted veil of mere appearance.

West Cork Arts Centre





Tuesday, August 18, 2015

John Kelly - Castlehaven to Antartica


An edited version of this review was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 16 August 2015.

When you roll into Castletownshend it's inevitable that you'll end up at Mary Anns, down the hill near the harbour. This award winning pub is presided over by Fergus O'Mahony who also runs the Warren Gallery upstairs - named after a local art patron. You can enjoy his sea-food surrounded by fine art and finish up with a tour of the current show. Your host's infectious enthusiasm for art is reflected in the rash of red dots visible.

Kelly who is feted in Melbourne and Sydney, and has a show coming up in New York, is less-well known is this country, despite living here for more ten years. While he made his name as a sculptor he has focused more on painting and print-making in recent times. He likes to get out and about. The striking series of images of Castlehaven were painted plein air from Ceim Hill and the stark studies of High and Low islands were captured from a perch in Myross Cemetery (see photo), overlooking the Atlantic. This exposure to wild and windy West Cork would have toughened him up for his recent expedition to the Antarctic where he also worked outdoors. While the bulk of the show features seascapes from around his current home, the Southern Ocean adventure features in a beautifully minimal etching of a penguin and two carborundum prints of giant icebergs.

The Warren Gallery


tel: 028 36146

John P. O'Sullivan


Monday, August 10, 2015

New Paintings - Michael Canning

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 9 August 2015.

Catherine Hammond continues to fly the flag for top quality contemporary Irish art in scenic Glengarrif. Her latest offering is a striking exhibition of new work by the Limerick artist Michael Canning. The show is dominated by two giant pieces Selva Oscura I and Selva Oscura II - dramatic depictions of a dark wood through which an ethereal light glows. These virtuoso works, over ten feet tall, were created on paper using acrylic, charcoal, soot, ash and pencil. They must have tested the artist's technical and logistical abilities. Elsewhere Canning continues his detailed renditions of the flora of his native county. Don't be distracted by his titles (Night in Attica etc.), these exotic looking plants are all to be found in his local hedgerows. Not that Canning's concerns are scientific. His wild flowers, set like sculptures against an evening sky, evince a mood and display an artistry beyond the merely botanical. There's a profound poignancy at their heart - a sense of beauty and of its transitory nature. Night is approaching over the darkening flatlands of County Limerick, birds wheel above, restlessly. These works when contemplated give us pause from the rattle and hum of our pragmatic, preposterous world. In the inner gallery a group show contains fine pieces by Hughie O'Donoghue, Stephen Lawlor, Donal Teskey, and Bill Crozier amongst others.

Catherine Hammond Gallery


Mon-Sun 11am-6pm

tel: 027 63812



Tuesday, July 28, 2015

He'll Be on the Fiddle, I'll be on the Brush

This profile appeared in an edited form in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 26 July 2015


Mick O'Dea, a founding member of the Independent Artists group, caused consternation amongst his fellow contrarians when he accepted the offer of membership of the RHA in 1993. "Nobody had ever elected me to anything before so I said why not." His friends were horrified: "It was the equivalent of someone taking the king's coin in their eyes or a doctrinaire Republican becoming a Free Stater." A hint there of another volte face by another man associated with East Clare. O'Dea has no qualms about his defection. He describes the current RHA "as being an amalgam of the Living Art, the Independent Artists, with a touch of the old Oireachtas" and believes it has absorbed the diversity promoted by those organisations. This seems a valid assertion when you consider the range of exhibits and styles in the recent annual shows, although traces of the old academy still linger in those leaden formal portraits and in the occasional bouts of incest where academicians paint each other. O'Dea's recent elevation to the presidency of the RHA follows 30 years of energetic engagement with the Irish art scene both as artist and teacher.

Born in Ennis, O'Dea inherited a work-ethic from his parents who from modest origins built up a business encompassing a pub, a grocery shop and a farm. An influential art teacher, Jim Hennessy, at St. Flannan's College pointed him in the direction of NCAD. He chose to avoid the more obvious choice of Limerick College of Art as he knew that being so close to home would entail pub duty at weekends. "I wanted to get as far away from Ennis as I could." Following graduation at NCAD he immediately began teaching night classes there and took part time work elsewhere including King's Hospital and St. Edmundsbury Hospital - the mental health facility. He was involved with Brian Maguire and Theresa McKenna in setting up and teaching the Art in Prison programme and for a period taught art to both the Provisionals and the INLA in Portlaoise. He also taught at Dun Laoghaire College of Art for five years. All the while O'Dea was painting and honing his talent but was biding his time. "All my work in education ensured that I wasn't dependent on the art market and could develop my voice as an artist free from commercial pressure". But he was determined not to turn into a full-time teacher by succumbing to the siren call of the pension. He was given the perfect opportunity when he was elected to Aosdana. The resultant Cnuas cut him loose and in 1999 he gave up teaching and became a full-time artist.

This has been his life since that date. It hasn't always been easy. "For me the boom time wasn't a particularly good time. My main way of surviving has been portrait commissions." This uneasy survival is reflected in the number of galleries he has been associated with. After leaving NCAD he was keen to show at the Lincoln Gallery where fellow Independent Artists gathered. However after a few group shows he wasn't offered any further encouragement and through the efforts of Charlie Brady he got his first solo show in Taylor Galleries in 1983. It was very successful: "Dr. John Cooney came in and he bought a swathe of them. I took it for granted. This is what happens." The exhibition consisted of landscapes and rural scenes including cattle. His parents had always been supportive of his career choice but this success particularly resonated with his father. "When he thought of the time and effort he had to put in getting a bullock ready for market and compared it to the money I made from a painting of one he decided there must be something in this game." But disillusion was to follow this auspicious start as subsequent shows attracted scant attention and he decided to change galleries when Taylor Galleries was slow to schedule a new show. He moved on to the Rubicon for a period and following his election to the RHA he began to show at that venue. He also found a sympathetic home at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery and has been showing with him for the past 14 years - culminating in his striking trilogy of exhibitions dealing with the aftermath of the 1916 Rising: Black and Tan, Trouble, and The Split.

One of the reasons for O'Dea's erratic relationship with commercial success may be his insistence on trying new things. Many successful artists, in Ireland and elsewhere, have a signature style so that when you buy a piece its recognisable as being by that specific artist. Everyone, for example, recognises a Felim Egan. With O'Dea it's not so easy. You might get get toy soldiers, confrontational nudes, portraits, historical tableaux, landscapes and even cardboard sculptures. "My model was always Picasso" he says in explanation of this eclectic approach. "I liked the way that after Cubism he moved on to neo-classicism." Despite O'Dea's cleaving to the academy his artistic influences are from further afield. While his work is figurative he doesn't look to Orpen or to Keating but rather to German Expressionism - especially Kokoschka, Auerbach, and Schiele. The first-named perhaps predominates as an influence but Édaín, an expressive and sexually frank series of nudes he did in 1998, is positively Schielesque. By way of contrast he has a fine portrait of Brian Friel in the National Gallery.

A recurring feature of the Irish art landscape is the bitter chorus of disaffected artists whose work has failed to make it into the annual RHA show. O'Dea is very open about the matter. "It's very difficult to get in." This year there were 2,600 works submitted and only around 14% got through. These made up around 60% of the show. The other 40% is made up of work by the academicians and selected artists. The latter group is selected by the council that oversees the annual show. One of the benefits of having selected artists is that they tend to submit larger works knowing that they will be accepted. "otherwise the show would look like a stamp collection". O'Dea sees the occasional rejection entailed by the process as being part and parcel of an artist's lot. He points to his own experience with the Royal Ulster Academy (RUA). "In 2011 I was an invited artist. In 2012 I was an adjudicator. In 2013 I won the RUA Portrait Prize. In 2014 I was rejected. In 2015 I will submit again." A lesson there for all artists.

O'Dea's no nonsense approach to art is refreshing. He brings a rural authenticity into an area where urban preciousness often thrives. His impending gig at the Kilkenny Arts Festival is an exercise in demystification. It is also an indication of someone who is comfortable in his own skin and confident in his craft. For two weeks he will attend various events (concerts, plays etc.) and set up an easel to record the performers during the shows. "I'll be an embedded reporter using drawing as a media." The day after the performance he will select a participant for a more detailed painting in the studio he has set up in James Stephens Barracks. The studio will be open to the public for one and a half hours each afternoon from 9-16 August. He has already lined up Garry Hynes and Dearbhla Molloy for these sessions. He also hopes to enlist his cousin the fiddle player Martin Hayes who's performing at the Festival. "He'll be on the fiddle and I'll be on the brush." His finished portraits and sketches will be on display in a range of venues around the city.

Seeing O'Dea looking healthy and energetic in his RHA studio it's difficulty to imagine that it's just over a year since the horrific accident that nearly killed him. A pedestrian absorbed on his mobile phone walked out in front of his bike on O'Connell Street. O'Dea slammed on his newly serviced brakes and was sent somersaulting over the handlebars. He landed on his back and ruptured his spleen. Only the proximity of the Mater Hospital and some quick thinking fellow cyclists saved his life as he had suffered a massive internal bleed. Apart from having to take care of himself a bit more (" I mind the drink and take a small daily dose of antibiotics") there are no long-term effects. "I feel that I've had another chance in life." He had no hesitation in taking on the demanding role of President less than nine months later. "I feel that it's a very worthy endeavour". He sees the RHA as "a strong, robust institution run for artists that is trying to get the best artists as members." This is not always possible. When I queried the omission of certain artists from the roster of members he responded that: "Being elected to the RHA is not just an honour like being made a member of Aosdana. Now that you've been elected you must roll up your sleeves." Participation in the activities of the RHA is "an absolute requirement." This doesn't suit certain artists. O'Dea himself set a sterling example by becoming the first Principal of the revived RHA School in 2006. He is determined to make things happen during his term in office. In addition to engaging with a younger generation of Irish entrepreneurs to help reduce the RHA's considerable loan burden, he is keen to expand the programme of events in the building in Ely Place by developing the extensive basement area. He also sees his role as someone who will raise the profile of art in Ireland where he feels it lags behind other art forms through media neglect. He bemoans the absence of a supportive figure like Mike Murphy. "Within the popular media there's a general dumbing down and an omission of the visual arts - a lot of it has to do with the presenters and their priorities. We don't have a BBC4 to counteract this. There's no visual arts on the Saturday shows." He would like to see artists like Imogen Stuart contribute to the national debate. "She has a lot to say." So has this hard-working son of County Clare whose robust stewardship at the RHA should help raise the voice of Irish art and claim back some of the territory ceded to the more aggressively marketed arts.



Tuesday, July 21, 2015

George Campbell and the Belfast Boys

This piece was originally published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 12 July 2015.

George Campbell has been a slightly neglected figure in Irish art. Rebuffs from establishment critics, rows with influential dealers, and snootiness about his self-taught origins all played a part. The Spanish thought enough of him to make him a Knight Commander of Spain and named a roundabout after him in Malaga. Adam's popular Summer Loan show series, now in its sixth year, provides the public with an opportunity to view little-seen seen work from Campbell and his Belfast friends Gerard Dillon, Dan O'Neill and Arthur Armstrong. The show is curated by Karen Reihill, who also wrote the illuminating and copiously illustrated catalogue essay. Campbell lived six months of the year in Spain for much of the second half of his life and the paintings reflect his dual locations with scenes from Ireland vying with his more colourful Spanish output. Contrast Bullfight with the chilly Howth Harbour. Studies of musicians abound reflecting Campbell's live-long interest in music. We also see some rare work from the Troubles featuring gas masks and riot shields. While Campbell dominates the show, there's an abundance of riches elsewhere: Connemara Dream a late Gerard Dillon, Girl from the North by Dan O'Neill and Arthur Armstrong's Little Girl with Pram. In addition to the paintings there's a host of fascinating letters and photographs of the protagonists and their circle of friends.


Dublin 2.



Tom Climent - Season Map

This piece was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 5 July 2015

The Liss Ard Estate is well worth a visit if you find yourself in the Skibbereen area. The glorious gardens boast James Turrell's Sky Garden, arguably the most spectacular piece of public art in the country. This summer there's an additional reason for art lovers to call - a large and impressive exhibition by Tom Climent. He's yet another Cork artist whose work is inclined to blush unseen due to the closure in recent years of Cork's two commercial galleries - the Fenton and the Vangard. His initial momentum through a much vaunted graduate show, followed by various awards including the Victor Treacy and Tony O'Malley prizes, and a number of successful solo shows has slowed down somewhat. This exhibition should help propel him back to where he belongs in the front ranks of Irish artists. The bright and airy spaces of the beautiful Georgian building are an ideal setting for this most painterly of painters. The shapes and structures in his paintings are the stages on which his sensual colours dance. Is that a house? Is that a hexagon? They are the means to an end, and the end is all about colour. Gorge your eyes on paintings such as Groundwater and Mantle where luxuriant purples, greens and blues disport themselves around their ectoplasmic scaffolding.

Liss Ard Estate


Mon-Sun: 9am-9pm

Tel: 028 40000



Saturday, July 18, 2015

Peg Plunket: Memoirs of an Irish Whore by Julie Peakman

This review appeared in an edited form in the Sunday Times on the 5 July 2015.

This book has a dirty little secret. It contains not a scrap of titillation. The most radical perversion recounted involves a little mild toe play: "His unspeakable pleasure was picking, washing, and cleaning my pretty little toes." Even the brutal rape that occurs late in the book is covered by the discreet phrase "we were forced to comply with their infamous desires." This will come as a disappointment to those expecting an Irish Fanny Hill or to those who have read Peakman's previous book A History of Sexual Perversion. It's hardly Peakman's fault as she's dealing with a set of memoirs in which the writer claims "I am careful not to pen a single line that can excite a blush in the most refined cheek". Notwithstanding the dearth of dirt, this is a mildly entertaining account of the life of a charismatic and resourceful woman and of the quaint mores of a bygone era.

The book is based on the Memoirs of Mrs. Margaret Leeson written in 1798. Margaret (Peg) Plunkett was born in Delvin, County Westmeath some time around 1742 - the date is disputed by historians. Peg subsequently adopted the name Leeson from one of her early protectors. Her father Matthew Plunkett "possessed a very handsome property near Corbetstown". The memoirs were written late in her life and were an attempt both to raise money and to frighten her debtors into paying up lest they feature in her book. The original memoirs are wildly unreliable and relentlessly self-serving but they nonetheless provide a fascinating glimpse of life in 18th Century Dublin.

Peg was a high-spirited often wilful girl and her comfortable middle-class life came to an abrupt end when her father gave control of his properties to her violent and domineering older brother. After a series of savage beatings Peg decamped with a Mr. Dardis who promised to marry her - the sine qua non for sleeping with respectable girls in those days. However the sex happened but not the marriage and a disgraced Peg was ostracised by her family and headed for starvation. She decided that the solution to her problems lay in profitable compliance to men's desire. "I vowed to yield myself to the first agreeable and profitable offer that is made to me". She asks of those who might judge her: "Were you ever at the point of starvation?"

There followed a sequence of lovers and protectors who would shower her with gifts and house her in splendour. These included Thomas Caulfeild, Mr. Lawless, Mr. Leeson, and the Reverend Lambert. Keeping Peg was clearly an expensive business and she revelled in it: "Champagne is a wine I never loved but only as it was dear, and I liked to put those who treated me to as much expense as I could."

But Peg was torn between her desire for security and her adventurous spirit and was forever spiting the hand that fed her. She produced nine children by various lovers but they get scant mention and most appear to have died prematurely - one from shock after an assault on her house and another from an "inward complaint." Lawless was perhaps the great love of her life and when he fled to America to escape his debts, Peg's heart hardened and she decided to make a business out of what initially had been a way of ensuring a comfortable passage through life. "In short I was to become a compleat Coquet." Later on she leased a house on Drogheda Street with her friend Sally Hayes and it soon became the place of low resort for fashionable Dublin. Peg suffered no shame about her business. She regularly took her entourage of trollops to the theatre as a way of advertising their charms.

It seems men went a whoring as a matter of routine in those days. Her admirers included the Duke of Rutland, who was Lord Lieutenant at the time. He parked a troop of armed and mounted soldiers outside while her house while he and his friends indulged in a 16-hour revel. The Duke's notorious appetite for claret eventually caught up on him and this heroic bon viveur died from liver disease in his Phoenix Park Lodge at the age of 33.

Peg alas also came to a rather sticky end. While returning home one night she and a companion were set upon by a gang of ruffians and were robbed and raped. This assault resulted in a serious venereal infection, probably syphilis, and she died in abject poverty not long after. An attempt at a cure using mercury probably hastened her demise. She was working on her memoirs right to the very end and the last entry reads poignantly: "good heavens my fingers refuse to do their office".

The sub-title of the book, Memoirs of an Irish Whore is misleading. These are not the first person memoirs of Peg but rather a very loose biography written in the third person. It's still an interesting story but it lacks the true voice of this extraordinary woman. It's a kind of Peg for Dummies. The best bits are the occasional extracts from the original memoirs. Also, Irish readers may find the potted Irish history a bit tedious. If you want to encounter the authentic voice of Peg you will be better served by the 1995 Lilliput Press version of the memoirs edited by Mary Lyons. Or better still visit the manuscripts room of the NLI and experience the real thing.


240 pp


Monday, July 06, 2015

Don Cronin - Oblique Revisions

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 28 June 2015.

Don Cronin's public sculpture is probably familiar to anyone who travels regularly around the southern half of the country. There's his personable bull on the way into Macroom, Billy the Blacksmith outside Innishannon, and Gyrators, an abstract piece near Midleton - to name but a few. However, to catch this artist at his best you need to view his gallery work - free from the compromises often involved in public commissions. It's surprising that he's had to wait so long for his first solo show in Dublin and the Artistic Alliance is to be commended for bringing him to Bonham's. His immaculately finished abstract pieces hint at Constructivism and its disciples such as David Smith and the influential Tipperary-born sculptor John Burke. But Cronin occasionally adds a twist to the smooth amalgam of geometries that is Constructivism by inserting a slightly contrary organic note in the midst of the machined perfection. His materials include bronze, stainless steel, and aluminium. There's also a problematical experiment in polyester resin. But overall the show demonstrates an accomplished artist at the height of his creative powers. Two pieces stand out, After Bonneville in stainless steel and Stack (above) in aluminium. This work has the drama and radiance of fully realised art.

John P. O'Sullivan


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Not the Same Sky by Evelyn Conlon

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 14 June 2015.

Did the Earl Grey Female Orphan Emigration Scheme of 1848 deposit hordes of marauding Irish trollops on the streets of Australian cities as nationalist newspapers and government reports of the time suggest? Or did a benign and orderly group of Irish girls settle into their new life of service, marriage and child-bearing with barely a disruptive ripple, as Evelyn Conlon infers in her novel about this little-known episode in Irish history.

The book is a fictionalised account of events arising from the Earl Grey scheme which transported young Irish female orphans from workhouses around the country to Australia to alleviate the eight to one male to female disparity there. The British authorities would thus ease the overcrowding in its Famine filled institutions and at the same time provide breeding stock and servant girls for its young colony. The novel centres on the lengthy journey of these hapless girls to Australia on the Thomas Arbuthnot and their subsequent lives in Australia.

Those familiar with Robert Hughes classic The Fatal Shore may be expecting the worst on the voyage but the most eventful thing that happens is one of the younger girls has her first period to the consternation of her and her companions. There was also some sea sickness. But these were minor events on this transoceanic idyll where the girls enjoyed classes every day and occasional dancing on deck. They expressed their gratitude by making a quilt for the Surgeon-Superintendent. There's talk of "substantial pies" and at the end of the voyage the Surgeon-Superintendent proudly notes of his charges that "They are fatter now." How could such a Edenic state prevail on a four-month voyage in a ship crammed with nubile girls and lusty sailors? Only perhaps in a novel aimed at those who prefer bland escapism to brute reality.

A lot of the inaction is viewed through the eyes of the ship's Surgeon-Superintendent Charles Strutt - an historical figure. One of Conlon's source documents was Strutt's diary of the voyage and his subsequent encounters with the girls over the years. He was a kind and thoughtful man and practised the Victorian virtues by ensuring that his charges received decent sanitary facilities, rudimentary education and even the occasional diversion through dances.

Although focusing on the lives of four of the girls, the only character that really comes alive is Strutt, thanks perhaps to the material gleaned from his diaries. We get a detailed account of his courtship and marriage and are told of his "wistful libido". One of the girls, Julia, is a free spirit who escapes the system and makes her own way. She doesn't discount prostitution: "There was always one thing she could do if she ever became hungry" but there's no indication that she took that route. Eventually she becomes a dancer and meets Lola Montez on her travels.

And herein lies the worm at the heart of this confection. Unlettered orphans do not keep diaries and so we have no knowledge of the interior lives of these girls. A Victorian gentleman's perspective is the dominant one and Conlon's imagination does not adequately fill the gap. The descriptions of life after the voyage are superficial and her very brief attempts to get inside their heads in the form of diaries discovered for Honora and Julia seem like afterthoughts. Honora quoting Aeschylus seems downright unlikely. Conlon has spent time in Australia and there are dabs of local colour (she knows her lorikeets) but these do not make a convincing recreation of the kind of lives these unfortunate women must have lived. We hear only one indirect account of any violence - where it's reported that an Eliza Horgan was struck by her master: "Her master!. Molly shrieked. Don't be silly. Why would a master hit you?"

Nor does the quality of the prose compensate for the pallid escapism of the content. The term shtum has no place outside an episode of Only Fools and Horses and the flat and anachronistic nature of the writing fails to engender any period atmosphere. And what can this phrase mean: "Honora knocked him off his heart with her look"?

Back in the real world the story did not have a happy ending. "Hordes of useless trollops, thrust upon an unwilling community" screamed the Melbourne Argus. A more measured report to the Children's Apprenticeship Board claimed that in Adelaide in 1849 "there are 21 of the Irish Orphans upon the Streets". This led to protests against the "dregs" of the Irish workhouses being dumped on Australian society. As complaints grew more vocal, and as the famine in Ireland appeared to have abated, the British Government agreed to the scheme being terminated.

Wakefield Press

251 pp




Thursday, June 11, 2015

Tennessee Williams Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr


I do relish a good meaty literary biography and John Lahr's recent magnum opus on Tennessee Williams is one of the best. Its 600 pages must be the definitive word on that troubled genius. He had a lot going for him, brutal father, puritanical mother, fragile sister and his own guilty sexuality. It all came out in the plays which must be amongst the most autobiographical in the history off the theatre. Lahr has an excellent eye for spotting the connections between the life and the work. He's also very good on the politics of the New York theatre and on Williams' creative relationship with Elia Kazan - his most successful director. Its replete with juicy anecdotes about the actors, agents, hustlers, and chancers that surrounded him. Brando is there fighting off the lustful assaults of Anna Magnani, and we are spared no details of Williams relentless consumption of drink, drugs and young men. Williams went out of fashion long before he died and Lahr traces this extended dying fall mercilessly. He messed with his will a lot as those around him fell out of favour and this ultimately caused problems for his literary estate. It's very well illustrated with some photographs that do its subject no favours. And did you know that the biographer John Lahr is married to Connie Booth - the fair Polly from Fawlty Towers. No, I didn't either. If you like literary biography and are interested in the theatre you'll love this. If you don't care for either, you'll still enjoy the story - the rise and fall of a fascinating, talented but unlikeable man.



Monday, June 08, 2015

Conor Foy - Fight or Flight


A slightly edited (different last sentence) version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 31 May 2015.

Fight or Flight is the title of Conor Foy's new show and many of these quietly disturbing pieces are suggestive of violence just past, or pending. Foy's work is based on images from the news media or from camera phone footage. He harvests elements from these online sources to create his subtle and resonant paintings. The artist, an NCAD graduate based in New York says: "In these pieces, painting's stillness is used as a meditative counterpoint to the rapid fire of news media." A number of the paintings such as Down 3 feature what look like dead bodies and others contain kneeling figures who seem to be awaiting or undergoing punishment. The titles such as Stick, Down and Guidance are cryptically suggestive. While the overall sense is that there's not much good news here, we do have plenty of room to speculate as to the exact nature of the bad news. Guidance 3 looks like the prelude to a beheading, but maybe it's just going to be a beating. Three of the pieces are entitled Muybridge after Eadweard Muybridge famous for his photographic studies of animals and men in motion. The ambiguous Baconesque images in these paintings are both a homage to that artist and an acknowledgement of his debt to the pioneering photographer.

Molesworth Gallery

Dublin 2.

John P. O'Sullivan



Thursday, May 21, 2015

Paul Muldoon at Liberty Hall

Paul Muldoon arrives in our midst festooned with titles and awards - Pulizer Prize winner, Professor of Poetry at Princeton, and Poetry editor on the New Yorker amongst tthem. He's the nearest poetry has to a rock star so I was was a little surprised that the venue was only half full. I'm not sure the event was well publicised - a number of people I spoke to subsequently were pissed off that they hadn't heard it was on. He was introduced by the General Secretary of the INTO - confirming perhaps that notion that poetry was something you did at school. He's not looking very well - a bit pale and dishevelled and although he's dressed in black there's no hiding that substantial paunch. His greying hair has lost that Phil Spector look and is now just artily tousled. He apologises for his regular sniffling which he attributes to a rapeseed allergy.

He's a practised and proficient performer - starting with the old lecturer's touch of taking off his watch and laying it on the podium so he can discreetly monitor the time. He's at home on the stage and moves around easily, interjecting little quips both between and even within the poems. At one stage he comments that a particular poem "goes on a bit". He speaks slowly in a mellifluous Northern accent and pauses regularly for dramatic effect. His poetry is witty, worldly and intelligent. He likes repetition, no surprise in someone who dabbles in rock music. I particularly enjoyed The Old Country, Muldoon's catechism of cliches:

Every slope was a slippery slope

where every shave was a very close shave

and money was money for old rope

where every grave was a watery grave

His latest collection (One Thousand Things Worth Knowing) contains a fine tribute to Seamus Heaney - Cuthbert and the Otters - but he chose to omit that and gave us Cuba (2) from the same book ("I'm hanging with my daughter") which seems to me a strained and inferior poem. But that's a mere quibble. All in all it was an entertaining performance from a polished and urbane poet.

He gives us a bare hour and is definitely not up for an encore. There's books to be signed. His signature is a minimal scrawl and he doesn't really engage with anyone - moving the queue along briskly. I ask him why his eyes are closed in his recent RA portrait painted by Colin Davidson - very unusual for Colin's work which tend to focus on the eyes. He pauses slightly and then replies that "you'll have to ask Colin". The line must keep moving I suppose. These signings are ghastly affairs with eager punters colliding with jaded writers and I feel sorry for all concerned. Nonetheless the impression I got was of a professional operator, conscious of his status, going through the dutiful motions. Or he could of course just be badly jet-lagged and we got him on an off day. Whatever - the poetry forgives all.



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

TB Blues - The Foynes Year

A slightly edited version of this tragic saga appeared in the Sunday Times Speakeasy seection on the 17 May 2015.

When I was around seven I started fainting a lot. It would often happen in school – without warning. I remember once crumbling to the ground from the steps at choir practise. Doctors were called and tests ensued and I seemed to be in bed a lot. Then out of the blue, without discussion, or much ceremony I was whisked off to sanatorium in Foynes – about a hundred miles away. There I was to stay for a year on my own without a single visit from my mother and one brief one from my father. Apparently I had been struck down with the socially dubious and highly infecctious TB. The lack of visits being due not to parental indifference, but rather to the danger of catching it from me and wiping out the entire family. Neither of my parents ever referred to my condition as TB – if my mother referred to it at all it was always that "he had a spot on his lung".

I had a lot of grapes when I arrived in Foynes and I remember thinking initially how friendly the nurses seemed to be – sitting chatting at the end of my bed and steadily working their way through my precious fruit. One was a statuesque brunette (Nurse Burke) who had achieved some local fame by going out with Tony O’Reilly – then a young rugby hero. Thereafter I saw very little of these friendly nurses apart from the brisk commerce of the daily round.

The wards were enormous barn-like rooms with high-ceilings and huge windows all along one side. These windows were kept open through all the seasons – no doubt the sea air was seen as beneficial to our poor tortured lungs. There were about twenty beds in these wards occupied by boys ranging from three to sixteen. The biggest problem was boredom. There was great commerce in comics and for a while I was able to trade my regular consignment of 64 page cowboy comics that were in vogue at the time. We were all sports mad and I can remember listening to boxing matches on concealed radios long after lights out.

I never felt particularly ill and so was tempted out of bed regularly. We would bundle up a newspaper and play improvised rugby up and down the ward. The nurses were unimpressed with these antics and if you were caught the punishment was to confiscate your pyjama bottoms – a particularly cruel deprivation for a pre-adolescent boy. And a surefire way to keep him in bed. The embarrassment of having your bed made as you squirmed to cover yourself was meant to give you pause the next time you planned a rugby adventure. You usually got your pants back the next day. However I was a recidivist and spent more time without than with my nether garments. It became so much of a problem that the ward sister decided to escalate and I was condemned to spend a week in the baby’s ward. This was a special hell involving the public humiliation of being the only non-baby in the ward and the constant sleep deprivation of trying to sleep in a ward full of screaming babies.

When Christmas came there was no visitation from my family but instead the Red Cross came around and we all got substantial presents. I was given a large sub-machine gun with a handle on the side that you cranked to make a convincing noise. I had great fun running around all day shooting my fellow-patients. The pants law was revoked for the day. However, on Stephen’s Day all the toys were collected and stored away – and despite numerous requests we never saw them again. I still miss that gun. I was devastated for weeks afterwards.

After a year or so, for no apparent reason, my father arrived at the hospital and I was taken home. The whole thing was mysterious to me. I never felt sick and therefore was much aggrieved to be stuck in hospital. I felt no different on the day I was admitted to the day I came out. Perhaps the sea air had healed my damaged lungs. When I returned home it was never spoken of. I resumed school and soon began to take part in all the sporting activities normal to a boy of that age. The fainting had stopped.



Monday, May 04, 2015

Eilís O'Connell: Profile of the Artist

A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 3 May 2015.

You turn right off the Inniscara Road between Cork and Dripsey to get to Eilís O'Connell's studio - a converted creamery perched on a hill. The large and handsome steel gates open into a property well-furnished with examples of her formidable art - a stern woven steel piece here, a curvaceous purple and blue creation there. Their presence a surreal shock against the lush green backdrop of the Lee Valley. In this bucolic location one of Ireland's most successful artists creates her internationally acclaimed sculptures.

When the history of Cork's philistinism about art is being written, the saga of Eilis O'Connell's Great Wall of Kinsale will surely merit a chapter. The desecration of her 1988 sculpture has been well documented - the local council (amongst many other transgressions) painted over her corten steel structure despite her specific instructions not to do so. She is still angry nearly 30 years later: "It was torture, the whole thing was torture. I get physically ill passing it." During the subsequent controversy she had stones thrown at her, her car tyres slashed and was even refused service in some shops by the good citizens of Kinsale. It's ironic indeed to look over her career since that protracted debacle and see that the offending sculpture proved to be the foundation stone for her success at home and especially abroad. It was responsible for her winning the competition that led to her monumental Secret Station in Cardiff Bay. "I was taken seriously in Britain due to my 1988 piece The Great Wall of Kinsale. They could see that I worked big. They loved it, and I got great credit for it."

Her string of subsequent high-profile commissions in the UK include Vowel of Earth Dreaming its Root, in London Docklands and the award-winning Nyama in Bishopsgate. She has particular affection for her playful Pero's Bridge in Bristol. "That bridge is mad." She sees it occasionally as a backdrop in English TV programmes. "I get such a kick out of that." She also continues to reap a rich harvest internationally. In 2002 her large bronze Unfold was lent by the Cass Foundation to the Venice Biennale and her smaller sculptures were shown at the Guggenheim Museum. She has also shown at the Paris and Sao Paolo Biennales and is currently trying to finalise a large project in Hong Kong. Leaving Sean Scully to the Americans, there is a very strong argument for declaring her our best-known and most successful artist on the international stage. She hasn't been idle at home either. Since moving back to Ireland in 2002 she has completed Reedpod a 13.5 meter sculpture for Lapps Quay in Cork and her recent polished mirror steel tribute to E. S. Walton in Trinity. She is amongst the blessed of Aosdana, a founder of the Cork Sculpture Factory, a former member of the Arts Council and a long-standing member of the RHA.

Born in Derry, O'Connell moved to Cork with her family when she was ten. She always wanted to be an artist (three of her uncles painted) and pestered her parents to send her to art classes at the Crawford College of Art when she was 12. Later studying at the Crawford she came under the influence of the sculptor John Burke. He was a charismatic and influential teacher and an enthusiast for the hard-edged abstraction of David Smith. Burke's own career was dissolved in alcohol - a not uncommon fate for a visual artist in Cork. O'Connell's early work was influenced by Burke's modernism but she evolved into her own woman - with a sensibility more drawn to organic forms. She remains grateful for the encounter however, recalling with a smile his shouting "the fucking worst show you ever did" across a crowded Hendrik's Gallery opening. A typical Burke incident. Another Cork artist who influenced her was Maurice Desmond - for the example he showed her in living the life of the artist without compromise. "Maurice was the only full-time artist in Cork at the time. He showed me that it could be done." After a distinguished student career, various awards and fellowships followed. She was determined to broaden her horizons: "As a young artist I was always desperate to get out of Ireland." She was granted a fellowship at The British School at Rome in 1983, and a P.S.I. Fellowship for New York from the Irish Arts Council in 1988. After New York she won a two-year residency at Delfina Studios in London. "Delfina Studios were amazing, every 6 months we had to open our studios and I got to know people very quickly and started applying for shows and commissions." She ended staying in London until 2002 - settling in Deptford. Then a tragedy disrupted the smooth flow of her career. In 2001 her long-term boyfriend Herbie died suddenly. She was thrown by this event: "I had never been unhappy before". She felt the need to return to Ireland and to the support of family and friends. For a while she couldn't work: "I did feel that I'd never make another thing." But eventually she got back to work (completing a gravestone for Herbie) and adjusted to her new life. "I have discovered that solitude was the making of me." Although back living in Ireland, O'Connell has no romantic notions about the place. She doesn't particularly embrace being Irish: "My nationality is not an issue - I feel European." She maintains that "Ireland is a very hard country to be an artist in."

She looks outward to the international scene: "What's Gormley doing? What's Kapoor doing?"

There are two strands to O'Connell's career as an artist. In addition to the public and monumental side that makes the money, there is the smaller work that is best demonstrated by her critically acclaimed Haptic show at the RHA in 2011. Her larger works are created in her spacious well-equipped studio and adjacent barn. She is the first artist I have ever met with her own fork-lift. She also has a small studio on Crete where she creates smaller hand-worked pieces.

"The quality of light there is incredible and the silence of no power tools, I look at everything in a different way. I have no materials only the local amazing beeswax, in a way, the limited resources have given me great freedom."

She always thinks big - seeing virtually all her small pieces as scale models for larger works. "Almost every single thing I make is a model for something that could possibly be made big." Her public work she sees as a way of counter-balancing the ugliness of much modern development. She describes her large piece in London's docklands as "an organic antidote to a very ugly location". She prefers her work outside in the real world - subject to ageing and weathering. "In a museum it's like still being in the head." She sets a lot of store on the after care and maintenance of her public work and bemoaned the appalling state of John Burke's graffiti bedecked sculpture at the Wilton roundabout in Cork. "We have a whole culture of non-maintenance."

It's hard to pin O'Connell down to any particular style or school. There's a hint of Brancusi here and a touch of Henry Moore there (look at Sacrificial Anode in her Haptic show) - and now and then she goes back to her more hard-edged mentors such as David Smith and her late tutor John Burke. She is a restless and eclectic artist often just going where her experiments with materials take her. She is constantly playing with the possibilities of bronze, steel, epoxy resin, mirror polished stainless steel, and even Kevlar - the carbon fibre material used in bullet-proof vests. She once took possession of 1.5 kilometres of stainless steel cable. After leaving art college she worked for a while with hand-made paper - a medium she revisits occasionally. A striking example can be seen in the upcoming RHA annual show. She does what she feels like doing and what she did yesterday may be radically different to what she does today. She refuses to be a predictable, easily marketed product and pours scorn on artists like Tony Cragg who "keeps doing the same thing because he has to supply 55 galleries".

Most of the small bronzes in O'Connell's current show in Hillsboro Fine Art originated in Crete but were finished in her Cork studio. Some suggest teepees and she concedes that "the forms are about refuge and shelter". But she is impatient with those who look for metaphor or meaning in any specific work: "It has no significance whatsoever. It's just a yoke." A statement that typifies O'Connell's lack of arty preciousness. The title of the show is Khôra - a particularly slippery Greek term. You can travel from Plato to Derrida for a definition and still be none the wiser. Perhaps Martin Heidigger's formulation is the most applicable: a "clearing" in which being happens or takes place. O'Connell's work is equally difficult to define. She cannot be confined to any particular "ism". It is abstract but often with figurative resonances. It is classically severe but often with sexual intimations. Perhaps it's best to conclude that her sculptures exist, like Platonic forms, purely as things of beauty for our restful contemplation.

John P. O'Sullivan



Friday, May 01, 2015

A Potential False Economy

I have a problem. I take my dogs walking every day and often bring my hurley and a tennis ball with me. Some days I travel without these accoutrements but invariably Shyla, my short arsed retriever, finds a ball or even two. I often spot one myself - especially up Killiney Hill where hundreds of ball chasing dogs disport themselves. If I see a ball on the road leading up to Killiney Hill I will stop the car and get out an retrieve it. By these various strategems I have amassed a collection of nearly a hundred tennis balls. But I can't stop. I'm always on the look out for more. I got two extra ones today. Shyla found one and as I was leaving the Killiney Hill car park I saw another and got out of the car and fetched it. I had my iPhone in my hand and rested it on top of the car as I went over to the ball. I got back in and drove away. Back home I went to make a phone call and with an awful flash of lucid recollection I remembered laying it on the roof the car. Your blood actually does run cold in these situations. I jumped into the car and sped off in the direction of Killiney Hill - more in desperate hope than with any great optimism. There's so much traffic around there on a fine morning that if it hadn't been pinched then it had surely been crushed. But miraculously I was delivered from either of these evils. At the end of our cul-de-sac I spotted a dark object in the middle of the road. There it was - it must have fallen from the roof when I turned left off the main road. It was in perfect condition - thanks to its protective case.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Paddy Graham and Vincent Price

An edited version of this profile appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 12 April 2015.
Patrick Graham recounts with amusement a story about his early reputation in Dublin art circles. Confronted by one of his more fraught canvases in the Hugh Lane Gallery, a viewer confided to his companion: "poor Paddy, he's obviously very ill." This anecdote captures the common view at the time that Graham's often alarming and visceral paintings must be the incontinent spewings of a tortured psyche. Far from it. His art has evolved from his extensive reading in philosophy, especially Martin Buber, Nietzsche and Kirkegaard. These influences have led him towards the great romantic subjects: sexuality, death, and religion. He believes that art "is part of an older history made by those who saw in the dark". His paintings are essays about being and nothingness - about the religious and sexual antics of his stricken subjects as they flail about against a bleak grey background that suggests the Midlands skies of his youth. In his current show Away at John P. Quinlan's gallery at the Triskel, Graham continues his broadcasts from the brink of the abyss. Note the Sacred Hearts, the agonised self-portraits, the poignant sketch of the family rosary, the blood-red nudes, and the recurring references to mysteries. The Lamb of God is in contention with the sins of the world.
Graham's career has been a triumph - far from the myth of it being blighted by his alcoholism and occasional incarceration. He's a hard-working, successful painter, with an international reputation, living in domestic harmony in Dun Laoghaire. He has a keen interest in sport, especially rugby. (When we met he recounted, with the relish of a true fan, a recent encounter with Ciaran Fitzgerald.) He hasn't had a drink for nearly forty years and he paints every week day. He's a member of Aosdana ("a peripheral one" he says) and has work in the permanent collections of both IMMA and the Hugh Lane Gallery. He's not a big fan of the RHA but showed there when invited by David Crone. He is an outsider however in his healthy skepticism about all art clubs, academies and associations. He refused to show at the Exhibition of Living art in its time and even became skeptical of the Independent Artists group, although he did show with them for a period. He maintains that "the new Academy is the old Academy, but just a little more clever in the way it dresses and uses its voice in the very politicised world of contemporary art."

Born in Mullingar in 1943 his early childhood was marred by a series of family disasters. His father went to England when he was four and the family saw little of him thereafter. "Your father had a glint in his eye and was a rogue in his britches " Graham remembers being told years later by an old woman who stopped him in the street. His mother "scraped a living" for her young family for a while but then contracted TB and spent some time in a sanatorium. Graham was sent to live with his grand parents. He subsequently contracted rheumatic fever and became so sick that he couldn't walk and was confined to bed for nearly a year. In his confinement he became a voracious reader and started to draw using whatever materials came to hand. This reading habit and interest in art was carried on later with the help of an aunt who was the local librarian. He consumed books about art and artists. "When I was about ten I discovered Modigliani."

He went to school at the local technical college where his talent for drawing was spotted early by a sympathetic teacher, Dermot Larkin. Even now, talking to the artist more than 50 years later, his gratitude is palpable. He worked with Larkin every evening after class becoming in effect his apprentice. "Larkin taught me to be a watcher, a mixer, a colourist, a cartoon-maker and a scene painter. I remember copying Manet at 13." Graham's talents led him to achieve first place in Ireland in his Group Certificate art exam. Larkin was also influential in getting the precocious young artist a scholarship to the National College of Art. Blessed with painting skills and fluency of line, his prodigious natural talent meant he could already turn out effortlessly a polished academic study. He went straight from foundation year to second year. Money was tight with an absentee father, but Graham stuck it out and acknowledges the sympathetic support there of John Kelly and Maurice MacGonigal. He recalls his first visit to the life drawing class where the young country boy ran from the room in fright: "I hadn't seen a naked woman in my life." Such innocent days. He soon adjusted to his new environment and his path in life seemed set fair. "I was told by John Kelly that I'd be in the academy (RHA) by twenty-one."

But then came the fall. He recounts how an Emil Nolde exhibition came to Dublin and it revealed to the young painter the error of his ways. It showed him that art could be a vehicle for personal expression and that the academic painting was not real art at all. "I saw an Emil Nolde exhibition that absolutely destroyed me as a performer. I now knew I could no longer make art as a conscious aesthetic act." This revelation led to a cessation of painting and a general questioning. It also led to the pub. He discovered the delights of O'Donoghue's, Grogan's and McDaid's and spent endless hours debating the "what is art" question rather than exercising his talents. He met a wealthy American woman and they got together and revelled in the drunken bohemian life of Dublin in the Sixties. "It was", he recalls, "a great time for failed geniuses". His lost years followed and he did little painting between leaving art college in 1963 and 1974. "I was going in and out of mental hospitals". He remembers slipping into a coma in the Wicklow Hotel and being carried out to an ambulance. The breakthrough came in 1974 when a young psychiatrist suggested that he deal with his life as art: "make some drawings about your experiences here." He embarked on a series of studies of a patient called Joe and the resultant work became his first solo show at the Emmet Gallery. It was entitled "Notes from a Mental Hospital and Other Love Stories." He finally gave up the drink in 1978 and went from being one of the first patients at the Rutland Centre to becoming one of its mentors for alcoholics. He also met his future wife there. She's a psychologist and the artist maintains that "she's been a great source of balance and evenness."

His next tentative steps back into the art world came with the help of Trevor Scott who offered him some teaching hours at the Dun Laoghaire College of Art. He moved into a small studio in Royal Terrace West where a neighbour was the artist Brian Maguire. With Maguire's support he got into the Lincoln Gallery and began to show with the Independent Artists. A sympathetic review by Michael Kane helped the recovering artist on his way and soon he was a regular part of the Dublin art scene. His work however was difficult and not exactly designed for suburban walls, so sales were not great. He remained dependent on his teaching hours in Dun Laoghaire and later at DIT.

A chance occurrence in the early Eighties altered radically the trajectory of Graham's career. The actor and influential art collector Vincent Price came to Dublin on a cruise and was waiting outside the Lincoln Gallery one day when Leon De Sachy arrived to open it. He proceeded to buy three large paintings, removing them from their frames before he returned to his boat in the Alexandra Basin. Subsequently Price wrote to the artist and encouraged him to come to LA and show at the first LA International Art Fair, saying that "this stuff is essential for LA". Graham scraped together the money, aided by Vincent Ferguson from the Hendriks Gallery. He found himself at an enormous show amongst the elite of the international art world. His modest space at the periphery of the fair was ostentatiously favoured by Price and his extensive entourage, including his wife the actress Cora Browne. The attention of such a prominent collector did not go unnoticed. Graham was signed up by the Jack Rutberg gallery in LA and soon acquired a substantial following amongst the art lovers of that city. This is a rich seam of patronage that he continues to mine to this day, although sadly Vincent Price is long gone.

For a man who comes across initially as mild-mannered, even diffident, Graham has got some acerbic views on the Irish art scene and is not shy about expressing them. The provincialism of our artists is a particular bête noire. "They still retain the idea that if we imitate international art we become international. No. If you're from Mullingar, you're fucking international." Echoes there of another Patrick. And like Kavanagh, Graham uses his youthful experiences in rural Ireland to create art of universal import.