Empty pockets, but rich pickings in art
While we have a public gallery infrastructure, generally within the framework of regional arts centres, they are under pressure because national and local funding has been squeezed, and unfortunately artists are at the bottom of the food chain. If that sounds bleak it’s because the situation is quite bleak. Witness Visual and the cash-strapped Letterkenny Regional Arts Centre, or the question over the future of Galway’s 126 artist-run gallery, which has lost its very modest funding.
Against this background it is perhaps surprising that the contemporary art scene is so lively. Limerick, for example, was a centre of activity, and not alone because of the return of Eva and the continuing vitality of the Limerick City Gallery of Art with new director Helen Carey. In the absence of money, the city has incentivised cultural enterprise in other, imaginative ways, aiding such initiatives as Ormston House and Limerick Printmakers. Other projects, such as Askeaton Contemporary Arts and Belltable’s revived visual arts programme (Michelle Horrigan is the link between the two) lend depth to contemporary arts in the region. Similarly, Belfast seemed quite energised this year, with innovative venues operating in tandem with more established galleries and the MAC.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was a very good year for exhibitions, though there were fewer of them; it may be no harm that runs are longer. Some of the impressive large-scale shows countrywide included Merlin James’s survey at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, David Mach’s blockbuster biblical sculpture and collages in Precious Light at the Galway Arts Festival, and Paul Mosse and Hans Op de Beeck’s equally superb exhibitions at the Butler Gallery in February and August respectively.
The work of the great figurative sculptor Hans Josephsohn, who died during the year, was ideally located at Lismore Castle as its summer exhibition. Simon Norfolk’s Crawford Gallery show was a fascinating dialogue with the work of the 19th-century Irish photographer John Burke, whose steps he retraced in Afghanistan.
Making Familiar at Temple Bar Gallery was a serious attempt to consider the state of contemporary painting, curated by Robert Armstrong and James Merrigan. Among many solo shows of note were Jennifer Cunningham at the Galway Arts Festival, Sam Keogh’s Terrestris, his fantastic contribution to Conjuring for Beginners at the Project in July, Charles Tyrrell at the Taylor Gallery, Willie Doherty and Callum Innes at the Kerlin, Mary Lohan at the Hamilton in Sligo and, with David Quinn, at the Fenderesky in Belfast, and Vanessa Donoso López’s It never rains to everyone’s taste at Queen Street Studio’s gallery. And The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a set of scrolls based on the oldest work of Japanese prose fiction, newly restored, made a stunning exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library in the summer.
It was a little disappointing, in May, that Ireland’s favourite painting – beating off Vermeer, no less – turned out to be Frederic William Burton’s Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs, at the National Gallery. It is undeniably and enduringly popular with gallery visitors, as postcard sales attest. At the same time, it is a stolid rather than an outstanding or exciting piece of work, and in terms of subject matter and treatment it is a prime slice of Victorian schmaltz.