Fine memorial and a worthy debut

Fri, Jan 25, 2013, 00:00

Jessica Sturgess remembers the late Barry Flanagan in her first solo show

Jessica Sturgess’s first solo show at the Oliver Sears Gallery is an exceptionally good-natured affair. Sturgess was the partner of the late Barry Flanagan and most of the work on view relates to their life in Ibiza and in the sea around it. She shows ceramics and bronzes. They can be described as magic realist in the way they seamlessly blend straightforward representation with the fantastical.

Or the apparently fantastical. The figure of a dragon, for example, features throughout, which makes sense when you notice that the beast’s countenance rather resembles the mischievous Flanagan’s, and that he was born in the year of the dragon. Flanagan is best known for his playful, anthropomorphic sculptures of hares, many of them in public locations throughout the world. On occasion, Sturgess represents him as a dragon, and she includes herself in several pieces as a damsel, not at all distressed but well able to soothe and nurture the benign monster.

She too is playful in her approach to sculpture and has great feeling for animals real as well as mythical. There are excellent figures of a piglet and a cat, for example, which have a winning, toy-like quality but are also clearly based on long, observant familiarity with the subjects. Indeed, she is on first name terms with the piglet, having nursed it through infancy to substantial early adulthood.

She appears as a mermaid, at home in the water, while Flanagan, attired in his trademark heavy jacket despite the evident heat, plies the oars in his boat. In a more naturalistic and very good self-portrait, she is a joyful, leaping figure. Such positive sentiments sum up the overall feeling of the show, which might easily, one presumes, have been a sombre, reverential elegy for someone who was obviously cherished and central to her life.

Instead, to the extent that the show is about Flanagan and their life together, it is a celebration. It’s more than that as well, though. The spirit and personality of Sturgess come across very definitely. There is her delight at being able to find her own voice, to articulate her feelings in terms of images and objects, in clay and bronze. But also an evident warmth and openness to what she encounters.

Sturgess met Flanagan in Ibiza around 1990. Previously she’d spent 12 years in India. She became his assistant, a job that was also her sculptural apprenticeship. Flanagan was an unconventional, even eccentric person, utterly devoid of pomposity and pretension despite his international success, and it happens that Sturgess was temperamentally at ease with his unorthodox approach to art and life. They became a couple in 2002.

While he was based in Ibiza and in Dublin, Flanagan accurately described himself as “an English-speaking itinerant European sculptor” and he liked taking off with Sturgess in a vintage camper van across Europe. Sadly, he developed motor neurone disease and he was only 68 when he died in Ibiza in August 2009. The exhibition is a fine memorial and a worthy debut.

* Jessica Sturgess: Recent sculptural works is at the Oliver Sears Gallery, 29 Molesworth Street, Dublin until February 28th

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