Up close and personable
Mike Bunn’s portraits of artists are larger than life in scale and ambition, writes AIDAN DUNNE
IF YOU’RE a writer, a poet or a visual artist, you may get a call from Mike Bunn proposing that he take your picture. He has embarked on a project that entails making portraits of creative types, established and emergent, in Ireland today. A glance at the first instalment, on view until Saturday in the Solstice Arts Centre, Navan, under the title Talking Heads, will give you an idea of what to expect.
He certainly doesn’t flatter to deceive. Each image is a tight, much-larger-than-life close-up of a head in forensically detailed black-and-white. Each is, in its way, startling and vital and memorable. Mostly we see just a head and shoulders, rarely more – Seán McSweeney in his functional painting gear is one exception. For Bunn, the head is “the bull’s-eye” of the artists’ identity, and he certainly hits the bull’s-eye. In their concentration, his images not only have an amazing sense of sculptural form but also manage to encapsulate the whole person.
His study of the writer Leland Bardwell is simply magnificent, expressive of her indomitable, independent nature and sensibility. While more familiar faces, such as Bardwell, Seamus Heaney, John Banville and Dermot Healy, certainly look like themselves, they also look like more than themselves, as though Bunn has the ability to make visible hidden dimensions of experience and character.
Even the younger subjects, such as the writer Kevin Barry and the performance artist Dominic Thorpe, project the sense that they are in it for the long haul, and that work is a long, unforgiving struggle as well as a delight. We may like to think of writers and artists as being lucky, as being blessed with talent and hence somehow capable of sailing effortlessly through life’s everyday travails. Bunn’s portraits make it clear that this is not so. His artists are workers, through and through.
An enormously energetic presence on the Irish cultural scene for several decades, Bunn’s sheer versatility can cloud the level of his achievement in any one area. He brings the same creative flair to both commercial and personal projects. With Anthony Hobbs of NCAD and Michael O’Toole, he’s currently engaged in establishing the Irish Academy for Photographic Arts.
He is putting together Talking Heads with surprisingly modest means: not a big studio camera, for example, though the images have that look. In fact, he uses a smaller than standard digital camera, the Olympus OM-D Micro, and a portable backdrop. The initial showing of the project anticipates the Mary Lavin season that runs in various locations throughout Co Meath from November 6th to December 5th, and includes two of Bunn’s portraits of the writer taken in the 1970s.
Talking Heads is at the Solstice Arts Centre, Navan, Co Meath until Saturday