Form, farce and faces: the pick of the RHA

Sat, Jun 2, 2012, 01:00

It’s a full house at the RHA Annual Exhibition, with invitations to members cut back to accommodate selections from the record open submission. The result is a vast display and a great show

Realism

Maeve McCarthy shows a suite of beautifully elegiac tempera paintings, which take their mood and subject from the title of one of them, Leaving the Village. All feature parts of a small town by night, in the subdued glow of electric light, and there’s an uncanny quietness and a sad, wistful atmosphere to works such as Rural Garda Station (right). All this stems from McCarthy’s close observation and meticulous realism, hallmarks of her work from the first.

She has consistently made portraits, still lifes and landscapes. The latter have tended towards urban or semiurban settings, with a strong feeling of domesticity and habitation, and attentiveness to a sense of place. Although the interior and external spaces are unoccupied, the absent inhabitants are strongly evoked. Suggestions of memory, leaving and longing are usually implicit, as when we recall in great, if selective, detail a place in which we’ve lived or from which we are temporarily removed. In feeling, some of McCarthy’s paintings can recall Eithne Jordan’s understated studies of the urban and rural landscape, in which nothing is exaggerated or contrived.

Genre, interiors, still life

Michael Cullen has painted figures in interiors throughout his career. More often than not the interior is the artist’s studio, and the artist and his subjects usually take centre stage. There is a domestic air to Cullen’s studios, as they have usually been the spaces in which he lived as well as worked. As Cullen’s last solo show at Taylor Galleries demonstrated, he has been spending time in southern Spain, and the colour, light and heat of his paintings at the academy are further developments from there.

Cullen has also shown an appetite for tackling large compositions in a way that carries on the central tradition of European representation. His Light Box is an infectiously sunny celebration of Spanish light in which every detail of a spacious interior, viewed from above, is irradiated with sunlight, so that the whole scene, including the painter hesitant at his easel and the model sitting, becomes a dazzling chromatic feast.

SEE ALSO In her miniatures, Stephanie Rowe appropriates film stills from several decades back and reworks them, while keeping them at a certain distance. Sheila Rennick does knockabout farce very well in her Rubbish Riot. Una Sealy infuses her figure study, Remembering, with narrative layers. Pat Harris has a superb flower study, Lupine.

Landscape

Veronica Bolay has a way of imbuing the everyday landscape with a sense of wonder, and she surpasses herself with the group of paintings she shows this year. Her subjects are distinctly ordinary: typically, tracts of bogland with expanses of sky and perhaps the great mass of the ocean, in the northwest of the country. But her working process is meditative, even ritualistic, and the paintings, almost abstract in the simple rigour of their design, become infused with the weight of light and a profound sense of time. There is an affinity with some of Rothko’s work in the way Bolay creates luminous fields of colour, but her images are always anchored to the landscape. Often, tiny details link them to a recognisable world.

SEE ALSO It’s a very good year for landscape at the academy. Patricia Lambert, for example, has amazingly accomplished and quite complex pencil drawings that are very much finished works in themselves rather than stages on the way to paintings. Charles Harper is on form with a trio of pictures that convey the excitement of the painting process, the constant search for balance and liveliness.

Donald Teskey shows some outstanding works from a new series based on time spent immersed in the wooded landscape known as the Gearagh on a section of the River Lee in Co Cork. Teskey relishes the watery landscape, with its dense vegetation, open spaces and the glitter of the river.

The more traditional academic approach is well represented in Brett McEntagart’s paintings and etchings, and Campbell Bruce switches from the close scale of his Summer Garden to the panoramic Headland with impressive aplomb. Stephen McKenna is as dependable and intriguing as ever.

Portraiture

In The Photographer, Mick O’Dea takes an icon of German Romantic landscape painting, Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, and translates it to the coastline of north Mayo. Friedrich’s mountain walker in a frock coat, with his back to us, gazes out over a transcendent vista of Alpine peaks. O’Dea casts the photographer Amelia Stein in the role. Warmly garbed, and holding a camera rather than a walking stick, she gazes out over the limitless expanse of the Atlantic, with vertiginous sea stacks taking the place of peaks. It’s one of several sturdily made paintings by O’Dea set in the same landscape, and one of them, Helen, is another fine portrait.

Stein returns the compliment with a very good, if slightly unsettling, portrait of O’Dea. A bandage covers one eye, and the title is Portrait of Mick O’Dea, After Removal of Metal Foreign Object from Right Eye.

SEE ALSO There is a mixed bag of portraits, generally. Joe Dunne continues to expand his repertoire with a full-length Allyson. Sahoko Blake also shows a full-length figure, this time a charcoal drawing, and a terrific one, Portrait of an Olympic Swimmer.

Sculpture

At a time when sculpture has been transformed into a myriad of forms and processes that do not resemble the traditional sculptural object, be it carved, modelled or cast, Michael Quane is a stubborn exponent of venerable means. He is a natural, gifted and fluent stone-carver. His imagination seems directly linked to the menagerie of strange, slightly gothic beings that emerge, at the blade of his chisels, from blocks of dense, hard, dark Kilkenny limestone. The process of stone carving is long, arduous and intense, and it seems at odds with the easy fluidity of the figures he shapes. They are ambiguous, quirky beings: human and nonhuman, androgynous, often battling against gravity, more than a little ridiculous on occasion, all inhabitants of the same imaginative world. It’s worth noting that Quane also paints.

SEE ALSO The sculptural object survives in other forms at the academy, for example in Eileen MacDonagh’s granite pieces or in Sarah O’Flaherty’s beautifully stilled, evanescent form, Held. And there are predictably fine works from many stalwarts, including Eilis O’Connell, Sonja Landweer, Vivienne Roche, Janet Mullarny and Killian Shurmann.


The exhibition is at the Gallagher Gallery, 15 Ely Place, Dublin 2, until August 18th. See royalhibernianacademy.ie

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