Possibly the last place you’d expect to come across erotic art is a small gallery in a small village in Co Roscommon.
But on Friday night Paul Dempsey opened The Sacred Profane at the Purple Onion in Tarmonbarry, the north Roscommon village where the N5 crosses the Shannon, 10km from Longford town. Those driving east towards Westport might recall it as the village with a lock and lifting bridge for cruisers. It grew up around St Berach's 6th century abbey, and it's still small (population: 518 in 2006).
Chefs Paul Dempsey and Pauline Roe leased a pub there in 2003, serving what Dempsey describes as “restaurant food in a bar setting”. They bought it in 2006, in hindsight a bad time to buy; all the same, they kept the show on the road through difficult times. “We survive. The kids will have shoes,” he grins.
But Dempsey’s real passion is art – it’s like “disappearing into another world for a nanosecond, suspending reality” – and he jokes about bargaining with Pauline: he could continue buying art if he made some money from it.
That deal led to the birth of the gallery. They ripped out the bedrooms over the pub to make exhibition space, with the first show in June 2016. Dempsey hasn’t looked back since, averaging two exhibitions a year, in a variety of styles, but always work he likes. He describes his taste as “eclectic, not just pretty”.
Painter Kenneth Webb is probably best known for his expressionistic, colourful landscapes (though "poppies have always represented female eroticism", Dempsey observes). Their conversation about Webb's plan for a homage to Victorian erotica expanded into a group exhibition of erotica. The enthusiasm has grown: Dempsey says at Kenneth's wife Joan's 90th birthday this month, "the talk was all of dirty pictures".
All the same, "I didn't want just naked ladies on a chaise longue. Though there's plenty of them too!" As we speak Dempsey is surrounded by paintings he's hanging "and my mind is boggling". He mentions a Webb painting, Long Grass in Rocks – "though we're calling it Hairy Mary." He laughs. "Really, I'm like a 12-year-old." But then he switches to talk about the primeval nature of how we respond to curves, and how our subconscious fills in the shapes for us.
There's work by Pauline Bewick and Elizabeth Cope, artists "so brave and so brilliant, who have been pushing boundaries for years", and Tom Ryan, "an incredible academic painter", showing Mars agus Venus. There are "strong male nudes" from former Laureate na nÓg PJ Lynch, a contrast with his celebrated children's illustrations. Teresa McAllister's work is fun and humorous. Una Gildea's collage is quirky and well observed.
Artists such as Paul Barry, Malachy Costello and Sara Sue McNeill are not known for their erotic art and have “pushed the boat out”.
Then there are paintings and drawings on paper by “the shy artist working under the name Micheau”. This is a well-known, long-established artist who doesn’t want viewers to confuse this erotic art with his usual work. His work is brilliant, and “highly charged”, says Dempsey. He muses about Micheau’s imagination: “We could look into it, and God knows how you’d come out of it. It’s very brave, for an artist to express a side of being human that perhaps we’d like to keep private.”
“A lot of the artists are women. There’s parity between the sexes, and we see what some of us knew all along – that girls are just as dirty minded as fellas.”
With about 40 works – sculpture, photography and writing – this is the Purple Onion’s largest show. “I wanted the exhibition itself to have visual impact, to have an immediate reaction when someone walks in. People may be embarrassed, but will work through it and start to engage.” He is not trying to shock people but to showcase skilful art, and “have a bit of fun about the whole thing”.
Dempsey loves travelling all over Ireland to artists’ studios, looking at work at different stages, bringing it to Tarmonbarry. “It’s wonderful, I’m so fortunate.”
Co Roscommon has been infamous since it bucked the national trend by voting against the marriage equality referendum (though it voted in favour of removing the Eighth last week).
The Longford Leader noted the exhibition of erotic art approaching,observing it "is sure to attract a lot of attention over the coming month". So what will people make of his erotic art? "I have no idea," says Dempsey. He points out he has exhibited traditional nudes, bordering on erotica, before, and "there were no pitchforks and lanterns trying to run us out of the village at night". "This is a lovely place", he says, and he hopes people are broadminded. "There's nothing more shocking in it than you'd see on terrestrial TV." (This may be stretching it a bit.)
While he’s hanging, passers-by have sneaked in for a look. Women in particular, he says, have “responded to the celebration of their strength and their sexuality in the work . It’s not dirty old men in macs.”
Art hangs in the restaurant too, and diners can wander up to the gallery, so the exhibition is open in the evenings and on Sundays. It’s a small place to support a gallery but it “washes its face” and “it allows me to work 50 hours a week in the restaurant”. Their two children (aged 13 and 12) are barred from the gallery for the next six weeks – whereas the nudes were fine, this show is strictly over-18s.
“When people say – you’re brave, I wonder what have I done wrong? Don’t say that to me!”
But, he promises: “This won’t be a boring exhibition.”
- The Sacred Profane is at the Purple Onion, Tarmonbarry, until July 20th. purpleonion.ie