Ghosts of the Civil War brought back to vivid life

Visual Art: The third in Mick O’Dea’s trilogy on a seminal era of Ireland’s history is perceptive

The Split – Mick O’Dea

Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Dublin


The Split completes a trilogy of exhibitions following the tangled history of the War of Independence and, as the title of this one obliquely indicates, the Civil War. Collectively, the work anticipates a prequel, which will materialise in, inevitably, 2016. Mick O'Dea didn't have a clear idea of what he was getting into when he embarked on what's become a marathon project. But he plunged into it with enthusiasm, and he has stayed with it, building up a memorable body of work.


It’s fair to say that he’s best known as a painter of portraits and landscape, both from life. That is, the sitter is there in front of him in the studio and he makes a drawing or a painting, or he sets up his easel out in the countryside and paints what he sees before him. For many observers, that authenticity of contact is crucial, and there is something special about it, something that can come through in the finished work and lend it an unmistakable vitality.

Some painters are still wary about admitting to using photographic sources but, as David Hockney's remarkable book Hidden Knowledge made clear (to the chagrin of numerous art historians), artists have always used technological aids, and they took to photography quickly. The trilogy has marked a significant shift in O'Dea's work in the following way: he is drawing on an extensive range of second-hand sources rather than on direct contact with the subject, or his own documentary images of it.

Gerhard Richter stands out as a painter, if not the painter, who realised that photographs and other documents form part of our experience and our collective memory, and that they themselves can form a subject matter. O'Dea draws on myriad documentary sources for his work in The Split, but he doesn't pretend to transcend those sources and produce an omniscient account of the era. That is the great strength of his work.

In fact there is an appropriate lack of polished finish, a sketchy, tentative – one could say provisional – aspect to it. We are aware that he is looking at the documents, piecing together stories, of individuals, of friendships, of loyalties and betrayals, of things good and horrible, of fallible people challenged by historical circumstance. As his portraits demonstrate, his perception of character has always been warm, attentive and illuminating. That holds true here. As a result, historical ghosts become marvellously alive, and there's something terrifically immediate, direct and conversational, about what we see. Until Nov 15,

Out of Thin Air – Daragh Muldowney

The Copper House Gallery, Dublin


In June 2013 photographer Daragh Muldowney set out for Greenland aboard the Killary Flyer under skipper Jamie Young with a small crew of seasoned climbers and kayakers. "Eighteen long days and three wild storms later we arrived in Upernavik, a small Inuit settlement on the island's west coast." With three others Muldowney spent several days exploring the "vast and surreal" glacial landscape, often in driving rain. Then he camped alone for eight days on an island close to the calving face of a glacier, surrounded by floating ice, an experience that had to be psychologically as well as physically extreme. In perpetual daylight, with the continual cracking and splashing of ice that had broken away, and the lapping of the waves, he hardly slept, but he worked calmly and happily, and gradually felt at one with his surroundings.

From this "immersive" experience comes a crowd-funded hardback photo book, Out of Thin Air (€65), and an exhibition currently showing at Copper House Gallery on Synge Street. Muldowney is passionate and idealistic about nature, seeing it as a healing force. His photographs convey his sense of wonder, but they are not formulaic or sentimental. The images of chunks of ice drifting by on the tide have a fantastic, dreamlike quality. Occasionally he picks up on a startling, hallucinogenic detail, as in Hidden Rabbits, in which spikes of melting ice strikingly resemble rabbit ears, or Glide, in which an ice form and its perfect reflection look like a bird in flight.

When he widens his perspective to take in larger vistas you feel we are glimpsing another world completely, a domain of ice and rock, of meltwater rivers and caves, folds and crevasses. We are not just glimpsing it, we are entering into it. The panoramic Meeting Point is a stunning icy landscape, printed on a huge scale and seen through a glassy acrylic sheen. Scale is significant for many of the images, and the book doesn't cut corners. Meeting Point is rendered as a double fold-out bleed, and the overall design is calculated not to distract from the images.

Muldowney originally came to photography through scuba-diving. Entranced by the otherness of the underwater world, he bought a camera. He's still an independent-minded adventurer in both experience and image-making, never settling into the easy or familiar. Out of Thin Air is his third major book project, following on from Sand & Ice, which counterpoints the Sahara in Morocco with Icelandic glaciers, and Jewellery Box – Ireland's Hidden Gems, an exceptionally rich exploration of rock pools around the coast. Each book is a valid work, but don't miss the exhibition. Until Nov 7,