'Radharc' - the best view in New York


An exhibition by six contemporary Irish painters on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan offers a perfect platform for their work – and especially so given there’s also a hot attraction across the road at the Met, writes SINEAD GLEESON

FRIDAY EVENING: New York’s Museum Mile. Sitting in front of the open window of a Manhattan townhouse is Oliver Sears. The elegant building is straight out of Edith Wharton, and is now home to the American Irish Historical Society (AIHS).

Sears, best known as the owner of a Dublin city centre art gallery, is in New York to launch Radharc, an exhibition of six contemporary Irish painters. Ireland is a small country and its arts circles (and audiences) are minnows compared to a city considered the centre of the art market. It’s a tough world to crack, but intimate, considered group shows such as this one aim to provide a platform.

“These artists are all mid-career, established and working from all different parts for Ireland,” says Sears, “but they are not widely known in the US. Radharc is an opportunity to bring them into an incredible space – an Irish space – on Fifth Avenue opposite the Met [the Metropolitan Museum of Art] at a time when the New York Frieze is in town.”

Last year’s Imagine Ireland events and the ongoing work of Culture Ireland help foster transatlantic cultural connections, but this exhibition is predicated on personal connections and a shared interest in promoting Irish visual art. The six artists – Hughie O’Donoghue, Katherine Boucher Beug, Keith Wilson, Stephen Lawlor, Colin Davidson and Donald Teskey – were selected by Sears. “These are artists I believe in and admire, who come from all parts of Ireland and whose practices vary. This is a ‘painting’ show, so it can’t be a true reflection of Irish contemporary art, but I believe it’s an interesting selection of really gifted Irish-based painters.”

Someone else with a shared desire to offer Irish painters a New York forum is Christopher Cahill, executive director of the AIHS. “We wanted to create a genuine dialogue and to broaden the notion of what Irish art is. Irish literature, poetry and theatre are more widely known, but visual art isn’t.”

The idea of the Irish artist whose interests extend outside of their own medium persists. Cultural overlap happens, and Radharc opened in the week Once the musical received 11 Tony nominations. Proving this point is Colin Davidson’s intense portrait of Glen Hansard: a painting by an artist of a musician whose work has been turned into theatre. Katherine Boucher Beug relates to this artistic cross-pollination. Born in the US, she spent her early childhood in New York, before moving to Ireland. “I originally went to Ireland wanting to be a poet. I fell in love with Yeats as a teenager and one thing that has become clear to me at this stage of my painting career – and with these works in particular – is how influenced by writing and poetry they are. There is a definite overlap in process.”

Of the six painters, Boucher Beug is the most abstract, and relates least to the works of the other painters. Hughie O’Donoghue’s Baius canvases are abstract, but the presence of form-defying faces offers a sense of humanity. Donald Teskey and Keith Wilson focus on landscapes, both rural; Wilson’s impressionistic forests are in contrast to Teskey’s agrarian tableau of country roads and corrugated barns. The creamy tones in O’Donoghue and Lawlor’s work are possibly the brightest shades in a collection that is influenced by light and environment. All six artists have distinct techniques and styles, but Sears sees connections between them related to geography. “I think the environment, the extraordinary weather systems, the dampness often bears down on us all who live in Ireland.

“Somehow that seems to touch all artists that work in Ireland. It may be a lateral step because these works are clearly very different, but working and living in Ireland does create a certain impulse. None of this work is political. These artists are moved by very singular things.”

In the bright space above Fifth Avenue, it could be said the painter most influenced by light is Stephen Lawlor. His Iron Hat Avoca series, of Irish landscapes and their mines, is hanging in New York at the same time as a major solo show in Dublin, at the Oliver Sears Gallery. Beyond The House of Carmen and Figure Paintings suggest a double-concern, and the exhibition is a bisection of Lawlor’s landscapes and his figurative work. Downstairs are the Carmen landscapes of Andalucia, El Burgo and Ronda.

Infused with every imaginable shade of green, they are explorations of light as much as topography. The figurative works, painted in Ireland, emanate from a different palette. The juxtaposition of black and white recurs, in corners, on the boundaries and there are flashes of the olive greens of Andalucia in what Lawlor insists are “paintings of people” rather than portraits.

“I don’t like flat light,” Lawlor says. “Most of the figures were painted late last year or earlier this year, in weeks dominated by the Irish winter’s lack of light. I prefer to have dramatic, sharp light coming from one direction that gives you an atmosphere. Going from the Spanish light, to that, is very different.”

Many painters would baulk at the idea of exhibiting such diverse work together, but Lawlor seems to revel in the ongoing experience of experimenting and learning as a painter.

“Stephen’s technical abilities are extraordinary,” says Sears. “He’s a master printmaker and he’s only been painting for 12 years.”

Lawlor believes that printmaking has a tough physicality to it, while painting is more psychological, but he acknowledges the former’s influence on his methodology. “As a printmaker I learnt about mixing colour and crucially, that by tweaking and augmenting colour even slightly, you can change things dramatically, or incrementally.”

In a way, this helped Lawlor embrace paint – not just in terms of shade, but in terms of pigment and texture. “I often put down a lot of paint knowing it might not work, but I then begin a new image if it doesn’t work. Layering is something I learnt in printmaking, but with painting you have this slippery mass of paint. I never take it off the canvas – I like that out-of-control element, because it means you don’t have a pre-determined outcome, which is open to possibility.”

Moving from landscapes of Irish mines and scorched Spain to painting people – and people he knew – was initially daunting. Lawlor had always sketched people as drawing exercises, but when he graduated to rendering them in oil, he found more common ground than he expected with his landscape work.

“When I paint landscapes, I try to force the shapes and patterns to interlock, so I approached painting figures in the same way. The fact that they’re people doesn’t matter, but a face is equally as important as a piece of rock. Presenting both landscapes and portraits, I worried that this exhibition would appear fragmented, but your whole experience as a painter merges, and it becomes the end of a journey – and a resolution in paint.”

Radharc is at the American Irish Historical Society, New York until June 29th

Beyond The House of Carmen and Figure Paintings, by Stephen Lawlor, is at the Oliver Sears Gallery in Dublin until June 14th. oliversearsgallery.com