Art in focus: People and a Frank Stella by Robert Ballagh

An epic early commission by Robert Ballagh is given a new lease of life in Clonmel

People and a Frank Stella (detail), 18-panel mural by Robert Ballagh, early 1970s

People and a Frank Stella (detail), 18-panel mural by Robert Ballagh, early 1970s

 

What is it?
People and a Frank Stella is a mural in 18 panels, stretching 80ft in all, by Robert Ballagh, dating from the early 1970s.

How was it done?
At the time, Ballagh had only recently embarked on his artistic career when he landed this first big commission. It was daunting: some 18 panels for the Five Star Shopping Centre in Clonmel. He felt that his People Looking at Paintings series, which formed a landmark exhibition for him at the David Hendriks Gallery in 1972, would be appropriate and could be effectively adapted to the project. He had not come from a fine art academic background, and at the time was acquiring technical skills. The pop art practice, most closely associated with Andy Warhol, of using photographic silkscreen imagery, was ideal for him. For his early People Looking at Paintings he produced silkscreened photographic images (and later painted images), of fashionably attired individuals looking at simplified representations of prominent artworks (he had previously made a very popular series of such representations). For Clonmel, he made tinted photo-silkscreen images of a number of people looking at a Frank Stella abstract painting consisting of flat diagonal band of colour. The panels are finished with a durable Formica laminate.

Where can I see it?
The conservation of the Robert Ballagh panels will form part of the Clonmel Junction Festival, under the auspices of the Tipperary County Museum (Showgrounds Shopping Centre, Clonmel, Co Tipperary. July 1st-7th , with an artist talk at 4pm on July 2nd, booking via Eventbrite) and following the festival they will be on view permanently.

Is it a typical work by the artist?
It is typical enough. At some point – it is tricky to pin down exactly when – Ballagh graduated from being a well-known artist to being a national institution. That wasn’t just because he was likeable and articulate – sometimes fiercely articulate. It also had to do with his public profile and presence, culturally and, in a related but not identical way, politically, and the fact that his work was as near to being universally accessible as one can imagine. As a painter, he thinks like an illustrator: the impetus is to communicate information as clearly as possible.

Ballagh came to be an artist almost by accident. A Dubliner, he had spent time studying architecture at Bolton St and – it was the 1960s, after all – enjoyed a foray into the music scene (bass guitarist with The Chessmen). His friend Micheal Farrell took him on as an assistant for a large commission, and Ballagh’s facility, plus his enthusiasm for pop art, set him off on a new path. As an artist, from the start, rather than being a tortured loner in the romantic mould, he was a pragmatic journeyman, in the Leonardo da Vinci sense of the term. One feels he would have been at home in a Renaissance studio-workshop, applying his talents and abilities to whatever task was assigned to him.

In our own time, that meant he not only produced a great deal of work from personal inclination, he also became a highly regarded portrait painter, and took on myriad design projects, including stamps, currency, book jackets and theatre sets. All of this coexisted and occasionally overlapped with his political persona as a socialist and a republican. His Clonmel murals became a widely known feature of the shopping centre and a remarkable effective public artwork.

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