Capturing the rhythm of 30 years


VISUAL ARTS: Éigse Carlow: A RetrospectiveVisual Centre for Contemporary Art, Old Dublin Road, Carlow Tues-Sat 11am-5.30pm, Sun 2pm-5pm. Until Aug 28

THERE’S A MAN having a rest outside the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art in Carlow. He’s lying on his back, on a steel platform looking up at the sky. He’s dressed in jeans and a blue shirt and his feet are bare. He looks like an ordinary guy, someone used to physical work. Right now he appears quiet, lost in his own thoughts, as though he’s mulling something over. But there’s something else. He’s a good bit larger than life-size. In fact, he’s a giant, and though he looks very much alive, he’s made of painted bronze.

He’s there as part of Éigse Carlow’s 30-year retrospective exhibition at Visual. Strictly speaking it’s the festival’s 31st anniversary since it began in 1979. But it’s the first year that Carlow’s tremendous new visual arts venue has been available, and the show, curated by Paddy McGovern, occupies every available space inside and outside the building.

Presumably the problem wasn’t what to put in but what to leave out, because over its life so far Éigse has accumulated a formidable tally of exhibiting artists, both Irish and international. Over 70 of them feature in the retrospective and if you don’t get to the festival itself, they make a visit to Carlow over the summer months essential for art lovers.

The resting man was sculpted by Seán Henry and you can see others works by him inside, a standing man and a resting woman. Henry excels at investing our mundane, everyday experiences with significant meaning. He catches his subjects at moments of introspection and realisation, and we can empathise and identify with them by virtue of the space for reflection and possibility that he manages to convey. It’s no wonder that his work is both popular with a wide public and highly regarded by critics. In terms of artistic style Henry’s a realist, and on balance the majority of the artists who have featured in Éigse are at least broadly representational in their approach, if not realists per se.

Yet the festival has been anything but glibly conservative. It has consistently juxtaposed the local with the international and consistently challenged its broad audience. Not to say it’s unique in this, but it does point up the long-term value of festival events when they can genuinely familiarise people with the diversity of contemporary art, overcoming many of the doubts, hesitations and the downright scepticism that tends to come between the general public and the contemporary art world.

Several artists have been given a lot of space, which might seem a bit unfair but is essential to lend the overall exhibition a shape and a rhythm.

Shani Rhys James, who makes intense, searching self-portraits, had a fine show recently at Hillsboro Fine Art. At Visual you can see a sequence of small portraits by her and also two epic domestic interiors, psychologically charged tableaux made with great nervous energy. Two paintings by Hughie O’Donoghue occupy an entire wall in the main gallery. Both are part of a series inspired by the “Tomb of the Diver”, a grave site dating from several hundred years BC in southern Italy. The tomb contains a number of striking painted images, including that of a young man diving into the sea. The diver, poised between life and death, becomes an allegorical everyman for O’Donoghue.

Donald Teskey makes the most of the scale of the venue with a vast, atmospheric shoreline painting in which, under a turbulent grey sky, an endless succession of white-capped waves break against beds of worn and fragmented stone. The rough-hewn, elemental quality of the work finds a counterpart in Eileen MacDonagh’s limestone sculpture outside. Two massive blocks of cut stone enfold a central space into which you can squeeze. It’s a ruggedly beautiful work that evokes megalithic monuments and early stone forts, protective enclosures for body and spirit.

As you might expect, there are many works linked to landscape in one way or another, including William Crozier’s iridescent Sunset Tragumna Road, which sets the impinging darkness against a blaze of evening light, and David Tress’s fiercely energized accounts of light and weather. Keith Wilson’s calm, meditative paintings can come across at first glance as abstract. Then you register the dense patterning of vegetation and the giveaway reflection of trees and sky in the surface of a pool. There are intriguing hints of narrative in paintings by Martin Gale and Simon English.

Abstraction fares well, with a strong series of paintings by Marie Hanlon as well as by Denis Farrell, who is one of those artists whose work should be seen more widely. John Hoyland is characteristically exuberant and if you love oil paint and what it is capable of in terms of luxuriant texture and body, and infinite subtleties of tone and richness of colour, look no further than John Noel Smith. Paul Mosse’s mixed media construction is a work of mind-boggling intricacy.

There’s a lot more that’s good, for example John Brennan’s set of small tondosor Declan O’Mahony’s translucent acrylic composition or Janet Mullarney’s set of carved wood heads, Earthly Creatures, simultaneously tough and tender in insight and empathy. And while recently he’s exhibited paintings and drawings of Europe’s port cities, Stephen McKenna’s Interior with Bulldogreminds us that he is a great painter of domestic interiors.

If you’ve visited Éigse much over the years, it’s easy to think of good artists who aren’t in the retrospective, but McGovern doesn’t pretend to comprehensiveness. Even with the elbow room afforded by Visual, choices had to be made, and there’s plenty to see and worth seeing. More than enough, in fact to encourage us to follow him up to Carlow.