Narrow the focus to see the future


Flashback 2004/Visual arts:  The visual arts are booming, with several milestones this year. Key to continued success is sharpness of vision, writes Aidan Dunne.

The visual arts are flourishing. Even a cursory review of the year's events will confirm that. And they are flourishing in diverse ways and on many levels, from high-profile visiting exhibitions such as A German Dream, at the National Gallery of Ireland, to an alternative arts scene that seems to be on the up.

The opening of the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, at University College Cork, was certainly a milestone, as well as a challenge for the city's visual-arts community in the long term.

A German Dream, featuring German Romantic paintings from the Berlin National Gallery collection, is the best exhibition yet to occupy the Millennium Wing. Any show with half a dozen Caspar David Friedrichs has to be worth a look, but there is a great deal else to see as well, and the show is very well organised and laid out.

Without much conscious effort you'll learn a great deal about Romanticism in Germany - and indeed about Germany - as you enjoy the paintings. Its run has been extended to February 6th, and if you haven't had a chance to see it yet you should, particularly as it happens to be fairly appropriate viewing around Christmas.

The Bloomsday centenary generated a flurry of Joyce-themed exhibitions, but by far the most substantial in every way, and the only one to come across as a labour of love and scholarly obsession, was the Royal Hibernian Academy's Joyce In Art, which grew out of a long-term project by Maria Lerm-Hayes. The related book is exhaustive and a very useful resource for Joyceans.

Yet, ultimately, this and the other shows did little to suggest any major revision of the general view of Joyce as only peripherally interested in the visual arts. Rather, as Lerm-Hayes's survey demonstrated, what happened was that language more and more infiltrated the visual arts, and part of the responsibility for that might be pinned on Joyce.

Early in the year Teenage Kicks, curated by Ruth Carroll at the RHA, demonstrated that it is possible to put together a substantial, ambitious Irish-international group show on the basis of resources that are, in international terms, modest.

Equally, Carissa Farrell at Draíocht, with the co-operation of the British Council, curated a group show featuring many of the best-known names of recent British art in - a Joycean link - exploring the use of language in visual art.

Temple Bar Gallery's No-one Else Can Make Me Feel The Colours That You Bring was a good, delicate balancing act, bringing together a number of individual voices.

Carlow maintained its reputation as an enterprising centre of activity with its dazzling exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art in August. The quality and sophistication of the work made it a delight.

IMMA's current survey of contemporary Chinese art provides an invaluable primer on an artistic scene that is going to grow in relevance and importance to us here in the West. It is a complex, rapidly changing scene, characterised by a huge fund of tradition, energy and ambition.

Rarely can an exhibition have been as warmly received as Juan Usle's at IMMA. Although they are rigorous and closely argued, Usle's paintings also have a quality of playful engagement that elicited a great response.

The same could be said of the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. Francesco Clemente, on the other hand, a figure of cult status, disappointed with more misses than hits in a patchy show.

To visit the museum's Sophie Calle exhibition was to enter a strange, intensely personal world. In Calle's autobiographical narratives, truth takes on the texture of fiction. One of the intriguing things about her modus operandi is how much it is bound up with her own periods of unhappiness and is, for her, therapeutic.

Limerick City Gallery of Art organised a welcome retrospective of one of Irish art's great individualists, Jack Donovan. Donovan's paintings, which replay history and everyday human desire as farcical theatre, make up a remarkably cohesive, incisive body of work.

Millennium Court Arts Centre, in Portadown, which has consolidated its presence as a good, lively venue this year, originated a survey of the work of Dermot Seymour. His heightened, surreal paintings are a unique commentary on the recent history of Ireland, north and south.

The decade-plus survey of the work of this year's Nissan Art Project artist, Martin Gale, confirmed that he has been an unrivalled chronicler of rural Ireland over the past 25 years and more (it's currently running at the Ulster Museum, in Belfast). His paintings, with their solid, deliberate realism, are meticulously constructed pictures. There is a strong strand of realism painting in Ireland that is fresh and contemporary.

Survey shows on a modest scale can be particularly effective. Chung Eun Mo's architectonic abstracts, the centrepiece for Tulca, Galway's innovative visual-arts season, looked thoroughly at home at Galway Arts Centre.

Bernadette Kiely's Slow Time: Local Ground, comprising an outstanding group of textural paintings based on a close consideration of the north Co Mayo landscape, toured several good venues through the year (it's currently at the Butler Gallery, in Kilkenny).

Eithne Jordan produced a new body of work, landscapes that are in a sense deliberately nondescript - building sites, motorway viaducts, stretches of scrub, ordinary houses, all in rural France - and formed the substance of shows at the Ormeau Baths Gallery, in Belfast, and then the Rubicon, in Dublin.

These quiet, understated paintings are, perhaps surprisingly, extremely resonant and persuasive.

Maureen Gallace's small paintings of rural Connecticut should be cloyingly sentimental, but an astringency holds them back. In her Douglas Hyde Gallery exhibition in August she also showed portraits with the same distanced air, mingling nostalgia and coldness.

Among several strong shows at Sligo's Model Arts and Niland Gallery was Maud Cotter's. Amy O'Riordan was one of several artists highlighted by Limerick City Gallery of Art throughout the year. Another notable exhibitor there was Tom Fitzgerald.

Stephen Brandes produced one of the best of Temple Bar Gallery's shows this year. Nick Miller's Genre, at the Butler Gallery, was an engrossing example of the way painting is always partly about time, whatever else is going on.

It was a good year for Gerard Byrne, who is fast building an international profile. He took on the space and nature of Project arts centre, in Dublin, in an ambitious two-part work, In Repertory. Similarly, Phil Collins has been working extensively abroad with great success. Some of the results we have seen in the Kerlin Gallery.

Temple Bar Properties brought us films by the photographers Jurgen Teller (the Goethe-Institut complemented the screening with a showing of his Oedipal self-portrait in its tiny but productive gallery space, The Return) and William Klein.

Latterly, Paddy Jolley's collaborative film, was one of the many pieces arising from Ballymun Regeneration. It seems to be a landmark moment for Jolley, who has two feature-length projects on the go.

The largest Ballymun project is probably Jochen Gerz's Amaptocare, an exhaustive process during which local people were canvassed to contribute towards planting trees in the area. It has attracted adverse comment, but Gerz is an impressive figure, a tireless negotiator with a remarkable record of innovative public art projects.

The number and encouraging quality of solo shows throughout the year belie the sheer level of hard work involved. An artist will work concertedly over as many as two or three years for an exhibition that will enjoy a few weeks' exposure in a gallery before, in most cases, disappearing as an entity.

In the case of Campbell Bruce, who showed late in the year at the Solomon Gallery, in Dublin, more than a few years were involved. But his carefully judged, cleverly constructed paintings have a thoughtful, considered presence. They are the kind of work it would be good to live with.

Paul Doran, who showed at Green on Red, in Dublin, in February, has had great success with his impossibly rich, clotted paintings. Patrick Michael Fitzgerald, apart from his own work, has been active as a curator, drawing on an international network of abstract painters, one of whom, Andrew Bick, had an outstanding solo show at the Rubicon.

The list of artists who mounted good solo shows is long. It would have to include Alison Pilkington, Gary Coyle, Mary Lohan, Mark O'Kelly, Gemma Browne, David Crone, Mark Swords, Gillian Lawler, Colin Martin, Susan MacWilliam, Blaise Smith, Michael Coleman, Gwen O'Dowd, Paddy McCann, Michael O'Dea, Makiko Nakamura, Sarah Walker, James Hanly, Gerard Mannix Flynn, Sinead Aldridge, John Shinnors, Sean McSweeney, Walker & Walker . . . This list is by no means exhaustive.

As far as the visual arts go, is it fair to say there are signs that arts festivals are becoming formulaic packages that favour spectacle over depth? Not quite, but there is a sense in which the perfectly legitimate desire to engage with a wide public can be counterproductive.

Admittedly, Kilkenny Arts Festival was unlucky in the mishap that befell Shane Cullen's The Agreement when its outdoor panels blew over and were damaged, an accident that was, in the event, prophetic, but some of its other visual-arts events were a bit light on the art.

Does every arts festival need a substantial visual-arts strand? That seems to be the aim, but it is seldom realised. More sensible, perhaps, to narrow the focus. Tulca looks like a good way to go.

Take five . . .

. . . highlights

1 IMMA scored quite a coup in winning a major commitment from the Heritage Fund to secure a slide-tape trilogy by James Coleman, who, though easily the best-known Irish artist abroad, is not well represented in Irish collections.

2 A German Dream, from the collection of the Nationalgalerie Berlin, finally did the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery of Ireland proud. A big, complex, rich exhibition of Romantic-era paintings, it sets a new benchmark for visiting shows.

3 Juan Usle's exhibition at IMMA, a touring show, was perhaps the nicest surprise of the year. The unexpected aspect of it is that Usle is an abstract painter. His work, with its rhythmic sense, quirky outlook and exuberance, impressed visitors - and put smiles on their faces.

4 The opening of the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, at UCC, was a triumph of architectural vision, in that it is a beautiful building delivered at a reasonable cost, and a triumph of the possible, given the arduous process entailed in realising it.

5 Martin Gale. The third in a sequence of retrospective surveys at the RHA was well worth doing. Somehow, nobody has, until now, gathered together Gale's hypnotically realist paintings of Irish rural life. They make for a narratively engrossing show and a penetrating insight into a familiar world.