United in art, divided by time


In the ‘Quick and the Dead’, four artists who addressed the fraught cultural and political terrain of 1980s Ireland are exhibiting together again, with work that resonates today, in another period of turmoil, writes AIDAN DUNNE

IN 1986 FOUR Irish artists were invited to take part in an exhibition in the United States organised by Boston College and Northeastern University. 4 Irish Expressionist Painterswas a dark, troubled, angry show. It included work by Patrick Graham, Patrick Hall, Timothy Hawkesworth and Brian Maguire. All numbered among the Irish artists who had embraced the international resurgence in figurative, expressionist painting that began in the late 1970s, and all harnessed expressionism to their own, distinctively Irish concerns. Now, the Hugh Lane Gallery’s exhibition The Quick and the Deadreunites the four artists in an extensive survey show combining some of their paintings from the 1980s with more recent work, including much that is being exhibited for the first time.

The 1986 exhibition was held in the context of a conference, Politics and the Arts in Ireland. On the face of it, the Ireland of the time may seem remote from Ireland today. In his catalogue essay, Colin Graham sketches in some of the background: economic inertia, the 1983 referendum on the Right to Life of the Unborn, the Kerry Babies case, the bizarre summer of the moving statues, the defeated divorce referendum. One might also mention the long-lasting impact of the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979. Graham cites the final issue of The Crane Bagin 1985, which described the country as being schizophrenically caught between the backward and forward pull of history.

That year, the Anglo-Irish Agreement provided a first indication of a way of thinking beyond the Troubles, for example, pointing to a future beyond mutually exclusive visions of the North. In retrospect, it is obvious that the very assertion and consolidation of conservative values masked their increasing vulnerability. Stresses and strains in the bedrock of traditional authority, such as those occasioned by the Kerry Babies tribunal, opened up fault-lines that widened inexorably. It seemed that Irish identity, long settled and secure, was, as one observer put it, up for grabs.

THE QUESTION WAS whether and how artists were addressing this fraught cultural and political terrain, and how they chose to define themselves within it. These are ideological questions, but also aesthetic ones. Neo-Expressionism was deeply unpopular with those commentators who preferred to leave painting behind entirely as an outmoded and discredited form. In the Northern Irish context especially, it was associated with a tradition of pastoral landscape that was seen as a means of obviating and denying the abrasive political realities. Equally, in the Republic, the residual aesthetic of Celtic romanticism was viewed as irrelevant to contemporary, predominantly urban Ireland. While there was a strand of representational painting, specifically centred on the Independent Artists Group, that aimed to engage with contemporary issues, it was aesthetically conservative in character.

In this context, the advent of Neo-Expressionism as an international movement was auspicious for a number of Irish artists. The important point here is that Neo-Expressionism didn’t present Irish artists with a novel path of exploration. Rather, it had the effect of validating what they were doing – or aspired to do – anyway. This isn’t to say that Irish artists weren’t influenced by European artists, because they certainly were: whatever way you look at it, Anselm Kiefer had a huge impact, for one. But a number of Irish painters were ideally positioned to take the Neo-Expressionist baton and run with it.

Graham was certainly one of them. He might have been consigned permanently to the margins were it not for Neo-Expressionism. He is a gifted draughtsman who, as Henry Sharpe memorably put it, distrusts his own facility. Rather than showing off, he works his way through to the other side of facility, sometimes, as in The Life and Death of Hopalong Cassidy, to the point of physically destroying part of the piece he’s working on. The basic forms of his work are the landscape and the figure study. Both are infused with many layers of memory and a brooding unease.

Graham was born in Mullingar and the immediate locality has been for many years the touchstone landscape in his work, as in Dead Swan/ Captain’s Hill, though recently he has been spending time in north Mayo and the coastline there has begun to feature, as it does in the sweeping, recent diptych in the exhibition, At Lacken. His sense of personal hurt – he went through some troubled years – emerges in his simmering resentment of the repressive apparatus of church and state, the Old Ireland, that moulded him as an individual. While he mourns for lives lost and damaged, for a world that is spectacularly out of kilter, there is also a core of optimism to his work.

Maguire is a thwarted lyrical painter, continually affronted by injustice. His work is driven by a passionate identification with the excluded and betrayed. Although it is usually rooted in the personal, the individual, it is also invariably political, viewing society structurally. While his early paintings dwelt on experiences of isolation and alienation that seemed existential in nature, he quickly moved on to identify political power and institutional authority as the agencies ultimately responsible for the scope allowed or denied to individuals. When in Brazil he investigated the aftermath of a prison massacre, his work sketched out the Foucauldian idea of a state that both creates and disposes of a criminalised underclass.

Maguire has become adept at taking the fairly solitary practice of painting in a studio and involving it in a diversity of communal contexts, contexts that in turn feed back into the meaning of the work made in the studio. He is not purely critical, and his underlying aim is always to generate positive change. His Casa de Cultura project in São Paolo, for example, involved making portraits of the children of the favelas, the shantytowns, and placing and documenting them in their homes.

Hall’s paintings are expressive of a contemplative and religious sensibility. Born in Tipperary to a Catholic mother and Protestant father, he has always felt slightly apart, slightly outside of any mainstream, and seems to have relished the position. A breakthrough in his work came in the 1980s, when he embarked on his Flaying of Marsyasseries of paintings, inspired by Titian’s masterpiece based on the cruel mythological tale. In Hall’s treatment, the Marsyas story is about the intensity of human experience, embodiment, sexuality and the suffering of the flesh.

Since then he has tended towards a more distanced, reflective mode of painting and graphic work, drawing on an eclectic range of religious imagery, musing on mortality and transcendence. Some years ago he left Dublin, where he had lived and worked for a long time, and settled in a remote part of Co Sligo. That has meant increasing isolation for him but, as it happens, his work has been discovered and embraced by a younger generation of Irish artists, for whom he is something of an exemplar. His recent paintings in the show are serene visual parables.

HAWKESWORTH IS IN another sense the outsider, a d’Artagnan to the Three Musketeers in that, though Irish, he had left for the United States by 1977 and has been based there since. Since the turn of the century, he has begun to exhibit in Ireland again, following a residency at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Co Mayo. His 1980s triptychs work through a language of expressionism but never quite settle into it. Sweet Song, which was completed in the early 1990s, sees him pushing that language to the point of disintegration. Since then he has arrived at a mode of gestural yet poised abstraction that recalls the work of Cy Twombly in several respects.

While Ireland has gone through enormous changes since the mid-1980s, it is salutary to note that the issues that animate the paintings from that era still resonate today – witness the current economic turmoil and the recent publication of the Ryan report. It would be wrong to take from this exhibition the idea that the four artist included were the four Irish expressionist painters of the 1980s. That is to leave out of the equation such precursors as Michael Kane and Charles Cullen, such peers as Michael Cullen, Michael Mulcahy, and younger artists including Eithne Jordan, Anita Groener and Cecily Brennan. Only the final piece in the catalogue, Patrick T Murphy’s piece on Hawkesworth, refers to some of these other artists in any detail – and to the pivotal role of gallerist Blaithin De Sachy. Still, it’s an illuminating, valuable and welcome show.

The Quick and the Dead