The Guggi life


With his punk-rock pedigree, Guggi once found it hard to be taken seriously as a visual artist. AIDAN DUNNEvisits him in his appealingly cluttered studio at home, surrounded by family, garden – and snakes

Guggi’s first exhibition in Ireland in almost four years has just opened at the Kerlin Gallery. Not that he hasn’t been busy in the meantime. He’s had shows in New York, London, Berlin, Buenos Aires and Monaco.

A week prior to the opening, in his habitual attire of battered leather jacket, jeans and pointy-toed black boots, he sat at ease in the relative clutter of his studio. Part of the clutter was made up of work for the show, including a group of sculptural objects, several big, painted pots that have become something of a trademark.

Add his long flowing locks to his general demeanour and he looks every bit the rocker, but it aggrieves him that he is still labelled as such. “I mean, I was in the Virgin Prunes for six-and-a-half years. But that was over for me back in 1984.

“What interested me most about the Virgin Prunes were the costumes, the make-up, the performance. I was painting before that, during it and ever since.” Not that he repudiates the experience. He, Gavin Friday and Bono all gained their names and identities from that time. Guggi still loves music passionately and remains very close to Friday and Bono, a tripartite friendship that goes back a long way.

Still, he certainly has a point. With his punk-rock pedigree he found it difficult to be taken seriously as a visual artist. But he has always been very serious about it. “The earliest paintings I exhibited were landscapes. I knew they weren’t what I wanted to say. I loved oil paint, really loved it, but I knew that I had to learn the medium.”

He set about doing that and managed it with impressive speed, mapping out an artistic language that has remained consistent ever since.

His studio is a stone-built, traditional coach-house type building adjacent to the comfortable south Dublin house he and his wife, Sibylle Ungers, share with five offspring, six assorted dogs and an unspecified number of reptiles. A family interest in the latter has developed to the point where Ungers breeds reptiles and has become something of an expert at it, particularly breeding some of the thousands of species of lizards for colour.

“I like animals,” Guggi comments with a shake of his head. “But Sibylle takes it to a different level.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the extended household makes up a teeming, busy environment, with occasional pockets of quiet.

One of them is Guggi’s studio. He likes to work there into the late and early hours. “I don’t want to sound excessive, but I really don’t think an artist can afford to be away from his or her work. That thing of being able to wander back in and have a fresh look. That’s the look that counts.”

The paintings, drawings and digital prints in the show use printed pages of Cyrillic script, directly in assembled collages, and as a source when he writes letters on to the surface of the paintings. With one exception the texts are drawn from War and Peace. The exception is a version of Psalm 100, a prayer of thanksgiving. “I don’t speak Russian,” Guggi is quick to point out, “but I like the way it looks, and I thought, well, if you’re going to quote a Russian text, go for one of the great ones.”

There’s more to his use of Russian lettering as well, however. “During my childhood, we were part of this very extreme Christian Brethren sect. They used to bring Northern Presbyterian preachers to scream at us about hell and damnation, terrifying stuff. They went on about this awful place behind the Iron Curtain, and what would happen to you if you were caught there with a bible. So when I actually got to see Russian text in photographs of Moscow, that sort of thing, it affected me intensely. It was scary, but also very fascinating, it had a kind of power and mystery – snakes had the same effect on me. So really I’m dealing with that childhood emotion.”

Most of what we see in his paintings, in fact, goes back to his childhood. He is known for using simple still life objects, jugs and bowls, in a stylized way that recalls the work of William Scott and the great Italian artist Giorgio Morandi. Like them, he aims to take humble domestic things and show that they can be used in a way that is both ordinary and profound, that they are worthy of a place in high art and can express the most important things in life.

“When I was little my grandmother had these water jugs high up on a shelf. I found them offensive in their ugliness, I really hated them, they seemed to me to stand for everything old, the past, things I wanted to get away from.

“But then, over time, I grew to love them. Even when I hated them I was obviously absorbing the detail: the way the thickness of the handle narrows as it curves into the jug, the real elegance of the shapes and how they are so functional.”

Bowl and jug, he says, are universal forms and can be symbolic of poverty and abundance, pessimism and optimism and a great deal more. His sculptural bowls are a neutral grey tone on the outside, a clay colour. “But I’ve tried to make them vibrant inside. All the richness and warmth is in that inner glow.”

The layered, patchwork surfaces of his paintings are influenced, he reckons, by his experience of Venice. “I first went there shortly after I met Sibylle. She brought me to see the Biennale. I love Venice, I love wandering along these narrow streets and the way the layers of plaster are peeling away from the walls of the building so you’re seeing several stages of history at one, and there’s this feeling of damp.”

He’s in the relatively privileged position of being one of the few artists for whom the painter Seán Scully has written a catalogue essay. “Seán came to the studio, and I thought he’d written a note at that stage and it was a courtesy call. But he stayed for several hours and we had a fantastic conversation. . . You learn so much from listening to someone who not only cares about painting but also knows it so well, incredibly well.”

Has he been tempted, like Scully, to locate to New York, an art world centre? “Fourteen years ago I showed in New York with Tony Shafrazi, and he said to me that if you’re going to make it there you’ve got to be there.

“My ambition – no, I’m not actually that ambitious – my goal is long-term, it’s my life’s work, to be a good painter, not to make it in New York. But I love New York, the buzz is incredible, like nowhere else, and I would not be averse to being based there. Who knows?”

Equally he loves the natural world. “I went to Buenos Aires once with my good friend Frankie Woods and we hired off-road motorbikes and caught the ferry over to Uruguay, and we were in another world. You could just keep going and never encounter another person in this incredible, natural richness.”

There’s no possibility, he reckons, that he will return to music. “Having said that I’ve occasionally done things relating to the Virgin Prunes with Gavin. He always had this thing, I think based on something his grandmother said to him, that he’d play Carnegie Hall before he was 50. So a few days before his 50th birthday in 2009 he did. A lot of people performed with him – Bono and U2, Lou Reed, Antony and the Johnsons, Martha Wainwright and Rufus, Shane McGowan, even Scarlet Johansson. And do you know, I think it was the New York Times critic who said that the highlight of the evening came early, with those two songs. “I put that down to Gavin by the way, not me. When he gets it right he’s one of the seriously great performers.”

Guggi is at the Kerlin Gallery, Anne’s Lane, South Anne St until February 23rd

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