This evening we celebrate the achievement of two artists, Rosie McGurran and Gavin Lavelle, both of whom live and work in and draw their inspiration from Connemara, Rosie in Roundstone and Gavin in Clifden. I had already seen Rosie’s work on exhibition in the gallery here in the past but I was not familiar with Gavin’s when Bryan asked me to speak at the opening; so I took myself off to the west to meet them both and to see their paintings. That visit confirmed again for me how fortunate we are to live here in Ireland, just how beautiful this island of ours is where wherever we live we can reach mountain, sea, rivers or lakes within minuets, to breathe deeply the refreshing bracing air of the open countryside and be disturbed “with the joy of elevated thoughts”, to leave behind the searing with trade, the blearing with toil. But of all the available options Connemara is special. It is a region of superb scenic grandeur dominated by the rocky mountain range of the Twelve Bens and the Mamturk mountains with its bogs and moorlands, its many lakes and rivers. It really is spell-bindingly beautiful and I was entranced by it all. Such spectacular countryside intimates the sublime, a presence that disturbs, a divine imminence and transcendence. It is easy to understand why landscape is so prevalent in our visual culture and why so many of our artists chose to live in the west: Paul Henry, Charles Lamb, Maurice McGonigal, George Campbell, Gerard Dillon, to name a few and, of course, Rosie and Gavin. This marvellous region is still every bit as awesomely beautiful as it was in Paul Henry’s day. Time and again I seemed to recognise the scenes he painted although I didn’t see any stacks of turf anywhere and the low thatched cottages are replaced by slate roofed bungalows, more to the health and comfort of those who live in them.
Gavin was brought up in Dalkey. His father was born in Clifden but settled in Dublin when he was engaged as an engineer to work on the Kish Lighthouse and other projects. Gavin went to school in Monkstown CBS. There was no art program there but one of the teachers had an interest and gave some classes and Gavin progressed so as to gain entry to NCAD where he studied fine art from 1986 to ’91. After his father died he returned to the family home in Main Street Clifden, which gave him his studio where he continues to work and to be inspired by the landscape which surrounds him. He painted in the rich lush colours that I associate with Franz Marc and the Fauves, the Brucke artists and the Blaue Reiter Group but which is occasioned here by the clear bright light and the clean air which is a special feature of Connemara and at which I marvelled during my recent three days’ visit. These paintings were the result of slow and careful practice and the close observation of the seasonal changes of the landscape in which he lives.
In the last year or so while keeping that bright and exhilarating palette and still inspired by the surrounding countryside he has introduced a surreal element into his paintings. By using collage, the medium at the core of Dada and surrealist art (not because he cannot draw or paint – he is extremely competent in both) he inserts texts and images into his meticulously painted landscapes and maps and half-globes, cut-outs from books and other printed works. They make idiosyncratic connections: strange beasts, dinosaurs and flying fish, disproportionate flora (blossoms the size of oak trees and bigger) and fauna, images from history and imagination, from paintings and sculpture. He builds riddles out of life’s components, contrasting disparate incompatible and alien elements, highlighting the absurd. With a magical, poetic transmutation of the mundane he jogs us out of our complacency, forcing us to stop and think about our world and what we take for granted. He juxtaposes chance and subconscious imagery which amuses, intrigues, stimulates and, sometimes, shocks. His ingeniously composed and meticulously realised compositions linger in the memory enduringly with their lush intense colouring and fulsome rich hues. These paintings can be read on several levels. They prompt narrative and speculation of alternative histories and evolutions, strangely different worlds, and contrasting religious influences.
His mentors and antecedents might be Bosch, Breugel, Archimboldo, or Blake, Moreau, Ernst or de Chirico. We see images of Flemish masters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in whose work exquisitely painted landscapes were an integral part, transposing the Christian message into their own time and context. The narrative of the Northern Renaissance landscape, as Gavin himself writes “ the Arcadian idyll of Poussin, or the nineteen centaury English pastoral often provide a base or a template for disassembling and reworking”. The less known Joachim Patinier who used landscape as a subject in itself has also influenced him. Latterly he has developed his theme further having semi-spheres constructed by a local collaborator, shaped and sanded, on which to paint and collage his provocative images, evoking the moon as well as the earth. In all this body of work he incorporates pictorial references to other cultures, their painting, sculpture, architecture, raising historical, religious, political questions about the past, present and the future. There are no easy answers or analyses but the questions hang and suggest possibilities. What if the Armada had sailed through the storms? What if Islam had continued northwards as well as to the east? What if Wolfe Tone had committed himself to the Three Graces rather than to the Triple Ideals? He prompts us to pleasurable speculation.
Rosie McGurran hails from Belfast. She excelled at drawing and painting while still at secondary school where Dr. Denise Ferran taught art, She later studied Fine Art at the University of Ulster. She went on to complete residencies at the British school in Rome, in Australia at the Centre founded by Arthur Boyd and Sydney Nolan, in Iceland and New York and elsewhere. She is a member of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts and exhibits regularly in Ireland and internationally.
She first discovered Roundstone and Innishlacken in the late 90’s and was enthralled and disturbed by what she saw and heard: the village, it exquisite harbour, the island and its deserted homes in ruins, the crisscrossing dry stone walls, tiny enclosures, its stories of hardship, struggle and emigration. Dr Ferran, who has remained an admirer of Rosie’s work and a friendly support to her, wrote in a recent catalogue “The draw that Roundstone and Innishlacken had for Rosie was realised in 2000. She had found her location, her dream, seeking answers to painting’s problems, continuing her journey through life, following in the footsteps of Henry and Dillon and like them finding her unique voice”.
I can understand something of how deeply she feels for the community and place in which she has settled. I spent some time with her on that recent visit to Roundstone and she brought me out to the island. The previous day a lobster fisherman from a village close-by had drowned and his neighbours had just found his body after searching all night. A daughter of one of the last island dwellers, Christina (Woods) Lowry came with us. Christina named the family of each abandoned home we passed as we walked the island’s perimeter. It made a deep and penetrating impression on me and the images have stayed with me, haunting my dreams at night and my memories during the day: the bleak and barren land, the smallness of the holdings, the abandoned roofless ruined cottages.
Several of Rosie’s paintings of the past show a young woman standing erect with her long flowing hair and a serious questioning expression. She wears a fulsome skirt or apron in which she gathers her memories and her hopes: dolls, small model houses, bundles of glistening fish, images of island life and what might be once more.
Her paintings show her deeply felt response to a community’s destruction, its people dispersed, its homes abandoned, and her continuing concern for a culture under threat, fishing no longer a viable career, a village and neighbourhood in danger of becoming a ghost land of cottages, empty but for a few weeks’ vacation in the year, its schools and businesses closed down. Innishlacken typifies the danger and inspires her art, her creative imagination and her commitment to save her adopted community. She has always been interested in the human story, no doubt a product of her teenage years helping in the family pub in Belfast when she gained insight into the concerns of her customers by listening to their stories.
Rosie has now established her own home and studio in Roundstone and integrated fully into village life. She greeted and was greeted by everyone we passed. She organises an annual residency for artists every summer on the island, one of the ways she lives out that commitment. She is strongly aware of the influence of the earlier artists in the area’s culture and history. That she feels is something to be nurtured, developed and respected and, so, she invites artists of the highest calibre to work in the residence she organises.
While her paintings can be appreciated as beautiful landscapes, capturing the pure light and particular colours of the countryside, the sea and the island they depict, like Gavin’s they have a surreal quality. Fish, houses, birds’ nests and eggs, placed incongruously, balance on the head of the heroic female figure or fly through the air. Some of the pictures are dark with a brooding atmosphere. “The role of the sea in modern life”, she writes, “has been diminished.” What was important and significant in the people’s lives has been reinterpreted and has become a mere accessory, an entertainment to visitors. The blood of fish and the yolk of egg, symbols of life and life’s nourishment, are poured to the ground. National and European economics have deprived a people of their homes and their livelihood. The paintings’ dominant figure recalls Alice lost in her wonderland, the children of Narnia adrift in the forest. She has created a kind of magical realism where another community of created characters live and work and interact.
Like Magritte and de Chirico she makes riddles out of the components of reality. The existing order is outmoded, hypocritical and discredited. Rosie takes her hopes, her dreams and subconscious vision and translates them into a pictorial structure while retaining its fantastic character. As with Gavin’s it may seem humorous but it has serious connotations. And the wonder of it all is that they communicate these concerns in works that have a sublime and delightful beauty. Rosie’s fellow Northerner Michael Longley has written: “ A short boat ride from the harbour of Roundstone lies Innishlacken where the ghost of Gerard Dillon presides and where on the rocky shore at low tide you can draw water from a well. This is Rosie McGurran’s soul-landscape. Her art refreshes like a spring of drinking water hidden among sea-weed and rock pools.” I have been greatly inspired and enriched in being engrossed in these works. I hope you will be too.
Frank X. Buckley