Inishlacken Show at Redhouse

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 02/06/09More articles
Irish paintings

13 images in the Irish paintings album

First US showing of Irish residency project for artists:

“Everything doesn’t just happen in Dublin,” says painter Rosie McGurran. “It happens in strange places you’d never think.”

In early 2000, the Belfast painter read artist James MacIntyre’s Three Men on an Island (1996), about the time MacIntyre spent on a remote island called Inishlacken off Ireland’s west coast, visiting the painter Gerard Dillon.

Another Belfast native, Dillon had long worked in London when he went to Inishlacken in 1951. For the next year, he mingled with the islanders, invited other artists to visit him and made some of his best work – a world away from industrial Belfast and harsh, post-war London too.

McGurran has exhibited her prize-winning semi-abstract, lushly colored paintings across Europe, the US, Japan and Australia. She was so taken with Dillon’s restorative sojourn that she left Belfast to settle in the village of Roundstone on the coast across from Inishlacken, and began trudging the island herself.

Since 2001, McGurran has run an annual artist’s residency on the island, which expanded last year to a full week. At her invitation, over 50 diverse artists have participated. The work of 23 is now on view at Redhouse for the rest of February – paintings, prints, sound and video and animation, cut paper and photos – the first US showing, some of it new work specially made, after a much larger exhibition that opened last year at Ireland’s Galway Arts Centre, and co-curated with McGurran by the Centre’s visual arts officer, Maeve Mulrennan.

Both McGurran and Mulrennan were on hand on the blistering cold January night before Inishlacken: The Last Parish opened at Redhouse in time for Th3, the city-wide monthly arts night. Kate Moore, the Australian composer with a sound and notation installation in the show, arrived that night too. Susan McKeever arrived and the next week Caroline Wright, whose four-part, snapshot-sized video installation graces an eye-level shelf she likens to a fireplace mantel. Wright stayed on some days, giving talks at SU, Redhouse and at Cortland’s Dowd Gallery.

At the opening, there was live music, a crowd that included a 93-year-old native of Inishlacken who’d travelled from near Canada, quickly-devoured catered fare from Kitty Hoynes Pub down the street – “They gave us a standing ovation at breakfast,” said McGurran – and McGurran’s gallery talk. That night before, still working to get everything hung, McGurran and Mulrennan were glad to show me around and talk about the ever-growing project.

By the time Gerard Dillon got to Inishlacken, the school there had already been closed since the 1930s, so children had to be rowed to the mainland for classes. Bad weather could mean weeks without crossing choppy seas. In 1961, the last family left. Some still maintain their cottages.

The residency artists use two of them, plus tents. Some livestock remain – two donkeys, a rooster, a few sheep and flourishing numbers of rabbits. These creatures show up in the artwork – Kathleen Furey’s rabbits at Redhouse, Louise Manifold’s cut-out donkey carousel in the Galway show – and often nosily attended its making too.

Of the islanders’ departure, McGurran says, “Time became money.”

Neither easily sentimental nor sunk in the Troubles, the Redhouse exhibition should startle American viewers awake as much for what’s there as what’s not.

Many of the pieces address the island’s isolated beauty – Sioban Piercy’s haunting ink washes of lonely, curled figures – or the way modern life has cast aside once-useful objects. Wright’s video series includes her launching a sheep fleece into the surf – once used for knitting, they’re now simply discarded after periodic shearing – and her lighting of a ruined stone cottage with hundreds of candles on St. John’s Night, when bonfires traditionally line the coast. Sean O’Flaithearta’s diptych painting of an old fishing boat, or curragh, rotted and beached, mixes native sand with pigment.

McGurran, Wright and Mulrennan all say collaboration quickly arises among artists once there, from doing the dishes to taking that collaboration as the subject of their art. Like nested boxes, Simon McWilliams’ intaglio print depicts painter Mick O’Dea capturing yet a third artist at work.

Some pieces echo Dillon’s sojourn. Photographer Jonathan Porter’s “In the Footsteps of Dillon” has McGurran striding along a distance ridge, toting an easel, dwarfed by a massive sky, as was Dillon’s own habit. Abstract painter Eamon Colman, says McGurran, has a special relationship to the project: he first stepped foot there as a boy with his own artist father at Dillon’s invitation.

Inishlacken’s clean slate also inspires forays into new media and subjects. Oil painter Susan McKeever first tried water colors there. Political painter Joe McWilliams (Simon’s father, Catherine’s husband), widely known for depicting the North’s modern Troubles, painted rocky ruins against the sea.

McGurran says “lots” of Belfast artists lately wind up on this west coast and its islands, and she’s not sure why. But as Gerard Dillon sought something pristine in ancient, expansive landscape – a means to reinvention after history’s upheavals – so Americans went West after our Civil War too, similarly seeking reinvention and renewal.

And everything doesn’t happen in New York City either. By coincidence, Syracuse owes this show to Gerard Dillon’s nephew, the poet Martin Dillon, who lives in Queens.

Invited by McGurran to read from his uncle’s letters at last year’s Galway opening, young Dillon, who knows Redhouse director Natalia Mount, suggested Syracuse – a strange place you might never think – as a good North American launch point for this work.

TAGS: McGurran,Gerard Dillon,Natalia Mount,RedHouse,Ireland’s Galway Arts Centre,Inishlacken
EDITION: The Eagle

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