VAN Critique Jan/Feb 2014: ‘The Work of Micheal Farrell’ Crawford Gallery, Cork

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Micheal Farrell (1940 – 2000), Man Lost in a Glass of Water, 1978, © The Micheal Farrell Estate

‘The Work of Micheal Farrell’
Crawford Gallery, Cork 
9 November 2013 – 4 January 2014

This exhibition, produced by Solstice Arts Centre, and subsequently shown at the Crawford Gallery, aimed to re-evaluate the work of the late Micheal Farrell (1940 – 2000), from abstract minimalist to cultural commentator, opening with his Celtic series from the mid- 1960s. Farrell primarily utilised the medium of acrylic, which was new at the time, to evoke ancient Irish traditions by integrating Celtic motifs and symbolism into the hard-edged style of abstraction that was being practised by his contemporaries. His unique take on minimalist painting was termed Celtic Abstraction. While Farrell rose to prominence through abstract painting, this exhibition celebrated his move from the objective to the subjective, bringing together a vast array of later works which deal with Ireland’s tumultuous political history.

Among these were numerous re-appropriations of François Boucher’s Nude Reclining on a Chaise- Lounge (1752), which depicts Miss Marie-Louise O’Murphy, the Irish mistress of Louis XV. This object of male desire becomes, in Farrell’s work, a body which has been exploited and used. In order to amplify this new context, a number of these works were displayed opposite An Incomplete History of Ireland (1980 – 81), a painting which presents us with a less desirable image of a naked male face down on the floor against a jet black background. Translucent brown paint runs across his buttocks and is smeared all over the white (wall-like) pages of a book, which he seems to have fallen out of.

Much of the work in this exhibition dealt with violence as it impacts upon the body, most impressively in the way Farrell uses the formal qualities of paint to bring emotional states to the surface of the canvas. Sun 30 Jan 1972 (1997 – 78), shows a number of figures gathered around a mass of black paint, suggestive of bodies and blood strewn across the floor. These figures themselves are made up of blocks of black and grey paint with only suggestions of faces as the paint is violently dashed and scraped across a dry and exposed canvas. In other works that refer to both Bloody Sunday and the Omagh Bombings, we see half- sketched, frail figures whose bodies seem overwhelmed and engulfed by masses of thick paint in bleak colours.

The exhibition continued upstairs with a number of large and seemingly unrelated paintings, the arrangement of which seemed to lack a curatorial agenda. These included portraits of full- length figures, paintings referring to Parisian bistros, a painting of a boxing match, and Self- Portrait (1994), which depicts the artist in France, his home from 1971. Farrell is seen here as an average-looking middle-aged man, balding and with a paunch, wearing slacks and sandals, gazing out at us in a manner reminiscent of a holiday snap. Again, Farrell’s formal technique seems to suit the subject matter. This sunny portrait displays a more refined sense of realism and a more leisurely style of painting that seems to better fit this portrait of a man of retirement age than the sketchy and raw political works in the lower galleries.

Aside from the upper gallery, the exhibition overall was dominated by overt symbols of ‘Irishness’, such as James Joyce in a Celtic tie hung opposite a bar serving only Guinness and Powers whisky. Despite this preoccupation, and the overtly political context of much of Farrell’s work, a posthumous biographical reading seems unavoidable. The motif the glass and the numerous references to drinking or drowning inside a glass evoke not only Ireland’s drinking culture, but also Farrell’s own troubled relationship with alcohol. More morbidly, works like Sunday (1997 – 98), whose title and orange background make explicit its political context, could also be read in terms of a personal contemplation of death. This mixed media work was painted ten years after the artist was diagnosed with throat cancer and two years before his premature death. It depicts an emaciated figure in a hospital bed, surrounded by a thick mass of black paint which encases his head and drips down from his crown. Of the same period, Black 47 (1997), depicts a gaunt but defiant figure against a black background, standing at a table upon which rests a skull. A skeleton can be seen in the brown space evoking the earth under the floorboards. This vanitas painting, referring to the Irish Famine, seems to sum up Farrell’s later work by coupling a mournful remembrance of the suffering of Ireland’s past with the artist’s unflinching acceptance of his own mortality. Here the outrage and anger of Farrell as a political commentator seems to give way to a more tender consideration of the fragility of life and the shadow of death that hangs over us all.

Kirstie North is a PhD candidate at University College Cork, working on a thesis entitled ‘Salvage Operations: Art Historical Memory and the Archive in Contemporary Art’.

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