VAN Critique July/August 2015: Gabhann Dunne at The LAB Gallery, Dublin 1

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Gabhann Dunne, Floraborus, installation view, The LAB, Dublin

Gabhann Dunne
Magenta Honey
The LAB Gallery, Dublin 1
1 May – 13 June 2015

Gabhann Dunne has been painting since the 1990s and is an artist for whom the alchemy involved in manifesting an entity from paint appears effortless. He also demonstrates an easy aptitude for drawing. The compression of these abilities into effective visual shorthand appears to have coincided with his MFA at NCAD, from which he graduated in 2011.

This latest exhibition includes work done in response to the milieu of Dublin’s North Bull Island. The only city-based UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve, it came into being as a consequence of a man-made intervention in the form of early-nineteenth-century engineering works.

The impact of our species on the planet is not always so fortuitous and, unsurprisingly, the environment emerges as a central theme. The exhibition’s cryptic title reflects the well-documented plight of the bee as a matter of major ecological concern, and emerged from Dunne’s research, which revealed bizarre incidences where artificial sugars from anti-freeze and confectionary casings are used in the making of honey. In a recent interview on RTE Radio 1’s Arena, he relayed how these dubious honey products are produced in vividly-coloured “greens and blues and violets”.

Having encountered some of the featured paintings online, their most surprising quality in situ proves to be their diminutive scale. The exception to this is Floraborus, which was conceived for The Cube, a seven-metre-tall glazed space on The LAB’s ground floor. A multi-part piece exploring the theme of water, which is vital prerequisite for a living planet, its main component is an oil painting in tondo form, suggesting water projected over a blue sky. This work references a project that aims to relocate supplies from the Shannon to reservoirs that will serve Dublin consumers. It is surrounded by a wreath of flowers – or, more accurately, endangered and invasive plant species – painted directly onto the wall and extending, in ripple-like flourishes, up its full height. This device suggests transience and was inspired by Italian murals seen on trips abroad. A small companion piece features a figure in the act of drinking a glass of water, painted in a pleasing mix of thin, streaky paint juxtaposed with juicier passages and traces of pencil.

The remaining works on unframed boards of in-the-main horizontal orientation are arranged individually or in groups along the three walls of the first-floor mezzanine gallery. This is a complex space with varying ceiling heights and other potential visual distractions, but the scale of the exhibits has the effect of inviting the viewer to partake of intimate scrutiny, which is in keeping with the artist’s belief that painting is primarily about looking. The best examples testify to the efficacy of Dunne’s annotated style and deliver strong imagery comprising simple forms on minimally textured but nonetheless sumptuous backgrounds. Their array of beautiful blues and greens – some with magenta under paint – camouflage the darker subject matter.

Morrigan’s Pearl spotlights the endangered freshwater pearl mussel, a bivalve mollusc with an incredibly long lifespan and important ecological role. But its central subject is marginally overworked in relation to the nuanced grey background, which alone conveys almost enough. The makers of the aforementioned honey also appear, struck in mid-air by arrows in Sebastian’s Bee, an art-historical reference to the oft-painted martyred saint, or as a treasured miniature in Golden, with its lapis-lazuli-effect background and gold-leafed circular mount.

One particular grouping suggests a narrative turn. Comprising four separate boards, The Bull’s Hares references the threat to Bull Island’s population of hares, and emphasises their essential role in its ecology. The first is suggestive of a primordial ancestor, a simple form encapsulating an innate propensity for movement, while the second features the fully evolved animal running at full pelt and the third a generic hare in freefall, its footing on the planet compromised by human activity. The final piece is the most unsettling due to its potential for prophecy, and depicts a startled animal with shredded ears and alarming, post-apocalyptic eyes.

Other works evoke the cosmos. In Alpha Beta Proxima, A Rodent’s Hope, purples, blacks, pinks and yellows swirl and shimmer, due to the careful manipulation of the medium to deliver surface variation. In contrast, Durragh features a close-up of the artist’s son’s face, perhaps indicating his concerns as a parent about the world his children will inherit. It is difficult to portray a young child’s features without courting sentimentality, but Dunne just about gets away with it. Any reservations are brushed aside by the humour of a tiny patterned bolster positioned to break the fall of the painted deer in Dee’s Pillow, and the hopeful golden glow of the abstract Hi Susan.

Bringing together a diverse mix of subjects and approaches, all loosely wedded to the Bull-Island-inspired environmental banner, Magenta Honey is a quietly thoughtful and essentially painterly showing that’s well deserving of close looking.

Susan Campbell is a PhD candidate in History of Art at Trinity College Dublin.

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