Monday 12 March 2012

Lives of Brian

A famous art critic once lectured on the origin of his profession. ‘If you’re no good at anything,’ he explained, ‘you become a construction worker. If you’re no good at that either, you become a truck driver. And if you can’t even manage thát, you become an Art Critic.’

Dear reader, near the very top of my list of lethal allergies looms my absolute abhorrence of all art scribbling. I detest the practice as thoroughly as a rabbi loathes pork. The hollow chitchat, the worthless abstracts strung together like fake pearls on a tasteless necklace, the innumerable inflated adjectives, the verbal foliage masquerading as incomparable profundity… Nothing worse was ever brought forth by  human language! And I don’t mind admitting it: whenever I hear the word Art, I reach for my silencer! There ought to be laws against such a waste of perfectly good ink and paper. But our age is one of all implants and no spine, so – alas! - we cannot hope for much improvement from the rogues who rule us!

This stance naturally puts me in a somewhat delicate position when I myself feel called upon to review an exhibition of paintings. Am I not bowing to the Beast? Am I not doing the same as the rats of the arts (note how both words are written with the same letters, reader!)? Well, NO. One like myself knows how to rise above such cheap temptations. Hence, in speaking of the exhibition which I visited last Saturday, I will do no more than show you some samples, tell you what I like and loathe, and play the rest Ad Hominem in an honest manner, since Mr Whelan – the painter in question - has nothing to fear from that.

Figurehead Painting: A Pilgrimage of Sight 

What then shall I say about Brian Whelan’s exhibition titled ‘A Pilgrimage of Sight’, which you may visit in the Hostal de Los Reyes Catolicos in Santiago up to March 31st of this year?

Well, the first thing that springs to mind is that I guess it takes an Irishman to combine Art, Beer and Religion as if the bloody Renaissance had never taken place! Here we are smack in the middle of the 21st century. Cold-hearted Science and Unlimited Greed have definitely triumphed over honest morality and old time religion. Pragmatism and secularity have conquered the niche that concern for your eternal soul used to occupy. And yet Mr Whelan happily paints away at scenes from saint’s lives, medieval history, biblical creation and tender archaic worlds that have long since disappeared. As I wrote yesterday: this makes him a rebel of the first order, and a fine candidate for a miserable and nameless existence, painting his heart out in a dripping attic until the Great Reaper comes knocking on the door. Being mistaken for a client (the first in months!), the gruesome visitor is let in, after which our artist gets buried in a borrowed shroud under a recycled tombstone. A Romantic yarn, you say? The Authentic Life of the True Artist? Yeah… Sure… As long as it happens to somebody else, right? It is a beautiful fable which we all love to watch in Kirk Douglas movies, but you wouldn’t want it for your worst godchild and you certainly don’t want it for yourself.

Fortunately, Mr Whelan knows how to avoid such a fate. He knows how to be just commercial enough to catch the eye of patrons and clients, without prostituting his principles (a balancing act if any!) He manages to upgrade the heavy ancient to the appealing modern by a fine use of flamboyant colour, unusual subjects, and an ever-present touch of subtle humour. These latter are details which lighten the pious burden and avoid – in an unobtrusive manner – the dangerous overdose of solemnity which cannot help but scare today’s observer. Yesterday I already pointed out the light bulb over the nativity scene. But there is such a pun in almost every painting Whelan churns out. Take, for instance, this St Jerome, Patron Saint of Scholars

St Jerome (2011)

Now, the anecdote of Jerome removing a thorn from the paw of a savage lion is well-known. But you won’t find the cute, almost allegorical notion of the scholar removing it with his dip pen in the original 13th century text of Jacobus de Voragine to which it all goes back (even if there may be a reference here to the scene as painted by Niccolò Conantonio). That is an unmistakeable Whelan wink.

And what to think of his St George, Patron Saint of Ethiopia and thus painted very much in the Ethiopian tradition?

St George and the Dragon (2012)

Is it really only the awful death throes which cause the dragon stick out his tongue? Or is the beast also poking fun at the warrior while the warrior pokes his lance into him? Whelan’s St George certainly deserves some mockery, seeing that abominable equestrian pose of his, and the cramped grip he keeps on the reins. Some dragon-slayer indeed! He couldn’t hang a worm on a fishhook! And that goes to underline the Divine Support behind the whole miracle.

It is little things like these – pleasant visual surprises and small jests – which keep you awake and alert as you work your way through a large exhibition. And it prepares you for even more clever double meanings, more subtle interactions between the message and the view. As happens for instance in what I confess to be my favourite piece of the show, the simple, down-to-earth, unadorned First Day of Creation.

The 1st day of Creation: 
God separates Light from Darkness

Mind now: this is not God ‘making’ light and darkness. It is not God ‘creating’ light and darkness. It is God separating the two. Literally. And that’s why He’s smack in the middle here, Himself the Divine Dividing Line between two opposites. Now if that ain’t subtle, what is?

There is obviously a lot of Chagall in these paintings, and not a little of Picasso-style perspective. You even find a occasional allusion to Karel Appel and his Cobra crowd. But all that is only one thin layer, the topmost of many. Below it is much much more. There is all of the Renaissance. There is solid knowledge of 1,000 years of Middle Ages. There are trickles of the classics and droplets of all that came before Greek and Roman.

Brian Whelan is a painter of many lives, superimposed, each a dwarf standing on the shoulder of giants. And he knows his business; he’s done his homework. No stroke of his brush is random. Each one of them has strings attached to the history of Art and Thought. That is a rarity in a modern painter, and something most unlikely. Yet I know so for a fact, because I had the privilege of being in the room with him some years ago, in London, at the occasion of the opening of another exposition which treated of the Irish Immigrants in London (Yes: he also paints such modern subjects – strangely, it involved quite a number of scenes of Irishmen drinking booze in shady bars…). When I entered the room Whelan was slightly tipsy and a little incoherent. Then someone brought out the beer, and with every extra litre, he became ever more lucid. Such are indeed the Son of Eire! Once 5 pints had gone down that Emerald Gullet, he gave us a splendid discourse upon Romanic friezes, the itinerary of the Magi and the association of the Milky Way with the Camino of Santiago, which – much against my inclination – convinced me that Art is not yet truly dead. It is merely holding its breath until the world comes to its senses.

Let us just hope that – as it waits for that moment - it does not have to hold its breath too long!

[The exhibition in Santiago runs until March 31. See here for details and for more of Whelan’s work and his background.]

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