Thursday, 15 November 2012

RUA and John Luke Exhibition at the Ulster Museum

Went to the Ulster Museum so that Caroline (Caz), who was home from Manchester for a few days, could see the place in its new clothes and with the intention of taking in the John Luke exhibition. 

We were both quite surprised the 131st RUA Exhibition was showing too. First time I had been in an awful long time. I could have just dandered around like a kid in a candy store just feasting my eyes on whatever but Caz thought it best we bought a brochure to have some sort of idea what we were looking at. 

Art is a curious thing, what appeals to one is frowned upon by another. I think I’d be the older, more traditional voice, more into paintings and less interested in sculpture pieces or installations. I didn’t think a lot of Redmond Herrity's 'Freshly Squeezed’ – a flawless marble sculpture of a generic juice carton. Caz, liked it! We were both amused by Rita Duffy’s ’Thaw Factory Produce’ which poked fun at Irish politics and its indecent history via the medium of branded groceries. Oh boy, was I at home here, having to stop myself from giggling out loud for fear of being asked to leave by the fuddy duddies. There were tins of Peas Process, Border Butter Beans, Red Ham of Ulster, King Billy’s Baby Carrots  described as being succulently sectarian and tenderly triumphalist and Ulster Vinegar – enjoyable to the bitter end! I never really associated Edward Carson with jars of Covenanters Marmalade nor Padraig Pearse with Pasta Sauce, or more likely  the historical significance just whooooosed way over my head. 
It was juvenile, it was different and how it never won anything is a surprise - well maybe not a surprise as what ordinary folks like, the snooty ‘we know better’ art critics probably hate! 

All I know was there were more people gathered round that installation reading the small print, eating up every little ounce of humour and sharing what they’d gleaned with strangers than any other displayed piece. 48 hours later I still want to go back and see it and maybe bring my own meagre offerings – Adams pack of six extra large Pork Pies and Robinsons 'Little Bit on the Side' brand of condiments. 

OK back to the RUA exhibition and my likes and dislikes. I stood in awe at Francis O'Toole's 'Ambrosio (the Monk)’. That’s real painting! I don’t really get Neil Shawcross. His work does absolutely nothing for me. His portraits just don’t stand comparison with Colin Davidson’s wonderful oils! Graphic Designer’s Rule OK! I’m reading Shawcross won the William Conor Award for figurative work. I am totally underwhelmed! 

Most gruesome award for me went to a large photograph of a dead rat – Thanks Emma-Jane McAleese! You really do need to stay away from back street alleys. I have no idea what Emma was trying to say with this piece. Was she even saying anything at all? All I could do was reminisce. You see I used to live above a Greek restaurant in Cardiff and had to walk through their back yard every morning and night which sent lots of overfed and petrified rats scuttling for cover! 

My old art teacher Ivor Coburn had two 'nudes' on display - a change in direction away from his giant watercolour lilies and Irish/French/Italian landscapes I've grown accustomed to. There was so much more to see and admire but we were time pressed and still had to see Mr Luke before we went across the road for afternoon tea at CafĂ© Conor!


John Luke, is someone I had grown accustomed to while working for the Irish Linen Centre over the past ten years! This exhibition, the leaflet tells me is Luke’s most comprehensive critical assessment to date. It includes most of his important portraits, a selection of drawings, designs for his Northern Ireland murals and sculptures as well as examples of his woodcut and linocut prints.

The leaflet details his life as such: 
Luke originally worked in the mills and dockyards of Ulster, and perhaps it is this grounding that informed his methods before enrolment in a night class at Belfast College of Art revealed a natural talent for drawing and painting. He swiflty progressed during the late 1920s to the Slade where he was taught by the great Henry Tonks. The economic downturn in the 1930s saw him return to Northern Ireland, and a teaching post at Belfast College of Art where he developed a reputation as a quiet and private man with a famously austere and ordered lifestyle. He also forged a friendship with the poet John Hewitt and together they are credited with creating an image of Northern Ireland as a region with a uniquely modern identity. To experience his paintings today is to step back in time to a world of floating figures and vibrant landscapes that conjure an optimistic spirit of mid-century-Modernism.

He’s good, probably my favourite Northern Irish artist. His style is instantly recognisably – a decorative graphic approach with stylised figures and colourful basic landscapes. 

He’s a craftsman and he’s managed to conjure up some beautiful rhythmic and flowing lines in the beautiful Northern Rhythm, considered by Luke to be his master work. It’s here together with The Fox and The Road to the West. His portraits are again more graphic than detailed in their approach and the simplicity of them work beautifully. Others on display include the graceful trio of Ballets Russes-inspired figures in ‘The Three Dancers’; the stylised, rolling meadowlands and casual promenaders of ‘The Old Callan Bridge’; the swirling, mysterious scenarios of ‘The Dancer and the Bubble’ and ‘Landscape with Figures’. My old favourite is there too – the one at the Locks on the Lagan River in Lisburn which I have used so many times in exhibitions!


I had never heard of Kenneth Shoesmith until I viewed his ‘Art of the Liner’ exhibition. He died in 1939 at the age of 48 but following the death of his widow in 1974 the contents of Shoesmith’s studio were bequeathed to the Ulster Museum and that’s the reason they are on display today. 

Shoesmith was a bit of a geek as he travelled the world on the ships he loved from the age of 16. Between duties he would paint the maritime scenes and landscapes around him. The artworks in this fascinating exhibition capture his painterly view of the golden age of the great liners, with atmospheric and detailed records of the ships themselves, and of the exotic worlds he and they travelled to. In 1918 he began a career as a full-time painter and in 1936, at the pinnacle of his career, he designed and painted the murals for the luxurious liner, Queen Mary. This was not an exhibition I had planned on seeing but I found his work extraordinarily good and a complete contrast to John Luke.

No comments:

Post a Comment