Ancient Resonance – Sharon O’Malley retrospective at Galway Arts Centre

TOMORROW EVENING sees the opening of Ancient Resonance, a major retrospective celebrating the work of Galway artist Sharon O’Malley, at the Galway Arts Centre.

The exhibition features a generous selection of 50 artworks - predominantly oils, along with some pastels on paper - drawn from the whole of O’Malley’s 30 year career. It thus offers a definitive overview of the steady development and considerable achievements of this singular, and much-admired, artist.

The show traces O’Malley’s shift from the abstract painting which characterised her earliest work to her ever-more confident and rewarding explorations of the world of classical mythology which has been her main source of inspiration for the bulk of her career.

The seed of O’Malley’s fascination with the world of myth was first planted in a cruise she took, aged 12, which visited the famous sites of Delphi, Athens, Ephesus, and Knossos.

When she grew older, she revisited these and other ancient sites, in both Europe and Asia, and immersed herself in the literature of the subject. As she began to make her way as an artist she found that the rich source material of mythology enabled her, as she said in one interview, “to follow Orpheus in seeking harmony and perfection of form”.

Delving into the world of mythology, O’Malley reveals connections and resonances between images derived from classical, Greek, pagan, and religious sources. She also finds parallels between mythic subjects and the issues of our own time.

Themes and motifs recur and echo each other between the worlds of West and East, pagan and Christian, old and new. O’Malley does not make literal portrayals of mythological subjects but uses them as a source material and springboard for her painting.

Mythology is elastic and flexible with several interpretations often being possible for any one myth. In many ways mythology is like art, there are many layers through which it can be interpreted.

Ancient Resonance also marks the fitting culmination of a long and fruitful association between O’Malley and the Galway Arts Centre. It was at the newly opened arts centre, in Nuns Island, that O’Malley first exhibited, as part of a group show in 1982. Galway Arts Centre also hosted her first solo show, Ancient Presence, in 1991 and she has had three further solo shows at the venue, most recently 2004’s Threads, the headline show in that year’s Galway Arts Festival.

Sharon has also exhibited at many prestigious galleries and events in Ireland and abroad including the RHA, European Modern Art Gallery, and Florence Biennale. In more recent years, sadly, illness has prevented O’Malley from creating fresh work so that Ancient Presence is greatly to be welcomed in offering audiences the first opportunity in quite some time to appreciate her art.

This latter point is echoed by Tom Kenny of the Kenny Gallery, which hosted Sharon’s 1998 solo show, Anatomy of the Ancient.

“Sharon’s work is based on Roman or Greek mythology but she applies her own personal vision to it,” he notes. “She has a very recognisable style, it’s very classy and distinctive. It’s also very finely finished work I think this exhibition is a great opportunity for us to see what a fine artist she is.

“She would be an unknown quantity to a number of Galway art-goers as she hasn’t exhibited in a while and I’m delighted the arts centre are doing this retrospective and doing it with style.

“When we showed her work she was really coming into her prime. Sharon was never afraid of scale, she was quite courageous in what she painted because it was very individual. She was painting for herself and not the marketplace and that takes courage as well.”

As well as pursuing her own painting O’Malley was a co-founder and very active member of Galway’s Artspace Studios. Her Artspace colleague Kathleen Furey shares her thoughts on Sharon’s work.

“She has always been very singular, she had her interests and she really explored them,” she says. “Sharon and myself and Ruth McHugh were all students in the Dominican College, Taylor’s Hill, where Mrs Gillan was our art teacher and she fostered a visual awareness in her students I always associate Sharon with creating and making, from secondary school, on to when herself and Ed Ward had a shop in High Street selling original hand-printed clothing, to the earliest days of Artspace.

“She’s always been thoughtful, capable, and professional, and true to her personal vision which has been inspired by her lifelong interest in classical mythology. Her work is carefully considered, combining beautiful textural surfaces, subtle colour and mysterious imagery and symbolism.”

Interestingly, it was while O’Malley was still a student at the Dominican that her art made an early public impression via the Galway Advertiser when, in 1974, she was the overall winner of the newspaper’s annual Christmas Art Competition, with her depiction of the Christmas Spirit visiting Scrooge, gracing the cover of the Christmas issue. The judges singled out the teenage O’Malley’s “good draughtsmanship,” and “subtle colouring”, qualities which would continue to inform her more mature work.

The official opening of Ancient Resonance will be performed by Dr Patricia Noone who adds her own reflections on the work.

“When I first saw Sharon O’Malley’s work 20 years ago I was taken by the timeless fresco-like quality of her painting,” she recalls. “There was a beautiful opalescent quality to the work achieved by her unique practice of layering and glazing. The richness and depth of the finish calls to mind the work of the great Renaissance painter Botticelli and the Dutch master Vermeer.

“Whilst her handling of mythical subject matter pays homage to the great masters of the past, O'Malley's female insights gives a contemporary resonance to classic content.”

Ancient Resonance opens at 5.30pm tomorrow and the occasion will feature music, plus refreshments by Marks & Spencer. The exhibition continues until Sunday September 2.

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