Life is absurd - but let’s get involved

This year’s Galway Arts festival succeeds yet again in giving some insight into the minds of remarkable artists whose personal magic interprets our world. These include international journalists Niall O’Dowd, John Lancaster, several writers including Bret Easton Ellis, and the renowned theatre and opera director Sir Peter Hall. On Saturday afternoon, the playwright and poet Frank McGuinness teased out some paths through the labyrinthine mind of Ireland’s leading painter Brian Bourke.

By coincidence Brian’s long identification with Samuel Beckett’s work goes back to his days surviving as an art student in London, and subsisting on a variety of jobs including a hospital theatre assistant. It coincided with Peter Hall’s first English production of Waiting for Godot in 1955. The art critic Frances Ruane observes that ‘the sense of absurdity and disorientation at the heart of Godot was to have a life long appeal to Brian.

Looking at Polyptych, five decades of his work at the Festival Gallery, on the Fairgreen, Galway, Brian uses the absurd to explore the human condition. Beckett’s two main protagonists, Valimir (Didi ) and Estragon (Gogo ), provide him with suitable anti heroes to use as a key. As an artist, Brian simply points out the drama, while he himself remains quite removed, almost detached. The effect is sometimes disturbing: The viewer is prompted to find the motivation to wake up from his lethargy and to act, even if it is only to see.

The exhibition contains a series (Brian often, and effectively works in series. “The landscape is never the same twice, and always a source of fascination” ), of the two thieves who were crucified on either side of Christ. In the play the plight of the thieves offered Beckett a typical conundrum: Do not despair - one of the thieves has been saved; Do not presume - one of the thieves was damned. Wearing bowler hats, more Laurel and Hardy than city banker, Brian places Didi and Gogo in a corner watching the thieves writhing with agony. The two men are disinterested, mere observers; while the viewer is moved by the cruelty of their suffering.

He openly mocks himself in a series of illustrations from Don Quixote, and rejoices in the antics of Mad Sweeney, or Buile Suibhne, the ancient Irish king cursed to live his life as half bird, half man. But in his Herm series, a row of blue self portraits, serious, staring and silent, the laughter suddenly stops. Although he is softened by pink roses, the artist shows this disinterest again. Or is he hiding behind a Marcel Marceau mask, the French Master of Mime, hiding his true feelings, waiting for the viewer to make up his own mind.

There is another crucifixion too. While walking along the Shannon with his son after the severe floods of last winter, they came across a fox, who had climbed a tree to escape the rising water, only to die in its branches. Who cares about a fox? The floods caused great hardship to householders in the area, and in south Galway, and yet, there is beauty in this animal, which signifies life and freedom, when the landscape was destroyed.

Wonderful wisdom

Frank McGuinness thought Brian painted women ‘almost obsessively’. Brian denied the charge. He pointed out that he painted many men, including John McGahern, Tony O’Malley and James McKenna, and his father. “My father was a great sitter. He’d sit for hours. I’d ask him if he wanted a rest? No, he’d say, No. It’s grand. Carry on. But what I really meant was that I needed a rest.”

But the Fairgreen gallery is full of women. There are portraits, nudes and faces; the temptress, the bawdy, and the beautiful.” I don’t universally love women, because they are not all imbued with this great dignity, extraordinary mystery, wonderful wisdom, great sense and intuition. They are my fellow humans, as such I find them enormously interesting.”

The one thing women do that men cannot do is that they give birth. One of his most provocative series is 30 pictures of women giving birth to men. The women’s faces are serene and beautiful, while the faces of the emerging men grimace in pain, anger and fear. “Men die a thousand times over, and they go to war.”

Viewers will decide for themselves what it could mean.

Father and son

Brian was born in Dublin in 1936, but has been living in Galway for years. His partner Jay Murphy is a successful artist in her own right, I would not be alone to observe that she is a very attractive woman. When they came to Galway first, they had little or no money, and lived for a while near Spiddal. One freezing winter’s morning, both wearing balaclavas and big coats, they hitched into Galway. A van soon stopped, and they were on their way.

“ What do you do for a crust?” asked the friendly driver.

Brian, (who dislikes the term ‘artist’ ), said he was a painter.

Driver: “Ah sure that’s grand. And yourself (nodding in the mirror to Jay ), “ are you a painter too?”

‘”Oh yes!” said Jay, “ I am.”

Driver: Sure isn’t that grand! Like father and son.”


There is a feast of Brian Bourke in the west at present. The Noone gallery at Claremorris is showing Brian’s recent winter landscapes, and the Norman Villa Gallery, Lr Salthill, is showing drawings and sculpture, all of which are for sale. There are elephants, rhinos and camels from the Florilegio Circus which charmed Galway 1998; nudes and portraits, and extraordinary drawings of horses and bulls of which da Vinci would be proud. Watch out for his drawings of new born babies. These were done when Brian was artist- in -residence at Holles St Maternity hospital. He loves drawing young babies, when they are he says: ‘Steaming hot from the womb.’ A father recently told me that when his mother saw the drawing of her grandchild, she was moved to see generations of her family in its tiny face.

It is an unfortunate irony that one of the blessings of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger is that the former Habitat premises at the Fairgreen has reinvented itself into a vast, bright, exhibition gallery. Without the levels, steep walls, and a sense of cavernous space it would have been impossible to show the cinematic series of themes, the powerful images and large portraits, the landscapes and colour in all their provocative glory, which represents highlights of Bourke’s half century as an artist.*

The gallery, which has been modified to display Bourke’s work, is also shared by ‘I’m here’ by Spike Jonze, Angel’s Gate, by Bill Viola, and Lyne O’Loughlin’s‘Virtual Eden’. The gallery is open daily til Sunday.


* A very fine, large format book Brian Bourke - Five decades 1960s - 2000s was published last weekend. Printed in Holland the reproductions are excellent. Compiled by a team which included Jay Murphy, Carl Hession, Patricia and Rosemarie Noone, The Norman Villa Gallery, Patrick Murphy, Peggy McConnell, Martin Bourke, and Carlos and Patricia Garcia-Monzon, with contributions from Seamus Heaney, Frankie Gavin, Eva Bourke, Desmond Egan and others. It is on sale at €70. Special limited, signed, edition also available in slip case, with signed limited print, €250.

Some others exhibitions: Graphic Studios: Gold, at University College Hospital, Newcastle Road, Seoda 2010, at Kenny Gallery Liosbán, Engage Studios, ‘Enrage’ at White Room Gallery, Liosbán, and Alice Maher: Godchildren of Enantios, Galway Art Centre, 47 Dominick Street.


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