Idir Dhá Aigne
Michael Doherty and John Stewart present two very different visions of Belfast at An Culturlann
Entering the Gerard Dillon Gallery at An Culturlann on the Falls Road in Belfast, the viewer is met with a glut of colourful views of Belfast by artists Michael Doherty and John Stewart.
Here is the Strand cinema, then black taxis packed together on the canvas, then we're down by the docks, where the yellow gantries meet the skyline.
Here too we find vistas of urban scenes, a crumpled Union flag on a lamppost – the insignia of post-conflict insecurity – then the Rock Bar on the Falls Road bathed in a redeeming light that flatters the building and oblivious passersby, and then O'Hare's shop, again transfigured into something poetic and compelling through the use of light and the careful application of paint.
Each artist has a distinctive, individual vision and yet the two seem in conversation with each other, their paintings complementary in focus and thematic engagement if not always in style. Doherty's paintings seem to owe something to the scenes of languid space and bright light popularised by the American realist painter Edward Hopper.
Subjects embedded in the cityscape seem enigmatic and unreachable, familiar and yet far away. The city loses its urban banality to become lit-up, the unpeopled spaces somehow suggesting a certain loneliness and melancholy, of languid sadness as the undercurrent and darker bedrock of bustling urbanity.
Stewart, on the other hand, is more whimsical in his approach, and then chocolate box cute at times, the city rendered as something friendly, inviting. His focus is brickwork, the immaculate old architecture of buildings, old-fashioned cars evocative of a bygone Belfast and renderings of the Strand, the docks and other familiar Belfast locales that are all picture-postcard ready.
But Stewart can go deeper too. His 'Alternate Views' almost seems to incorporate a street art style, a painting that pulls together two traditions that would make for a fantastic mural on the Falls or the Shankill. We see on one side the face of the late PUP leader David Ervine looking thoughtful, almost pensive, and on the other the smiling face of hunger striker Bobby Sands, always recurrent in the wall art of the Falls.
The orange and green traditions are evoked through symbol and imagery that veers towards cartoonish graffiti. But at the centre of it all are two hands clasped together in a powerful image of agreement, a white dove above this, the archetypal symbol of peace.
Although perhaps a tad too hectic and rococo in its cramming of objects – the Harland & Wolff cranes, what looks like St Paul's Church on the Falls and a Celtic stone cross, the Divis tower block, a black taxi, other urban structures set against each other, almost overlapping – the beauty of the message of unity redeems the work. The man and woman shaking hands are at the centre of the painterly vision and above them are two giant hands clasped tightly.
Although the style is not to my taste, the attempts at projecting the bid for rapprochement between two different and still sadly often divided traditions is powerful and uplifting. Here, as elsewhere, Stewart works in a mix of oil and acrylic, and the use of the latter medium can give the works a poster-like, flat feel – but perhaps this is what the artist is deliberately aiming for.
Doherty also works in acrylics but here the medium is perhaps more suited to the depiction of flat areas of light and shade, of traffic signs and concrete, of broken glass and doors, stretched fabric and cross-sections of buildings from unexpected, defamiliarising angles.
Doherty works the paint towards a very different aesthetic that is in service to a more reserved, muted look at the Belfast cityscape. He finds beauty in odd places and this is the strength of the work.
Doherty manages to make a pedestrian island in the middle of a road replete with traffic signs and an industrial looking grey corrugated iron building the backdrop to something more profound. Entitled 'Flag', the piece shows an ashen pale man in dark glasses beside a lamppost with a Union flag, dirty and only marginally visible because of how it is crumpled by the wind.
The traffic signs point out the way to the Falls. There is a sense of repressed tension and sadness, maybe even of threat to the quietude and open distances of airy light. This piece says something about cultural and national insecurity – we need flags on lampposts marking out the patriotic allegiance of an area only if we feel that allegiance is beseiged, under threat. insecure.
And the traffic sign arrow points to the Falls, where, of course, the people for the most part insist on their Irishness and their opposition to reverencing the Queen and the Union Jack. This muted vision unfolds into an astute exploration of cultural tension, here achieved with quiet commitment and subtlety.
While it is admirable that An Culturlann sets out to celebrate the Irish language, I do find it confusing where signs are only explained in Irish. This makes it difficult for non-Irish speakers like myself to find even a translation of the title of the exhibition – 'Idir Dhá Aigne', incidently, means 'between two minds' – and I can appreciate that this would be alienating for those who identify as British or any other nationality.
An Culturlann is an incredibly beautiful building, with gorgeous exhibition space and an amazing cafe where the waitresses address me in Irish and I find myself – even as a native of the Falls – embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of Ireland's mother tongue.
My fear is that some of the contextualising information about the exhibitions and the artists involved remains lost in translation by a defiant adherence to Irish at all costs. But then again, perhaps an Irish-speaking oasis on the Falls is what many see as a precious space for celebrating Irish cultural identity.
For diehard Irish speakers, An Culturlann is an immense asset, and this exhibition a fascinating dual take on the wider Belfast landscape, but more English translations please for those of us not gifted in the Celtic tongue.