Xmas Art at the Ivory

Art consultant Carrie Neely's annual exhibition is the perfect showcase for emerging Northern Irish artists

A classy setting, spicy cocktails, intricate canapés, and a wide range of contemporary art. It’s opening night of Carrie Neely’s annual Christmas exhibition, this year at the Ivory Restaurant in Belfast, and a large crowd has braved the cold evening to peruse the latest works by some of Northern Ireland’s most exciting artists.

The Christmas exhibition has become a regular project for Neely, who runs the Carrie Neely Contemporary Art Consultancy agency. With over 100 exhibitions under her belt, and 500 artists on the books, Neely draws on vast expertise to put together a diverse collection of fine art.

Large group shows like this are particularly useful for emerging painters, sculptors and photographers on the often-rocky road to becoming full-time professionals. Often, such artists can find it difficult to get a foot in the door when it comes to exhibiting in local galleries, whilst others are not yet ready to take on a solo show. A group exhibition of this size opens doors for artists who may not have had such an opportunity before.

The variety of works on display is impressive. There are traditional oils and acrylics, as well as prints and more intricate pieces that use wood and Perspex. The walls of the Ivory are crammed full of colour and texture. The only criticism is the lighting. Although it makes for a cosy atmosphere, the restaurant ceiling lights are not designed for showcasing art. Some of the paintings suffer by being poorly lit.

'John and Jan'

The standout artwork is by Cookstown artist Kyle Barnes, entitled ‘John and Jan’ (above). It’s the most expensive piece in the exhibition at a hefty £2,695, and is also one of the largest paintings in the group.

Featuring dilapidated pumps at an abandoned petrol station, its crumbling beauty emits a melancholic romance and sadness. Barnes has also submitted another piece entitled 'Hidden Edge' (main image), a beautiful rendition of a Japanese Geisha, which proves exceedingly popular.

There are traditional pieces by artists like Stephen Shaw and David Sweet; rather more obviously commercial works such as Ciaran Monaghan’s ‘Marilyn’ Giclee print; a graphite masterclass from Ian Wilgaus with his technically brilliant portrait of Vivienne Westwood; and something for lovers of Belfast iconography with Andrew Hipson’s depictions of the Harland and Wolff cranes.

However, it’s the art that’s a little more ‘out there’ that impresses most. Alvin Hobson deserves a mention for his abstract oil-on-canvas ‘Blue Circle and Red Moon'. The work plays havoc with your peripheral vision and grabs attention from afar.

Clinton Kirkpatrick’s ‘Abstract Colour Field’ (below), Gavin Lavelle’s two collages – ‘Araucaria’ and ‘Goddess in Landscape’ – Shauna McGowan’s screen print on leather entitled ‘Primal Scream’, and Michelle Stephens’ amazing ‘Basket Weave’ are also interesting pieces.

'Abstract Colour Field'

This isn’t the first time that Neely has worked with the Ivory. It’s proving to be a beneficial partnership, and she has more plans for exhibitions in the restaurant throughout 2012. She's present at the launch, so I grab a word when I can. How does she find working with the Ivory, in comparison to a more traditional gallery setting?

'I think the main difference is accessibility, audience reach,' she says. 'The market is also very different. The exhibitions I do at galleries are aimed at art collectors with a bit more money to spend.

'Whereas some of my clients from the Ivory have never even been in an art gallery, and can pick up a fabulous painting by a young contemporary artist or photographer for the same price as a pair of designer shoes. I often get calls late at night when clients are staring at a painting over dinner and want to take it home with them!'

It may not be very Christmassy – certainly the theme hinted at in the title is not reflected in the works – but if you are thinking of buying some original art this Christmas, a visit to the Ivory is well worth it. This is Northern Irish contemporary art at it's best: colourful, eye-catching, often thought-provoking stuff.

The prices may be steep, and some of the works – and the main courses, for that matter – won't be to everyone's taste. But as a showcase, shop window event for Northern Ireland's upcoming artists, it's one of the finest exhibitions of its kind this year.

The Xmas Exhibition at The Ivory (Victoria Square, above House of Fraser) runs until January 2012.