TP Flanagan's Correspondences

The renowned landscape painter enters into a Correspondence with the Ormeau Baths Gallery

TP Flanagan has been a well-known and respected landscape painter for over 50 years. On June 10, 2010 he received a doctorate from the University of Ulster in recognition of his contribution to the body of Northern Irish art.

Flanagan’s role, however, goes beyond that of a pictorial cartographer. Many of his paintings conjure not just the formal lineaments of the landscape but the geology of political and social tension that lie just under the surface. A new exhibition in the Ormeau Baths Gallery explores those little considered sub-themes to the artist’s work.

‘Everything in our culture here tends to come back to two issues,’ Liam Kelly, University of Ulster professor and curator of the exhibition, explains. He hangs the red silk robes he’ll wear to Flanagan’s awards ceremony up behind his office door. ‘Land or territory… Flanagan was teasing out or rinsing up some social issues, engaging obliquely and subtly with aspects of the political troubles here. That was the rationale for the exhibition.’

The exhibition is called Correspondences because of the dialogues that Flanagan incorporates into his work, both pictorially and thematically. These 'secret messages' are rarely overt. Flanagan doesn't lecture. Instead the deeper meanings are seamlessly incorporated into the art itself, waiting for the attentive viewer to find and piece together the narrative thread.

The painting entitled ‘Victim’ is the perfect example of Flanagan’s blend of artistic mastery and understated political or social commentary. Hung on the second floor of the Ormeau Baths Gallery, ‘Victim’ is the focal point of the exhibition. It depicts a recumbent figure in shades of white and grey. At first glance it appears to be a study of a marble in the neo-classical style. It is actually a sheet-draped body.

The painting was inspired by the murder of Judge McBurney in Belfast. The judge was a friend of the painter’s. Flanagan had watched on the news as McBurney’s body was being carried out of his house.

‘Judge McBurney was shot while he was cooking breakfast in the morning,’ Kelly says, passing on Flanagan’s story. ‘The television footage had him carried out on a stretcher with a sheet over him and one of his feet was kind of dropping to the side, as it were, exposed.

'Flanagan could not compose an artistic response to his friend's death immediately. When he did he took the immediacy of the image and eroded it down, sanding off the serial numbers of creed and race to create the markerless 'Victim'. It could be anyone or everyone. The local becomes universal.'

'Pages from a Summer Diary' is another set of powerful images. Many of them revolve around, or at least feature, the study of a bowl in different sites and stages of illustration. In one divided canvas a simple bowl is sketched twice, once on plain canvas and once buried under layers of charcoal. It is a canvas that particularly appeals to Kelly, exploring, as he believes it does, the antagonistic themes of stillness and conflict.

'It calls to mind the idea of 'Hungry Grass',' Kelly points out, mentioning the spots supposedly haunted by a famine-hunger so consuming it outlived its host. It is a manifestation that the painter encountered once as a young man, when a woman chided him for playing on a spot of hungry grass outside his aunt's sewing school - the same aunt, Kelly points out mildly, who gave Flanagan the bowl he used as a model for a painting.

Finding out what meaning Flanagan encoded in his art is like a conceptual treasure hunt. Each clue cryptic enough that you have to gather them all before you can understand what he is saying.

'The Letters' series on the second floor, displayed separately from 'Victim', is a departure from the interpreted landscapes and abstracts that compromise the bulk on the exhibition. A3 sized reproductions of letters written to members of the diaspora in New York hang on the wall. Flanagan captures the texture of the paper, the scratch of the pen and the stains of travel. Many of the letters contained seeds sent from the old world to the new, and he has captured the marks they left.

There is the sense this serves as a memorial just as much as 'Victim' does. The seed stains are Flanagan's flowers for the dead. However, to dwell too heavily on the meaning is to neglect the artistic integrity of the work. It is important to make note of Flanagan's skill and constant exploration of his craft. The abstract 'Ulster Elegy' and the tactile reproduction series 'Letters' are very different creations.

One offers you emotion and lets you build the image for yourself from the building blocks of grey and grey blue colour. The other faithfully reproduces the source-material and waits for an emotional reaction from the viewer. Yet both are recognisably Flanagan's work. Evidence, if any more was needed, that this artist, whose work rarely shocks but always challenges, deserves the honours given him.

Tammy Moore