Inishlacken Project

20 artists decamp to Inishlacken island, where Gerard Dillon produced some of his greatest works

The Inishlacken Project immediately follows the major retrospective of Gerard Dillon’s work that opened the new Gerard Dillon Gallery at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich arts centre in west Belfast. It seems utterly appropriate, since Inishlacken is the Connemara island where Dillon stayed in 1951 and painted some of his most striking works.

Rosie McGurran, a painter herself and with a gallery in nearby Roundstone, established the Inishlacken Project in 2001, which in subsequent years has enabled some 50 Irish and international artists to stay on the island and create their own contemporary responses to it. This exhibition shows the latest fruits of the endeavour by almost 20 artists.

Jennifer Cunningham’s video piece, ‘Island’, sets the scene. It reminds us of the Connemara light that attracted artists such as Paul Henry from afar.

The central character is the returned Canadian granddaughter of an Inishlacken emigrant. The island is revealed as a stony but beautiful wilderness, and an arena of ruined cottages and other structures surrounded by crystal clear waters that surge and roar. Most evocatively, Cunningham re-inhabits the island on a beautiful moonlit night with doll’s houses, each of which is lit up.

Some artists respond specifically to the Dillon legacy, most obviously James MacIntyre in ‘Three Men on an Island’. He was one of the three who stayed in 1951, but I prefer Simon McWilliams’s playful print of the recent assembly in ‘Mick Painting John’.

The landscape is ever present. Sometimes it is rendered conventionally enough, as in Una Sealy’s ‘Dreams of Leaving’ looking back to the mainland, or Mick O’Dea’s ‘Inishlacken II’, which is a broad swathe of yellow beach. Both paintings rely on blocks of colour rather than any greater subtlety.

Jo McWilliams also offers a wide vista in ‘Rocks and Ruins’ that doesn’t quite escape from all the detail. Margaret Irwin offers four watercolours and watery they are. There is more clarity in ‘Towards Roundstone’, which is the best of them. 

Susan McKeever has no less than seven small abstracts in oil where vivid colours seek to capture the essence of place. However, some may prefer the more muted shades of Kathleen Furey’s two ‘Horizon’ pictures, with one enlivened by a simple cartouche of a hare and the other with one of a man.

Caroline Wright achieves a futuristic and almost architectural effect in two pen and ink drawings, with mixed success. One, described as ‘Twelve Bens’, replaces what is the actual spectacular backdrop to all views of the mainland with a series of cubes and to no advantage at all. Gavin Lavelle’s ‘Marinic Folklore’, meanwhile, is more representational, offering a colourful collage map, but it doesn’t guide us anywhere.

Caught on an island, one would presume that there is time to focus on detail. Jay Murphy features again with six not unattractive pastel studies of the sea shore in ‘The Bishop’s Relics’. Is there a reference to the current plight of the church reflected in the remains of a wrecked boat?

Dorothy Smith’s two Inishlacken chairs are colourful at least, if nothing more, while Mick O’Dea’s two damp glimpses through doors lack even that.

Rosie McGurran enters a more imaginative realm in ‘The Lacemakers Lunch’ where two mackerel bleeding from the mouth and a spilt egg stain an immaculate lace table cover. ‘The Work of the Moon’ appears as a dreamer’s vision of the island in which a woman with a fish on her head surfaces.

One recalls Gerry Dillon’s picture of a woman with the landscape of an island on her head, and his pre-occupation with the moon. The woman with the fish on her head re-appears strikingly in ‘Other People’s Fish’ in which Inishlacken becomes Tahiti.

What should we make of this exhibition? It is worth seeing and yet somehow, for all the endeavour, there is nothing here that is a must see.

The invitation to artists to come and stay on an island must appear enticing. Yet maybe it becomes onerous when they are expected to deliver regardless of mood, and conscious of the weight of the Dillon legacy. For some, Connemara drizzle rather than light seems to have been in the ascendant.

Togra Inis Leacan/The Inishlacken Project at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich until January 10.