A Man For All Mediums
London Street Gallery host a comprehensive retrospective of work by artist Éamonn O'Doherty
You often hear about artists going on a journey, almost as if their career is a logical, chronological development of styles and themes, arriving at a final destination. This isn't the case with Éamonn O’Doherty.
It’s more that he took up a position and simply looked around, so he could explore and interpret all about him, using whatever medium most suited the subject – lithograph, watercolour, woodcut, bronze, steel. This exhibition in Derry~Londonderry's London Street Gallery could have ended up a mish-mash of work, or the work itself could have shown O’Doherty too thinly spread. But that, also, is not the case.
Firstly, the exhibition has been curated with subtlety, understanding and sympathy by the promoter of Irish contemporary art, John Fitzgerald. Secondly, everything O’Doherty produced is lit by humanity and humour, which run like broad stripes throughout his work, enriched with love and often heated with anger and frustration.
In the small courtyard separating the street from the galley sits 'Armoured Pram for Derry'. It’s the first thing the visitor sees in the exhibition, and it both prepares you for what’s to come and throws you off the scent. Completed in 1991, discarded then restored.
Concerned he might be accused of making light and money of the Troubles and the suffering of the city – his own – in the title, O’Doherty initially shied away from exhibiting the pram. Certainly it is a sad, dark reflection of his times, an armoured pram in dull khaki, with its tank tracks and eye-slit, shielding and hiding the innocent baby.
But there’s more than a touch of Ronald Searle here too, in its outlandish size and comic, carefully observed detailing. And it’s an offensive weapon as well – poignant and telling in one way, but conjuring up images of nannies in Kevlar assaulting the park with a terror tot on board. Dark and witty then; more than witty – funny. These flavours fill the exhibition, and yet there’s not another thing like it in the show.
The work has been divided loosely according to subject and medium. The room housing mainly lithographs and woodcuts is guarded by 'Donegal Woman'. Plump, arms folded, bored and belligerent, she stands outside her thatched cottage, with its white walls and red window frames, watching the chickens peck the ground. She looks thoroughly disapproving, possibly of the 1960s sexual politics alongside her.
'Summer (1968)' is a silkscreen printing showing two women, one topless, complacent and relaxed. In 'Brass Bed', also from 1968, a cartoon nude, wearing only sunglasses, sits confident on a single bed, her loose blond hair echoing and complementing the green and gold of the picture, the colours the only thing the Donegal woman might find tolerable.
'Italian Girls (1969)' shows two nudes on a sofa. All the women are at ease, assured, comfortable with their bodies, in contrast to the north-west farmer’s tightly bundled wife.
'Near Joigny' is a woodcut full of rich reds and dark blues. On an interior window ledge a glowing lamp sits alongside grapes and a bottle of wine, while through the open window a full moon shines on rolling fields. It is romantic, earthy, simple and primitive in that it lacks artifice to hide emotion. It is open and honest, as are 'Fields in Picardy' and 'Vauretor'.
Like 'Near Joigny', these are both woodcuts. And like 'Near Joigny', we look from an interior through a window to the scene outside. Reserved but joyous, they show the relationship between the fields outside and the products of the fields within. There is a beautiful use of colour – gold, red, green, white,and yellow. The skies are full of heat and movement. The round fruit, outlined in black, is perfect and whole.
If these woodcuts show travel and exploration, there is a return to rural Ireland in two untitled pieces. They both show cows in a field. The cows are in profile, stacked in rows one on top of the other, and in a corner of each a musician – fiddler and flautist – plays. There’s no depth but no flatness either; they’re full of life and vitality.
Ireland is explored in a room of soft and easy watercolours. These are natural and representative scenes of countryside and town. A little bland maybe, nevertheless 'Hill Farm near Fahan, Donegal' has a beautiful, tough emptiness, and there is a lovely work, untitled, which uses muted, rough greens and maroons to show fields easing away into a melancholy blue hill and sky.
And the atmosphere in this room is lifted by three lithographs of fiddlers, their music shaped by the landscape of the watercolours. Blurred and squiggled, my favourite of these is 'Francie Quinn'. Black and white, square on, honest and true, the fiddle and bow rest in his lap as he looks straight out at the viewer.
In another room hang lithographs completed by O’Doherty for a James Joyce festival, quoting lines and depicting scenes from Ulysses. We see a heavy drinker with his big hands wrapped around a pint, a woman lying with her legs apart, and a trouserless man stretched out before near-naked women. Two of the quotations stand out: 'She let him and she saw that he saw', and 'LOVE, says Bloom, I mean the OPPOSITE of HATRED'.
The figures have a touch of the grotesque, but they are definitely human – strong, fragile, lusting, in need, prejudiced. They look out on to a room full of religious figures, small statues and paintings. A fully-clothed bishop is shown sitting opposite his naked self. In his robes, the bishop is fat, imposing, domineering, proud. Without them he is just a man.
Two nude women stand between nuns in their habits, and the familiar becomes frail and strange. Three figures, young girls, stand before another bishop. Four men carry a bishop aloft on a chair. Possibly anti-Catholic, priests are portrayed as pompous and portentous, full of self-importance.
But O’Doherty reveals their humanity too, their fragility and even silliness, except possibly for the cleric himself, unaware of his own nakedness, like the emperor. Rather than being anti-Catholic, I see this as being pro-human, as O’Doherty explodes status and exposes inequality, and attacks those who defer as well as those who insist on deference.
There are scale models throughout the gallery showing the number and nature of public sculptures produced by O’Doherty for sites around Ireland and beyond. Some are abstract showing flight and movement and adventure. Most are of people: real, like James Connolly, or representative, like Pikemen, or Emigrants.
Regardless of the subject, regardless of the subject’s state – destitute or successful, rich or poor – O’Doherty gives them pride, strength, forbearance, defiance. There is a love in the bronze or steel he fashions.
Love is there especially in my favourite room, which contains watercolours of O’Doherty’s wife and family. 'Barbara, London' shows his wife in 1965, slightly sulky, beautiful in her mini-skirt and Nancy Sinatra boots.
But the picture I like most in the whole exhibition (and there are lots to chose from) is untitled. It shows a young woman dressing. She is largely naked, and is pulling on a vest top. It is tender, personal, intimate, honest. It is simply bursting with love, both of the subject and of life. That could be said, to some degree or another, of everything Éamonn O’Doherty ever created.
A Man For All Mediums runs in London Street Gallery, Derry~Londonderry until September 22.