Martin MacKeown

Impressionism and still life mix in this exhibition of a lesser-known Northern Irish artist

This month sees Adam’s at the Ava Gallery offering a rare chance to view and purchase over 60 previously unseen paintings by late Northern Irish artist, Martin MacKeown.

The gallery, located in the scenic Clandeboye Estate, is an excellent venue for such an exhibition – a large proportion of the work on display portraying rural scenes, local landscapes and other observations on the world that surrounded the artist.

The exhibition itself is spread over two separate rooms in the gallery, and upon entering the first, two styles of painting are immediately apparent. One is of dreamy farmyard scenes, impressionistic colours suggesting a beautiful, yet idealised, vision of the countryside.

The second style of painting on show is in stark contrast, featuring deeply coloured and realistic interpretations of interior still life as well as some of the artist’s family members.

Each of the styles has their merits, but I find it slightly off-putting that Adam’s alternates them in their layout – an interior painting, followed by a landscape, then an interior, etc. It is a bit disorientating when viewing the paintings and detracts from their appeal.

Presumably the logic behind this choice is that by placing too many similar paintings beside each other, they lose their effect. However, there is such a thing as a happy medium.

A keen draughtsman, MacKeown excels in his depiction of buildings and structures. In his work pastel coloured farmhouses are given a delicate yet precise beauty. When it comes to the landscapes themselves, however, shape, form and colour tone are emphasised at the expense of drama and passion. The landscape work also often lacks foreground impact.

A fantastic exception to this is the piece simply entitled ‘Geraniums’. This is one of few paintings on display which combines the two aforementioned styles – vibrantly coloured geraniums rest on a windowsill looking out over a hazy field.

There is a real sense of depth to this piece, the sharp focus of the vivid flowers and the dreamy soft blues and greens of the outside world work together to great effect, curtains in the foreground suggesting movement.

The second half of the exhibition features a series of seascapes, as well as harbour scenes and depictions of some well-known spots around Ireland. For instance, there is a captivating and instantly recognisable view of the bridge at Ramelton, Donegal.

There are also some bolder, moodier winter farmland scenes on display in this part of the gallery. They are significantly more appealing than the lighter tonal work, which fails to evoke a sense of place.

Similarly, there are some paintings of Italian mountainside villas and churches which offer not only real scope and depth, but are much better thematically suited to MacKeown’s colour palette.

One breathtaking painting is an extremely detailed portrait of an elderly man in a hat, fetching the highest asking price of £3200 - the majority of the other paintings are selling in the region of £1000.

For me, however, the most interesting pieces in the exhibition are two small watercolours, one of Maghera, Co. Down, and another of a man sketching at a lake in Dundrum. In a real contrast to the landscape oils, these two paintings offer a strong moody vibrancy, both emotive and unusual for watercolour pieces.

Whilst is a real shame that there is not more work of this ilk on display, the exhibition certainly offers a rare insight into one often-forgotten artist’s view on the country we live in.

Martin MacKeown - A Forgotten Painter runs from September 15 - October 7 at Adam's at Clandeboye.