VISUAL VARIETY Foreground, sculptures by Janet Mullarney; background, paintings by Breda Burns. Pic: Ciara Moynihan
Westival – Westport Festival of Music and Arts started in serious style last night (Wednesday) with the well-attended opening of the Westival Gallery on Castlebar Street. A new exhibition space created especially for the festival, the gallery is housed in a beautiful cut-stone-fronted two-storey building, empty since Dunnes Stores ceased operating there in 2016.
And what a space it is. As the building’s automatic doors swished open, this viewer’s breath was taken away. Gone are the cluttered supermarket shelves and aisles. The large ground floor has been cleared and tastefully painted and lit. It’s the perfect setting for the wonderfully hung and displayed artworks contained in the gallery’s two vast and varied exhibitions, ‘Ipseity’ and ‘Identity’.
‘It could be a gallery in Berlin or Paris!’ one of the many attendees was overheard to remark – and he’s not wrong.
Ipseity is the flagship of the Westival visual-arts programme. The Latin word ‘ipse’ means ‘self’, and the works in this show explore the role of the self in contemporary society; how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others, and how this can shape our understanding of the nature of being.
On entering the gallery, three dramatic monochrome works by acclaimed artist Alice Maher dominate the walls to the right. All three are charcoal on white paper. The huge ‘Heavenly Tower’ draws the gaze upward, inviting viewers to lose themselves in a garden of earthly and unearthly delights. Maher’s two other pieces, ‘Acrobats’ and ‘Cocatrice’ call to mind fantastical mythical creatures. The latter of the two formed part of the artist’s mid-career retrospective, ‘Becoming’, which ran for over four months at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2012.
More earthly delights can be found in Emma Bourke’s enchanting artworks, which are also on show. Glass wildflowers inside blown-glass representations of human organs, her pieces include a pocket watch comprised of a glass heart containing foxgloves, and kidney-shaped cufflinks containing herb-Robert flowers. All come with silver jewellery elements.
Katherine Boucher Beug’s whimsical installations are created using found objects, including drift wood, planks and shells, while Stevey Scullion’s fascinating sculptures include the beautiful ‘Profile 10’, made with copper, silver solder, bronze and powdered cement paste; the intricate ‘Cascade’ created using bronze and paper; and the eye-catching ‘Every Curve, Every Twist, Every Turn’, made with wood and reflective material.
Breda Burns’ work includes two ethereal perspex installations, as well as four arresting landscape paintings. These paintings, hung in a cruciform shape, capture the wild movement of the Mayo coastline, with racing clouds, bending grasses and an ocean that spits and sprays.
Sashaying close-by are renowned Dublin-born sculptor Janet Mullarney’s two untitled dancing figures made from painted aluminium and hessian cloth – still, yet full of movement. Another of her pieces, ‘Journey to the Island’, made of wood and bronze, brings the sometimes precarious life of an island livestock owner to mind.
An open exhibition, Identity features work by artists who responded to a call for submissions sent out by Westival last August. Its uniting theme complements Ipseity so well it can be hard to tell where one exhibition starts and the other begins. Spread over the gallery’s two floors, it contains fantastic examples of work by Irish and international artists, too numerous to mention here.
Among the standouts for this viewer (and there were many) were, on the ground floor, Nicky Dowd’s sensuous and strong female figure, ‘Bean PB 82’, created with lead and resin, and Bryan Gerard Duffy’s thought-provoking clear-sticky-tape and shredded-paper figurative sculpture ‘Green with Envy’. Placed beside one another, the juxtaposition of materials and styles makes each piece even more intriguing.
On a far wall, Betty Gannon’s two huge graphite-and-paper drawings drew deserving admiration – architectural and painstaking, you feel like you could walk straight into them. The Michael Wann artworks on show include ‘Achill Notes’, 12 panels containing different island scenes in charcoal, united by the broad brushstrokes of a wash, while on opposite walls, a splash of colour is delivered by Liz Doyle’s gorgeous cold-wax and oil pieces, ‘Where to?’ and ‘Home’. Daniel Chester’s ‘Pink Inlet’, ‘Firestorm’ and ‘Daylight on the Fallen’, oil on primed aluminium, are wonderfully atmospheric too.
Upstairs are more visual treasures, including Ronan Halpin’s striking ‘Wheel’, constructed from steel, concrete, wood and paint, and Marie Wood’s fabulous mixed-media sculptures, ‘Clew Bay Homage’ and ‘Clew Bay Sun’.
Two very different pieces also stopped me in my tracks. Alannah Robins’ ‘Sehnsucht 1’, made of hand-cut Fabriano Murillo black paper, runs around a corner of the room – a dark forest thick with trunks and branches, this evocative piece put me in mind of a Grimm’s fairytale or perhaps a half-remembered childhood nightmare.
The other was an extraordinary piece by Christine Prescott. ‘A Shifting’, painted with red wine, is so delicate, so intricate, so light it seems to float. This viewer saw many things in its finespun pattern; layered lace, reptilian scales, chain-mail armour, the stylised clouds of traditional oriental art….
And that is the beauty of both shows – viewers will be met with a myriad of styles and visual experiences, and each will come away with their own personal responses. Westival Chairman Willie Walsh put it perfectly in his opening speech. He told those gathered that he once asked his uncle, renowned artist Owen Walsh, what his art meant. His uncle responded: “It’s is not about what it means, it’s about what it draws out of you.”
• ‘Ipseity’ and ‘Identity’ are both curated by Vincent O’Donoghue of Green Fuse Gallery, who also helped artists Stevey Scullion and Emma Bourke to hang the works. The shows will run for the duration of the festival, which finishes this Bank Holiday Monday, October 29. For more on all the visual art on offer at Westival, as well as the full festival programme, visit www.westival.ie.