Highlights from the RHA Annual Exhibition 2023

Highlights from the RHA Annual Exhibition 2023

June 20, 2023 Off By Conor Walton

The Royal Hibernian Academy Annual Exhibition is the largest exhibition of contemporary art in Ireland. It is also the longest running: this is its 193rd year and the RHA itself, founded in 1823, is celebrating its bicentenary.

The RHA Annual is also the largest open submission exhibition in Ireland. This year 4675 works were submitted, from which 380 were ultimately accepted, joining 281 works by the Academicians and invited artists. As the bare numbers indicate, the selection process is grueling for all concerned and leaves many excellent artists excluded and disappointed, but the result is a high quality exhibition which attempts, however imperfectly, to be representative and showcase the best in Irish contemporary art. This year I was lucky enough to be an invited artist.

Since coverage of the exhibition in mainstream media is pretty limited, I thought I’d write about ten of the artworks to share some of the incredible work being produced in Ireland today. What follows is an entirely subjective selection: I am a painter, not an art critic. I make no claim that my views are detached or disinterested. Some of the works I pick out are by friends and artistic comrades, others by people I have never met. They are just a tiny selection of works that caught my attention and I believe might merit yours.

The exhibition is set in the RHA Gallagher Gallery in the centre of Dublin, a fine purpose-built venue in high-Modernist style with one large exhibition hall, three medium-sized spaces and an assortment of smaller ones.

A big chunk of the main gallery was taken up this year with FRAMEWORK, a large construction of wooden poles by Superposition, an invited architectural collective, which I didn’t find particularly interesting and which seriously squeezed the available wall space for large paintings. As a result, several of the largest and most impressive pictures were pushed into less-than-ideal locations for viewing. That is my only criticism of the exhibition as a whole.

The largest painting in the show, ‘Díláthair, Solastalgia, Folly’ (250 ×220cm) by Geraldine O’Neill RHA is hung above the grand staircase, far from ideally but still with impact. It shows a young man apparently mopping up a domestic flood but set against a vast, imaginary Flemish-Renaissance landscape that seems to invade his interior surroundings and to be the source of the flood he is trying to clean up. Superposed on the painted landscape is a large piece of fabric which might represent a tent. Games and ambiguities of spacial illusion abound. What’s going on? The title offers clues.

Geraldine O’Neill, ‘Díláthair, Solastalgia, Folly’, oil on linen, 250 ×220cm

Díláthair in Irish means displacement or absence. Solastalgia is a word coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht combining the Latin sōlācium and the Greek root -algia, that describes a form of emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change. We know (or should know) Folly. The title suggests profound anxiety about how our environment is changing. You might call this a painting about Man and Nature, but the heroic ambition these words imply is undercut by the young man’s props: mop and bucket aren’t quite adequate to his Herculean task. While subtly, humorously addressing big, abstract themes, the picture is also an affecting portrait of the artist’s son, now come of age, taking responsibility and setting about life’s mundane tasks.

‘Glastonbury’ by Colin Martin, oil on canvas, 180 x 270cm

Colin Martin’s big ‘Glastonbury’ painting is a landscape of sorts, but one in which nature appears overwhelmed, almost disappearing under a mass of human stuff. Where Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer’ stood in awe before mountains and void, here the viewer can be awed by the plenum of mass-produced tents stretching like miniature hills into the distance. Martin’s previous giant paintings (an enormous Amazon ‘fulfillment centre’ packed with all the world’s goods, a covid vaccination centre arrayed with numberless cubicles, a space station interior tightly packed with complex machinery and wiring down to the last square centimetre) likewise function as sublime landscapes from which every hint of nature has been obliterated. As with the Romantic Sublime, this viewer feels a strange thrill, a mixture of awe and terror before the subject. Martin’s technique doesn’t play up the drama: there are no ‘special effects’ or distracting painterly signs of the artist’s ego. Everything is painted as straightforwardly as possible, as if bearing witness to the scene is all that’s required. And it is.

Vanessa Jones, ‘Abalone’ oil on linen, 60 x 50cm

One of the most striking portraits in the exhibition is by Vanessa Jones of herself as a Haenyeo diver, holding a clutch of abalone. Haenyeo are famed women divers from the Korean island of Jeju who support their families as harvesters of molluscs and seaweed and around whom, over centuries, an unusual matriarchal culture developed in which women are economically and domestically predominant. Jones appears literally in traditional Haenyeo garb, but metaphorically as a deep-diving artist displaying her prize abalone with its explicit genital symbolism and message of sexual empowerment. She looks like Botticelli’s Venus but traveling in the opposite direction; back to the sea, using a mollusc to reconnect with primordial beginnings, the sacred mysteries of fertility, sex, motherhood.

Liam Belton, ‘Human’, mixed media, 345 x 452cm

Liam Belton RHA’s ‘Human’ is less a sculpture than an installation: an enormous agglomeration of images and artifacts intended to sum up human history and the nature of human existence. It is almost impossible to capture in a photograph or do justice in words. It is a piece to stand before and slowly contemplate. It dominates the main gallery, and rightly so.

Liam Belton, ‘Human’ close-up
Liam Belton, ‘Human’ close-up

Carey Clarke’s refined and sensitive portraits have been a feature of RHA shows for six decades. Now 86 and still going strong, he learned his craft when Ireland’s National College of Art and Design was an extremely conservative institution in an extremely conservative country. When expressionism and avant-gardism burst tardily onto the Irish scene in the late sixties, the understated values of craft and tradition embodied in Clarke’s work were deprecated and fell into critical disrepute. His work was judged ‘conservative’, ‘unchallenging’, ‘bourgeois’. Yet Clarke continued to paint and teach at NCAD and he became a vital source for those like me who still wished to learn the craft of painting. Former students (many going on to teach and have successful artistic careers) generally agree it is in no small measure thanks to him that today’s Irish painting scene is so diverse and thriving. Yet Clarke himself remains an underappreciated painter.

Carey Clarke, The Honourable Mr Justice Michael Peart, oil on canvas, 122 x 81cm

This portrait is classic Carey Clarke. The design is clear, graceful and apparently effortless. Formality is offset by the whimsy of background alcove misalignment. Clean lines catch slight quirks of body language, subtly conveying attitude and personality. All these draw the viewer to the face, which is as delicate, humane and empathically observant a piece of portraiture as you could ever wish for.

Bernadette Madden, Pink, screenprint on Fabriano paper, 18 x 18cm (framed), edition of 16

Bernadette Madden’s ‘Pink’, a tiny but delicious screen print, is the distillation of a lifetime’s experience as a printer and landscape artist. A few blobs and bands of colour are all that’s needed to evoke a landscape with joyously vivid sunset. Modesty of means here facilitates powerful expression: everything is simplified and concentrated. Red, pink and yellow are kicked to maximum intensity, but on a scale that makes them brilliantly jewel-like rather than gaudy and overwhelming.

In previous RHA exhibitions her tiny print edition sell-outs left them dwarfed by the accompanying battalion of red dots, a phenomenon that highlighted their popularity and drew even more attention to the work. A spoilsport decision to paint the print gallery red this year makes the dots difficult to see, so returns focus to the work itself, which thankfully remains as popular as ever.

Mick O’Dea, ‘The Master’ (Tim Robinson), oil on canvas, 90 x 129cm

Anyone that knows and loves the West of Ireland will instantly recognise the iconic profile of the Twelve Bens, a small but rugged range of mountains on the south-western edge of Connemara. I’ve been up and over every one of those hills and the sight of them fills me with longing for the contentment I found there. I’ve occasionally tried to paint them without much success, so I bow before Mick O’Dea’s masterful composition which frames the mountains in the window of Tim Robinson’s house in Roundstone. Tim, who died recently, was an artist, cartographer and writer who devoted his last years to exploring the geography, history and lore of Connemara in books of peerless prose. They are a testament to his passionate love affair with this landscape and his desire for the deepest intimacy with it. That he appears in Mick O’Dea’s painting as a bare silhouette, bald head turned away from the viewer towards the hills he so loved, is a compositional stroke of genius: you might call it a negative portrait, but in fact I can’t imagine a better evocation of this man and his immersion in this particular place. In purely formal terms, breaking the long row of hills with window frame and head creates spatial depth, contrast, variety and rhythm, but this painting is no formal performance. It reads as a work of mature judgement and sure instinct, of visual poetry entirely satisfying in its rightness.

Gavin Lavelle’s ‘Elephantine’ is a Garden of Earthly Delights, a hymn to Nature’s strangeness and superabundance. Underlying is a memory of the Irish landscape, but transformed first through painterly idealisation, then by a multitude of collage additions which complete its transformation into an exotic Paradise, home to all the world’s riches. Fabulous details abound. A tiny, delightful elephant at the bottom left-hand corner gives the picture it’s title. It invites you to visit like the first explorer of a fabulous tropical island. The whole thing craves to be pored over like the carpet page of an illuminated manuscript. Lavelle works like an illuminator of old, building each collage slowly to maximize intricate richness and decorative effect. He nods to Persian and other great decorative traditions. He is clearly a voracious absorber of styles and influences. A Medieval aesthetic of abundance unified by pattern blends with Postmodernism’s eclectic recycling of cultural imagery.

Gavin Lavelle, ‘Elephantine’, mixed media on aluminium, 77 x 65cm

Nature is invoked mainly through details from museum artworks and vintage illustrations. This is art made from art, with nature already stylised and largely tamed. If a sense of protean wildness still breaks through, it is because the order of the whole seems less planned than emergent, like an ecosystem with species all jostling and adapting to each other, yielding a harmony beyond rational design. The artist appears less Lord of his Domain than a traveler within it, guided by delight and appreciation of every single element and an intuitive sense of the unity in the manifold. The work is microcosmic. The great privilege of being alive, a witness and affirmer of all the universe can show us, and pure joy in this, shines through.

Gavin Lavelle, ‘Elephantine’, mixed media

Ann Quinn grew up on a farm in rural Donegal and makes paintings which often recall her childhood, her native landscape and its inhabitants. Her art is grounded in intimate experience but refracted through a vivid imagination and wildly inventive technique which makes the work appear less objective and documentary than emanations of almost unbearably intense personal feeling. Childlike wonder and terror seem to battle just below the surface.

Ann Quinn, ‘My Father’s Final Journey’, oil on canvas 80 x 100cm

The diminutive human figures who populate her pictures seem to stand and move like sleepwalkers, dreamers in a vast dreamscape constantly threatening to dissolve. In ‘My Father’s Final Journey’ his coffin and pall-bearers stand outside her family home, upstaged by a spectacular cloudscape of blobs and stochastic painterly effects which, for all their random weirdness, plausibly evoke a massive, dark, thundery sky and cloudburst. The mourning figures and topographic details are observed with detachment, but the sky evokes all the suppressed emotion and mystery of the event. We are both outside her house and inside her mind.

Caoimhe Dalton, ‘The Stray Sod’, oil on board, 40 x 20cm

Caoimhe Dalton’s mysterious piece, ‘The Stray Sod’ is based on an old Irish story that the fairies can enchant a piece of dirt or ‘sod’ so that anyone standing on it will walk in circles until sunrise. The only way to break the spell is to turn your coat inside out. This she depicts in loose, fluid, confidently handled paint, casting her own visual spell as she ritually disenchants herself. She clearly likes Rembrandt and has studied his technique. I like good technique but even more, I like enchantment and poetry, and here I see magic.

These are just ten artworks on show at the 193rd RHA Annual Exhibition which runs until July 30th, 2023. I hope you enjoyed this brief tour!