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Irish Artists pick up the Prizes at Italian Show

The Florence Biennale is perhaps Europe's most comprehensive exhibition of contemporary art, writes Ciara Ferguson

"Long ago, in the waning years of the 1200's Florence gave rise to a flourishing school of painters, sculptors, artisans and thinkers. The city of Dante and Giotto had already established itself as a leading force in free enterprise. Perhaps it is not by coincidence that Florence is now the site, centuries later, of a major breakthrough fuelled by individual creativity and initiative," writes John T. Spike, director of the Florence Biennale.

This is one of the world's most comprehensive exhibitions of contemporary art, entirely selected and financed by the artists themselves. The participation of 520 painters, sculptors, performance and graphic artists from 21 countries showing over 1000 works has made the biennale an outstanding success in only its second edition. Of the 15 Irish artists, including Patrick Pye RHA, Barbera Warren RHA, Carey Clarke RHA, Conor Walton, Ruth O'Donnell, Mark Shields, James Hanley, Anthony Little, Philip Moss, Sharon O'Malley, Jacqueline Stanley, Eamonn O'Kane, Geraldine O'Neill, Sandra Bell, and Louise Mansfield, five were awarded winners.

At the Florence Biennale, every artist chose their own entry — their credentials to participate having been established by nomination of the international committee of art critics. These critics have the right to nominate up to 30 artists according to criteria of creative talent and professionalism. Critic Bruce Arnold nominated the Irish artists with the exception of independent entrants Sandra Bell and Louise Mansfield. The artists are themselves responsible for raising the £1000 entry fee but luckily managed to secure full sponsorship from AIB, First National, Independent News and Media, Cantrell and Cochrane Group and A Menarini Pharmaceuticals Irl. Ltd.

Conor Walton, who won the solo third prize in painting, was born in Dublin in 1970. He trained in the National College of Art and Design, graduating in 1993 with a joint honours degree in the history of art and fine art. He subsequently went to Essex, England to study for an MA in art history and theory which he was awarded with distinction in 1995. Further studies took him to Florence where he painted under Charles H. Cecil. Since 1996 he has been working in Dublin where he had his first sell-out solo show in 1999 at Jorgensen Fine Art Gallery. His unique style combines mystical and visionary portraits with richly detailed still lifes.

Geraldine O'Neill won joint group fourth prize for painting. She was born in Dublin in 1971 and studied at NCAD from 1989 to 1993. She has exhibited in many group shows and is currently working on a solo show for the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery in Strand St. She has been described as "a realist who revels in rich colours and textures and chooses subject matter for its capacity to ring out the mixture of excitement and richness which is part of the painter's search for drama. The performance is the art, no agenda, no hidden meaning." A solo show at the Jo Rain (Kevin Kavanagh) Gallery called Cake Sale usurped the physical delight of pastry and cream, luridly displayed against patterned wallpaper.

Ruth O'Donnell was awarded joint group fifth prize for works on paper and print. She was born in Galway in 1952 and educated at University College Galway and later at the Institute Saint Luc in Brussels from which she graduated with distinction in 1990. Since joining the Graphic Studio Dublin print workshop im 1991, she has been producing and exhibiting still life images in the form of monotypes, etchings, carborundum prints and some lithographs. The round forms of bowl and basket, of pottery and fruit are foremost in her visual focus but in larger works she incorporates still life in narrative settings.

Joint winners of the career artists section were RHA members Carey Clarke, Patrick Pye and Barbera Warren. Carey Clarke was born in Ireland in 1936 and studied at NCAD from 1954 to 1959. He taught painting and drawing there from 1963 to 1995 and is considered one of Ireland's leading portrait painters. In the Irish Arts Review in 1996, Bruce Arnold wrote "A classical interpretation of the visual world is rendered with brilliant technique, great penetration of character in treating the human face and great understanding of landscape."

Patrick Pye was born in 1929 in Winchester but raised in Dublin, where he still lives. His work in painting and stained glass is driven by deep spiritual and musical understanding, constant themes throughout his career. His saints and biblical figures have an ascetic appeal and he has completed many important church and public commissions.

Barbera Warren was born in Dublin in 1925. She studied in the NCAD and in London and has spent a lifetime painting landscape works reflective of the light and atmosphere of Ireland.

The works of the artists who took part in the Florence Biennale can be seen at the Ashford Gallery at the RHA, Ely Place, Dublin 2 from January 13 to 31

— Ciara Ferguson, The Sunday Independent, January 9 2000


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