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Peter Burns and Mary Noonan
On friday October 18th at 7.30pm Mr. Patrick Murphy, director of the Royal Hibernian Academy will officially open an exhbition of new paintings and sculpture by Peter Burns and Mary Noonan.
American author, James Baldwin maintained, “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions, which have been hidden by the answers.” Mary Noonan and Peter Burns do just that. They push boundaries in both the form and content of their work. Both artists ask questions, jostle fixed notions by proposing alternatives in a multiplicity of narratives.

 

Noonan’s work engages with Irish myths and folklore. These stories and other research act as a starting point, rather than an end point for the artist. Noonan is particularly captivated by stories about fairies and by the superstitions associated with, among other things, the fairy tree.  This fascination is apparent in her piece entitled, Don’t Mess with a Fairy Tree, which depicts an unsuspecting figure climbing a ladder, which has just been set alight, and in the bottom right hand corner of the painting lies a discarded box of matches.

The person looks set for certain doom with a vulture descending into the tree.  The Hawthorn tree, very often stands alone in a field and is never felled or interfered with by the farmer, for to do so would bring enormous bad luck one’s way, or so the story goes. While the painting stems from this superstition the artist has transformed and transposed it. The introduction of a non-native majestic Bird of Prey takes us away from rural Ireland, and the jeans and wellies sported by the climbing figure transposes the myth from an ancient to a contemporary context.  The piece, in common with much of Noonan’s work is mysterious, foreboding and fun. The mystery is who set the tree alight?

In Joint at the Hip, we see a conjoined male and female tripod wearing 


underwear and standing on a parquet floor.  Here, Noonan is inspired by the compositional elements of medieval manuscripts and indeed by their subject matter.  The notion of man and woman coming together is sometimes depicted in Celtic illustrations to portray night and day, Ying and Yang, good and evil.  The conjoined couple also references reproduction with the notion of two beings coming together to create a third.  The figure stands on parquet floor, in what could be a stage, with an arched frame containing the scene. The stars beyond the frame offer yet another narrative.   The mouse in the foreground looking off stage creates further mystery.

Two Trout Conversing plays with the notion that animals can be fairies too suggested by human qualities that they take on.  Noonan doesn’t seek to merely illustrate age-old myths but rather uses the fairy lore of chatting trout as a jumping off point.  And the presence of a jumbo jet in the sky grounds this piece in the here and now. In Awe depicts two men, who’ve cast their clothes aside and stand with arms in the air facing the sky.  Here the artist is influenced by the epic compositions of German Romantic Landscape painter, Casper David Friedrich. 

In Little Birdeen Noonan is influenced by the Italian portrait artist Angelo Bronzino, the artist commissioned to paint the Medici children.  Noonan’s painting depicts a young boy with a mischievous expression squeezing a small bird.  The image is both brutal and benign. The artist alludes to the primal urge that we are born with, a kind of animal instinct for cruelty that we must unlearn.  By putting the child in a Puffa jacket and track pants, the artist transports the boy to the present day. 

Slightly under Attack depicts a figure being attacked by a murder of crows.  This alludes to the story of the changeling, which says that a baby suspected of being a fairy child must be put on a hill to last the night.  It is also informed by Mary’s personal experience of being attacked by a crow as she was getting into her car in Westport! 

The work of both artists is both unapologetically playful and open-ended, constantly challenging the viewer and asking us questions.  Peter Burns’ kaleidoscopic compositions compel our attention and offer something new ever time we look at them.  In Self Portrait Abstract Phase, Peter took an abstract painting composed of vertical bands of colour that he painted in 2009 and superimposed his self-portrait in 2013.  The piece is a self-deprecating depiction of the wide-eyed young artist whose expression is a mix of fear and awe, as he faces the mirror or viewer with paintbrush poised. 

In his work, Burns often plays with scale.  The epic scale of the landscapes is brought home by the figures he places within in, such as In the Forest where two figures walk a lonely road into a wood.  The presence of the simple stick figures transforms the piece from a simple woodscape to a more epic scene with a somewhat sinister undertone.  In Gardener, a nude figure kneels under a tree in a meditative position and compels us to look more closely at the incongruous flora that surrounds him. 

In Erogenous Zone, we see a giant figure hiding behind the side of a cliff.  His expression is innocent.  He is an explorer of sorts.  It is an animistic depiction this figure’s world in which the sky has opened out like the legs of a spread-eagled nude; with mammary mountains, nipples on cliff face, whirlpools that could be navels.  Again he uses small figures throughout the scene to play with scale and challenge our understanding of the narrative.  We see a woman abseiling down a cliff, a nude riding a unicorn bareback, and a clothed figure parachuting down from the sky while being attacked by a dragon.  We also find various incongruous creatures such as an oversized crab, turtles, birds and is that an alien??

Frozen Echo is a reversible painting.  It can be hung two ways. It can be viewed with a figure rowing a boat into a glacial cave with icy stalactites and falling vines.  Then the artist quite literally turns this on its head and offers us an alternative mountainous composition. Pay attention to the figures dotted throughout the scene, running naked into a cave; climbing up a hill, or the figure with a head stuck in some sort of pot.  The tiny animal drawn sledge moves along a path.  Hung one way, this path could be an icy water way and hung the other it becomes a Zephyr carrying the vessel through the sky.  This painting, along with much of Peter’s other work, explores an odyssey of boundless possibilities.

Diana and Actaeon tells the story of a young hunter’s encounter with the chaste Diana, goddess of the hunt while she is nude bathing in a spring with her escort of nymphs.  In a fit of embarrassed fury, Diana splashes water on Actaeon and transforms him into a deer.  His fellow hunters failing to recognize him, later shoot him. 

Peter’s interpretation of the myth is a disinhibited fantasy conflating supernatural, mythological and various other incongruous elements, all the time focused on painterly composition.   It asks questions such as why is there a rhino in the stream? Why is there a long eared rabbit in the bottom left hand corner? Why is Diana shooting Actaeon from the top of what looks like a monkey’s head? Why is there a molten planet dripping in the center of the painting? Or could that be rotten fruit? Why has the animal figure got trunks for legs and an arm for a trunk? The artist’s answer to all these questions seems to me, to be “Why not?”

 

Rosemarie Noone

Claremorris Gallery, Director

 

Random Artist

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