Improbable Renditions


American photographer Ming Smith is better known for her portraits of Nina Simone and Alvin Ailey – black cultural figures in American at a time of widespread social unrest  (what has changed?) – and a snippet of her forty year career, with the subjects captured in a state between distortion and definition, can be seen at The Serpentine Gallery in London. If you make it, why not saunter after to the nearby Frank Hurley exhibition in The Royal Geographical Society.

And creatures dream


Segueing several decades of visual art in Wexford are veteran Gillian Deeney (left), now decamped to Tinahely in the wilds of South Wicklow, and Serena Caulfield, decamped from Rosslare to the wilds of Ballyhealy. They are pictured examining three original Caulfields in Wexford Co. Council at the excellent two venue show, comprising 13 artists, curated by Catherine Bowe and Helen Gaynor.

Conor Cafe



A war artist who seems somewhat to have been sidelined by recent centenial commemorations of the Great War is William Conor, although the Ulster Museum has the single biggest collection of his work. That’s good news if you happen to be in Belfast, and peckish. Opposite the Ulster Museum is the actual studio Conor worked in for almost 15 years, and it is now a café, illuminated by the light from the lantern roof. Conor survived the Great War and indeed lived until 1968, but it is the work of another Belfast institution, Neil Shawcross, which currently adorns the walls of Conor Café.

Joe Neal


Tom & Joe Neal at his launch of his book The Next Blue Note in The Book Shop Wexford (Copy)

I know of few poets who are as prolific as Joe Neal. The conclusion of one volume is the stepping stone to another. He moves between different worlds so fluidly, so seamlessly.

He is deeply knowledgeable, and neither his observation nor his curiosity has been diminished by the passage of time.

Joe doesn’t forget easily, and so when this current run of books began some years ago, and this is volume number five, Joe had a treasure trove of content.

And if this trove had chapter headings, I would suggest music, nature, the past and above all, love. It is curious why a writer as gifted as Joe, with a voluminous command of the language, should choose poetry and not prose.

The answer might be in his Welsh roots, where the cadence is unlike anywhere else: swagger, pulsation, Biblical, metaphorical. I think this caution or caveat by Dylan Thomas to the first cast of Under Milk Wood in New York, ‘to love the words’, is imprinted on Joe.

Why poetry and not prose for this seducer of words? Readers demand of prose that a subject is developed completely and logically, from A to B etc. It moves like a hot air balloon.

But from poetry we demand leaping from A to Z, implying everything. No walking, but flying. No hot air balloons, but a shooting star. Explosive, and brief. And as fog leaves no scar on the landscape it invades, so too poetry.

While metre and form and rhythm are the building blocks of a poem, the blueprint, without which there would be no beginning or end, is truth. If a poem is alive and is true, it connects with the touchstone of the life within us.

That is the only tuning fork you need. Acute vision, acute memory, acute use of words.

Wallis Bird



The best artist to emerge from Enniscorthy since Eileen Gray and Colm Toibin, Galbally’s Wallis Bird unleashed the full package of her astonishing vocal range before a capacity National Opera House. A homecoming for many, the concert was a magnet for aficionados of Bird, from near and far, and for whom this marked the first opportunity to see her perform songs from her latest collection, Home.

It is a measure of the synchronicity between the singer and the songwriter that Bird remains the best interpreter of her own oeuvre, which is demonstratively superlative throughout the eleven tracks of love. And though she revisited some jewels from the past (To My Bones) the concert was bookended with two of the strongest tracks from Home, the sublime Love, and Seasons, which she dedicated to the late and lamented Barry Ennis.

Bird is nakedly forthcoming as an artist, baring her soul on the sacrificial altar of love and commitment, and you don’t have to understand English to embrace her passion and her joie de vivre. And though Home picks off where Architect in 2014 left off, celebrating her relocation to Berlin, it is – by an ocean – far removed from the decadence celebrated by others who have found solace there.

Bird has expanded her emotional repertoire (none of her previous work touches the narrative arc of the title track, sung a cappella) and spontaneously segues the heart and the voice. There is an unaffected joy to the way she makes her songs gleam, and though she has the energy of a waifish dervish and can throw caution to the wind, she always has a firm grasp of the kite. Though there is nothing half-hearted or compromised from the chanteuse and writer, Bird still manages to surprise by pushing the boundaries of her craft.

Performed live, Love acts like an overture, signposting what is to come. The by now legendary acoustics of the Opera House swooned to a full throated, nuclear dawn chorus of Bird’s voice, which can soar from a standstill with the speed of a tercel.


From Blue Poles to Blue Posts



As is the norm with many of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, the provenance tells a different story. So it is with Blue Poles, the stand out painting in the current exhibition devoted to American expressionism at the Royal Academy in London. Pollock was not in the habit of giving names to his drip technique paintings, so Blue Poles started out as Number 11 when it was conceived in 1952. Two years later, Pollock had a change of heart and it became Blue Poles. It was acquired by a museum in Australia in the early 1970’s, and there it has remained until it popped up in this show, perhaps the most important in the Academy since the turn of the century. It’s absolutely huge – five metres long – and is veined by every method of casting paint onto a canvas, a visual translation of a score inspired by, perhaps, Charlie Parker. This is one of those mercurial works that you simply don’t look at, but look into, and breathes the essence of Pollock. And if you like Blue Poles, you should after skip across the road to the Blue Posts hostelry for a sundowner.



13 proved a lucky number for the closest jazz festival to Wexford, which happens to be in Wales and is also the best of its kind.

Aberjazz, which hosts up to 50 events, including gigs, workshops, busking and forays into blues and folk, in events sprinkled for five glorious late summer days throughout Fishguard, from the seated Theatr Gwaun to the charming and capacious Ffwrn, from the no frills Rugby Club to the epicurean’s favourite, Pepper’s restaurant and art gallery, is unique in Wales.

Part of its charm, which cannot be package and airlifted to somewhere else, is both the village itself – it couldn’t be any more laid back – and the team of volunteers, marshalled by Alice (CHECK), who are effortlessly courteous, enthusiastic and genuine lovers of music. And at a festival, where the vast majority of acts and most of the attendances are visitors, this helps enormously.

If you are arriving from Ireland on the Stena Line ferry, the charm offensive begins immediately: Fishguard has a plethora of good cafes and restaurants for the weary, and – on a clear day – offers some stunning seascapes, especially from Lower Fishguard.

The raison d’etre of the festival, unlike say Cork in October, is jazz: any not just mainstream jazz but a programme which is devoted to all its myriad manifestations. To this end, the exploration of jazz and the proliferation of its inimitable qualities, Aberjazz has been bringing well known acts (Polar Bear, Jacki Dankworth (CHECK)) and emerging acts (The Jasmine Power Quintet) to the village since its inception 13 years ago, is paramount.

There is the combination of the old and the new, the British and the international (Wexford’s Kevin Lawlor in 2015 and the Argentinian Tango Jazz Quartet in 2016), and a fearlessness in the programming: the collaboration between Israeli drummer Asaf Sirki and Polish vocalist Sylwia Bialas and an awareness of evolving trends far from home: Slowly Rolling Camera, with the much in demand musician-producer Dave Stapleton, had excelled at bigger festivals like Love Supreme and the London Jazz Festival. For many of the A-listed concerts, prices range from £5 to £15, but Aberjazz, in its desire to make the music accessible to all, does not have a cover charge for over half of the acts.

It is probable that this year’s headliner, Courtney Pine at Theatr Gwaun, could have sold out twice, or that Aberjazz could possibly have charged twice the admission price (£22.50), because the saxophonist is British jazz’s most restless and adventurous musical prodigy since he made his name with the revolutionary To The Eyes of Creation in 1992. He was not yet 30.

Pine, in concert, does not care to repeat the success of previous tours, perhaps a sensitivity to how his broad output has a tendency to polarise both critics and fans. Earlier this year he did a short tour with Zoe Rahman (who played a gig with her brother in the early days of the Wexford Opera House) of ballads, old and new, deploying his bass clarinet as lead solo instrument, something you will not happen across every day.

For Abejazz, it was the flip side of the coin, a raucous crowd pleaser or an old fashioned knees up, but he caught the mood of his audience perfectly, with Pine favouring soprano saxophone as he reached into the 2012 release, House of Legends, more compatible for the seven piece line he brought to Fishguard, including two great guitarists, Cameron Pierre and Chris Cobbson. Certainly, House of Legends is symptomatic of why Pine is often adjudged as controversial in contemporary jazz. The BBC’s Martin Longley dissed it for its ‘new depths in novelty dredging’ and ‘parping synthesiser abuse’. Is it really that bad? No, but the purists detested what Longley dismissed as Pine’s ‘virtuoso contortions.’

‘Is Courtney Pine still a jazzman?’ snarled the BBC’s man.

I don’t have the answer for that, nor am I sure it is relevant, but Pine is certainly a showman, and his demonstratively popular Aberjazz gig, almost all two hours of it, was joyous and adventurous, acknowledging the calypso swing of his Jamaican roots, switching gears from Kingstonian Swing to the infectious Ma-Di-Ba, although the stand out number, in which Pine’s brilliance is undoubted, is his homage to the founder of the Notting Hill carnival, Claudia Jones. If Courtney Pine has not been feeling the love from critics, he got it by the truck load in Theatr Gwaun.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint



Like Albert Camus, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, is a philosopher and a novelist, and also like Camus, Toussaint shares a life long love of soccer.

Football should not be mistaken has a high brow equivalent of Fever Pitch: Toussaint is no Nicky Hornby. The author of Fever Pitch, a love letter to Arsenal and particularly Highbury, wouldn’t dream of lending his name to the following sentence by Toussaint describing the World Cup in Japan, at which Ireland were famously eclipsed by an emerging Spain from the penalty spot.

“I had a feeling that football and Japan, even though they are contradictory – tumult and tranquillity, fire and water –were merging together to give birth to a new element, an unknown and delicious alliance that as yet had no name.”

And yet we expect nothing less from a French intellectual (born in Belgium) for whom soccer, like painting according to Leonardo da Vinci, is a cosa mentale, and for whom the frisson of excitement of a live match is to be found either before or after the actual game, occasionally during.

Observing the countdown to the Belgium-Brazil match in Kobe, Toussaint, with a charming and infectious joie de vivre, spots with the eyes of a marvelling child, how “a sea breeze gently rippled the flags of the corner posts in the tepid night, then at last it was autumn, or perhaps it was already winter, the deluge and desolation of the sad, big stadium.”

But if you are expecting an analysis of why the architects of total football, Holland, behaved so loutishly in the World Cup final in South Africa against Spain, or why his beloved Brazil were humiliated by Germany in 2014, look elsewhere.

This short treatise is bookended by the World Cups in France and Brazil, but Toussaint’s powers of description are deployed memorably not by a feint by Zidane or a pass by Xavi, but by his computer crashing during an Argentina-Holland penalty shoot out. ‘I was in complete darkness,’ he laments, perhaps a metaphor from one reared in the last century at the state of the modern game, increasingly balletic and effete by the day.

Toussaint has been accused of rambling and occasional banality in Football, but his prose sparkles more often than not, and his passion for soccer, like Camus, is best seen as an antidote to the strenuous business of writing novels: Nue, a sequence of ten books, took him ten years to finish. His afterword, Zidane’s Melancholy(a reflection on international soccer’s most infamous act of thuggery since Schumacher took out Battison in 1982) when the French captain head-butted an Italian defender, who is not name checked by Toussaint, in the World Cup final in 2006, reads like the game’s obituary, as if Pagasus had been shot between the eyes.

Football’s publication in English coincides with the death of Johann Cruyff, who brought soccer to its aesthetic summit in 1974, and I suspect that the chess-like interplay between Germany and Holland was more to Toussaint’s liking than the fare on offer today.

The Blue Egg Gallery

In December last I was ushered to the opening of an exhibition near Cork Street in London by Genieve Figgis, about whom I knew and still know little, except that she lived in Wicklow and received her degree in fine art from the Gorey School of Art.

What left an impression was less the totality of her work, than her allusion to dark narratives of history and how as an artist she inhabited the dissonance of the natural world. This was my interpretation, not hers’. There was undoubtedly, for those in attendance, an instant allure, but not for me.

Hours after the exhibition, huddled against the cold shimmying in from the rising Thames, I thought about my lack of connection with an artist from my own neck of the woods. And yet, stalking her exhibition quietly like a curious shark, I had sensed in the turbulent narrative an unspoken assimilation of a shared history

And why not: ours’ is a small island where, whether north, south, east or west, one is a slave to the same four seasons. Being islanders, though we rarely describe ourselves as thus, many in attendance at the opening of a show by Terry Dunne and Juliet Ball at The Blue Egg Gallery in Wexford in August, were born in a country at a time when Ireland gloried in its natural impregnability.

The impregnability, a legacy of political will, could also be suffocating for those with a creative and idiosyncratic bent, so when Joyce sought to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, he went into exile, and there was a steady queue after him in the decades that followed

Recalling the Figgis exhibition,  experiencing abroad an Irish artist’s take on the locus of my childhood,  and whose studio I am told is surrounded by what  Seamus Heaney would have described as ‘the alders dripping’, I gradually sensed an osmosis between her work and myself.

It took time, but an awakening, like the firing of clay or threading and weaving, has its own rhythm. And so, a new exhibition of work by Juliet and Terry is always an initiation into another world, where there is no turning back. There seems to be, because we share the same small turf, an enjambement between the arts, whether it is painting, sculpture, pottery, weaving and literature.

An enjambement is associated primarily with poetry, where the last sentence of a stanza connects unhesitatingly with the first line of the next. But it can also mean to encroach upon. Music filters into poetry, poetry is distilled into song, and nature is woven through the prism of personal experience, as you can see in the earthenware and tapestries in The Blue Egg.

The artist absorbs.

The imagination is a sieve.

The impulse to create is a catalyst, and the gestation commences.

It is the undefinable mystery of that chain of events which segues the artist with the viewer, which is why openings matter. Each new work has the potential of being a portal, and if you look attentively and engage the spirit level of the eye honestly, you instigate an unconscious assimilation.

And what you choose to do with that experience after you leave the gallery, is what counts. Only don’t abdicate it. As Terry Dunne says, it is just a matter of making time to observe.

I referenced enjambement earlier; poets are obsessed with the technical virtuosity of both weaving and pottery, two skills which, because of their tactility and intricate deployment of colour, provide a crucible of metaphor and simile. Terry and Juliet harvest the bounty of nature.

Ted Hughes, reflecting on Arachne’s duel with Minerva, has the weaver “feeding the cloth with colours that glowed every gradation of tints in the rainbow and where the sun shines through a shower.” These sensations are mirrored in Terry’s Autumn Falling Into Snow and Earth Energy.

It is as if the hand at the loom, fired by the patterned webs of the imagination, need to be as deft and swift and as light, as the initial source of inspiration. Terry seeks his in the colours of plants and flowers, and if you take the time to observe, if you mimic the focus and industry of the bee, you too will experience the efflorescence of the tapestry artist.

Seamus Heaney collaborated with playwrights, musicians, artists, but I think he had a specific gra for potters. It is arguable that the development of a poem apes the long view taken by the potter. He studied Sonja Landweer, and from my casual encounter with Juliet Ball’s decorative stoneware and porcelain and smoke fired vases, I can appreciate the interweave of ceramic and poetic allusions.

Heaney imagines a bridge between the buried substance used by the potter and the volcanic heat of the kiln. His couplet helped me to embrace the essence of Juliet’s brilliance, demonstrable in the ash-glazed stoneware.

“If glazes, as you say, bring down the sun

Your potter’s wheel is bringing up the earth.

This exhibition by Terry and Juliet, the latest of many in The Blue Egg Gallery curated by Mary Gallagher, amplifies our better understanding of the ancient art of craft making. Housed in two rooms flooded by natural light, the juxtaposition of an object and its space is a metamorphosis brought about by hand guided by the eye.

Our time is transient, but engagement with tapestries made from traditional materials and work rooted in the traditions of functional pottery, can transcend the busy hourglass and leave a legacy of woven or fired beauty, undimmed in lasting radiance.

Sonja Landweer


One of the best, and least publicised, exhibitions at the 2016 Kilkenny Arts Festival, is Crossovers at the Rudolf Heltzel Gallery on Patrick Street, featuring eight artists, bookended in excellence by Kate Murtagh-Sheridan and Sonja Landweer, who is showing slate roof tiles on black wood block and three framed prints.