From the Eye to the Brain (and the Words in Between)

(I was asked to open an Exhibition of the work of artist Gary Kearney on Friday evening in The Linenhall Arts Centre here in Castlebar. This is a rough transcript of what I mumbled on about. 

The exhibition runs until 15th February 2014 and is well worth a visit.)

I am delighted to be allowed to open this wonderful exhibition of paintings by Gary Kearney. Mostly because I like the work so very much.

When I was asked to open the exhibition, I immediately asked myself that key question. What qualifies me? By what right can I come here and speak words about this Art? I had my answer really quickly. I’m not qualified. I have no right to speak, no right at all. Having figured that out, I came to another conclusion. I’m not qualified but that’s fine because neither is anyone else.

To my mind, Visual Art is just that. It’s exactly what it says on the tin. Visual Art. It hits us in our eyes. It ‘assails’ us via our retinas, and travels from there deep down into the visual cortex of our brains. There are absolutely no words in the equation. Art – Eye – Brain. There’s no words. 

Personally, I think the use of words to capture the essence of visual art is like trying to convey the touch of a rose petal on your cheek via the medium of professional mud wrestling.

But it’s a thing we do. It’s a thing we all do.

We go and see an exhibition with a mate and we talk about what we see, we analyse it, we give our own humble opinions on it. It’s a good thing to do, I think. So long as we realise it’s not the only thing. It’s not even the main event. The main event is the Art. You, your eye and your brain and what happens between one end of that equation and the other.

I’m not trying to be pedantic. I love talking about visual art as much as the next person but I find talking about it, sometimes, makes me feel inadequate… insufficient. I get to feel that I don’t have the words, I just don’t have the vocabulary to do justice to what I am seeing. So it can turn into a bit of a negative thing for me, if I don’t watch out. But, so long as I do watch out, then I think I’ll be okay. So, with that heftyest of disclaimers, here’s what I think of Gary’s work… in words.

I think it’s wonderful. I think Gary rewards us for stepping in really close to his work, where we actually see the building blocks of his Art, as well as all the little details that you just can’t see from far away and then, when you move back, the ‘coming together’ of the work into a thing of enormous depth and clarity. It’s almost like Gary was gifted with really long arms and that he painted his pictures from out here somewhere. I predict that people will be stepping in and out the gallery all month, like a dance.

I work in the business of Architecture so I suppose I've looked at the built environment more that most people have.  I think we sometimes forget that there is beauty there, in the Built Environment. We’re almost preconditioned to believe that our hearts can only be raised by a vista of some naturally formed landscape or, if that’s not available, of some ancient building made venerable by virtue of its great old age. But it ain’t necessarily so. There is beauty in the urban world. And even if you don’t agree with me on the word ‘Beauty’, there is undoubtedly form and structure and content and colour and texture and lots of other great things, particularly if you look up. 

Our old Art Teacher up in Sligo, he used to say, "Look up, Armstrong, you Low-Type, look Up." 

He was right. There’s such great revelations to be had in our towns and cities, if we only look up. It’s the different view, you see. We tend to trudge back and forth between the Banklink Machine and the Butcher’s shop and we don’t always see what is around us. 

That’s what Gary is doing, for me anyway. He’s seeing for me. He’s reminding me of the world on our doorsteps, the one we ignore the most. And the shapes he captures are lovely, the colours, the shadows, the reflections. And we recognise the subject, we know it, but many of us haven’t really seen it, not really.

As I was saying, these are my words and they are well meant but they don’t mean very much. What means something is what happens when you look at the Art. I’ll talk about it, of course, happily, but I’ll also to take at least one moment without feeling the need to put words on what it makes me feel. I’ll just… see. 

And I think there is sometimes a clue available to tell you if you are successfully bypassing the words and getting right down to the truth of the visual art you are looking at. And that clue is called Memory. I think sometimes, when you’re looking at pictures, memories turn up out of nowhere and I think they are our raw emotions… kinda dressed up in a posh frock. 

I was looking at these paintings earlier today, thinking about what the hell I might say, and a little memory came to me. Something I hadn’t thought of in over thirty five years. It doesn’t make much sense but I’ll share it with you very briefly. 

When I was in primary school, in St John’s in Sligo, and I was only small, we used to get brought down to the Cathedral for Mass. This was pretty grand for me because I was used to St Anne’s church which was - and still is - a much simpler establishment. Anyway at these masses, crammed into the pew, I used to be bored senseless… 

Until one day, I looked up. The arches of the roof over Sligo Cathedral sit on these Granite pedestals high above the ground and I suddenly realised that these pedestals looked exactly like giant robot heads. It was uncanny. There was a row of them up this side and a row of them up the other side and, in my head, these robot pedestals would do battle with each other by firing laser beams at each other from out of their solid granite eyes across the span of the church. One side had green lasers and the other side had red lasers… and this was way before Star Wars came along. It’s a silly memory but I was reminded of it by my time with the art on these walls. What it actually means, what my subconscious might have been trying to tell me, well, I suppose that’s for me to work out. 

I am proud to open Gary’s exhibition. I work pretty much next door and I often come in here to hide when things get rough. Just like John Major allegedly used to do in the toilet. For the next month or so, I know that my hiding will be informed and coloured and challenged by Gary’s fabulous paintings and I look forward to spending quite a bit of time hiding in here with his work. 

I wish Gary’s Art a wonderful time at the Linenhall. It is in the safe hands of the very best of people here. And so, with much pleasure, I declare his exhibition open.

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