By Jack Holland
The guests overflowed the premises last Thursday for the opening of the Robert Ballagh exhibition at the Irish Arts Center gallery on 51st Street in Manhattan. The more than 150 guests had gathered for to see one of Ireland most popular artists in what is for him a first. Never before has Ballagh had a show in New York that is dedicated only to his work.
The show, “Land and Language,” consists of three paintings and 11 prints and runs through April 6.
The actress Fionnula Flanagan, acclaimed for her many roles, including in such movies as “Some Mother’s Son” and “Waking Ned Devine,” was guest speaker. She praised Ballagh’s work for “venturing into dangerous territory” in exploring the relationship between Ireland’s landscape, its history and its language. Speaking to the guests partly in Irish and partly in English, she called Ballagh a “political artist” who recognizes the link between language and national identity. She said that “mastery of one’s own national language is the platinum membership card to nationhood.”
She placed Ballagh in a tradition of Irish radicalism “which looks backward in order to look forward.” In her speech, she said that his paintings reminded her of Patrick Pearse’s lyrical tributes to Ireland.
“A land without a language is a land without a soul,” she concluded.
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Ballagh himself gave a modest speech, mainly of thanks to those who had helped mount and sponsor the exhibition.
While his work has been on display in New York before, it was always with that of other Irish artists. This was his first solo exhibit. But, he told the Echo, his work is not usually displayed in galleries. He said he had not had a solo exhibition in Dublin in 18 years.
Megan Arney, the curator and visual arts coordinator for the center, said that Ballagh has tended to “shun the gallery world.” His works usually go straight to private collections or to museums. “Museums love him,” she said.
Ballagh, born in 1943, began painting in 1966. His success was such that by 1969 he was representing Ireland at the Paris Biennial. In those days, according to Arney, he was a “pop” artist, heavily influenced by Andy Warhol. But by the beginning of the 1970s, his work had taken a different turn with the explosion of political violence in Northern Ireland. He was stirred by the “Troubles” and his work began to reflect his interest in the latest stage of the Irish conflict, beginning in 1969.
In 1972 he produced “Bloody Sunday” — a violent splash of red on the chalked outlines of 13 bodies — which was exhibited at the Project Arts Center in Dublin. He was soon attacked for being “one-sided” and nationalistic in his work. He freely admits that this might be the case and once told an interviewer that anyone who claims to be objective is “a phony.” On this, he has not changed, he told the Echo.
Ballagh said that while he was always aware of the conflict, and determined that his work should comment on it, he wanted “to avoid exploiting people’s tragedies.” Nowadays, he finds that because of the peace process, people are in general much more open in their attitude to his work.
“I am a firm believer in dialogue, not violence,” he said. “I’ll talk to anyone.”
Arney describes Ballagh’s work as often “witty” and says he is a superb draftsman, reflecting his training as an architect. He is also renowned for his portraits, and has painted people as diverse as Michael O’Riordan, the former head of the Irish Communist Party; Charlie Haughey, the former taoiseach, and Laurence Sterne, the Irish-born 18th century English novelist, author of the eccentric “Tristram Shandy.” He also designs stage sets and did the design for the Irish bank notes, now defunct thanks to the advent of the euro.
“It’s a honor to show his work,” said Pauline Turley, the director of the center. She says that it is part the center’s visual arts program.
Among the guests were Terry George, the director, the actress Rebecca Schull (“Analyze This,” “The Odd Couple 2”), and Terry Donnelly of the Irish Repertory Theater. Also present was Ballagh’s wife, Betty.