By Marcia Rock
When Paul Bell went through the metal detector at Belfast Airport on his way to New York, he set off the alarm. "It’s your eye, your eyebrow ring," the security guard said with exasperation. Bell is from Ballymena, exhibiting his work along with 15 other artists from the north and south of Ireland in the show "Ireland: Crossing Borders," which runs through Oct. 18 at Gallery Revel in SoHo. With the exception of Liam Neeson, there aren’t too many artists who come out of Ballymena. "It’s a very bible-belt town and restricted and they look at you in strange ways if you’re different," Bell said.
Although he remains loyal to his hometown, New York was a revelation to Bell with its lights, people and hustle and bustle. "Ballymena is drab and boring," he said. "And it always rains."
New York is providing more than good weather. It is providing the first venue for him to show some of his paintings. This young man with earrings and eyebrow ring captures a Northern Ireland not usually seen. In his painting "Patrolling the Neighborhood," two RUC policemen dominate the canvas. The men look very real, like one’s father, uncle or brother. They are set against the background of a wall mural declaring "Disband the RUC."
Bell studied the wall murals of the North for his thesis at the University of Wales. He knows the RUC because his father and brother are members of the force. His father was on duty in Derry in 1968 and at Drumcree in 1998.
Bell notes that the painting is historical because it captures a time during the cease-fire when the men are not wearing flak jackets or sidearms. They’re acting like real policemen — on a neighborhood patrol, walking the streets and protecting everyone. It captures the moment before the RUC undergoes major changes and Bell wonders about the impact of those changes on these men.
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Because the history and status of the RUC remains politically sensitive in Northern Ireland, Bell was afraid to exhibit the painting there. He feels free to show it here and is excited to get New Yorkers’ responses.
Elaine Somers masterminded this exhibit from her gallery in Holywood, a suburb of Belfast. She said she thinks Americans will welcome Bell’s work and that of the other artists, many of whom are in their early 30s.
Somers made her mark in the Belfast gallery world by nurturing new talent. Because Northern Ireland has such a small population, she wanted to offer more exposure for these young artists. Receiving a tepid response in London, she mentioned to one gallery owner there that she planned to go to New York. He said, she recalled: "You can’t do that. [Americans] don’t speak the same language." Incensed, she immediately booked herself on a plane to New York. Her third stop was Gallery Revel, where she met owner Marvin Carson and curator Michael Henry. They saw her slides and soon traveled to Northern Ireland to see the work. The result is "Ireland: Crossing Borders."
Looking inward — and to the masters
Five of the artists raised enough money to come to New York for the opening. Although most of these artists have only known the Troubles, their work does not necessarily reflect the tension, the bombs and the disruption of life in the North. These artists looked inward for their themes and to the European masters.
Colin Watson says his painting is emotionally influenced by early Italian painters like Giotto and Verracchio. With subdued colors and a fresco texture, he takes mundane subjects and elevates them to monumental themes.
In his large canvas "Interior with Three Figures," a man is getting a shave. In the shape and geometry of the painting and the flattening of the images, you might also see the religious theme of the baptism of Christ with the shaving as an act of purification.
Watson is also influenced by the Egyptian sculpture he saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on his first trip to New York last year. A Buddha at a Cambodian exhibit in Paris inspired "Woman’s Head." He is now focusing on landscapes. Sunday walks through the Mountains of Mourne gave him the subject for "The Mountain," which he hopes captures "the granite and ruggedness, the sense of place."
Conor Fleck turned to the Spanish Golden Age and the work of Zubaran for his inspiration. The son of a dentist, he was raised in East Belfast. During his first days studying at the University of Ulster’s art college in the center of Belfast, he experienced a bomb explosion. After that he remembers "jumping any time a heavy door closed."
Fleck is principally a still-life painter. His work is quiet and peaceful, focusing on form. He said he feels that "too much clutter can destroy the whole effect of what can be a very simple, thoughtful piece, which is what I try to produce." He sees his role as heightening the experience of seeing, "showing people how to look."
On the wall next to Fleck’s meditations are Paul Wilson’s Renaissance portraits that turn the traditional inside out. One can discern a UFO in the background of "We are not Alone." Wilson’s eyes twinkle like those in the paintings. He says he "likes giving people a smile." The metaphysical poet John Donne is his inspiration. On request he’ll recite "The Sick Rose" or "The Flea," the words as familiar to him as you’d expect a rock song to be.
Wilson comes from Glengormley. His father was a docker in Belfast and his mother is from the country. He would like to get married soon. "Maybe after this show we’ll have enough money," he said, smiling.
All these artists struggle to make ends meet and have second jobs. Many teach. Paul Wilson’s mature students are in their 70s. Frank Eyre’s are mixed in age, education and religion at the Belfast Institute for Higher Education. Themes running through Eyre’s work are light, atmosphere and sky. He said he feels "an ambivalence about the place, Northern Ireland."
"Do I want to be here?" he said. "Can I relate to the political situation?"
He said feels his work gives "a sense of being at one with the land but detached and abhorred by the political situation." His large canvas "Daybreak, New Beginning" conveys a glimpse of light and hope over Belfast Lough. His influences are Turner and contemporary Germans such as Richter and Polke. He identifies with their angst and grit.
Other artists on display include 28-year-old Noel Murphy, who grew up in Andersonstown. Somers describes his early struggle to paint in a 4-by-6-foot shed in his father’s yard while helicopters soared overhead and soldiers canvassed the streets. He now lives in the quiet Glens of Antrim.
The show displays work of established painters like Lindy Guinness, John Turner, and sculptor John Coll. Perhaps best known is the late Rowel Friers, who died the week of the opening. A famous painter, cartoonist and illustrator, his last two paintings were specifically made for Somers to bring to New York. "He was 78," she said, "and one of the great old men of Irish art. I’m so proud to have these. ‘Eyes of the Night,’ makes me smile." It depicts a cottage on a hill at night with its windows glowing.
Opening night buzz
At the gallery opening on Sept. 24, the artists were wide-eyed. Wilson came in bursting with the story of meeting Winona Rider and telling her that she was his inspiration for one of his portraits. He was disappointed that she didn’t show up, but he was quickly surrounded by a group of attractive young teachers exchanging ideas about creative expression.
An artist from the neighborhood, Joel Zakow, walked in and was struck by the influence of the contemporary French painter Balthus on Colin Watson’s work. He and Watson were quickly immersed in conversation, looking at the paintings, laughing and smiling in some kind of special communion.
"I hope to see more of Irish artists," Zakow said. "They’ve been neglected."
Michael Henry, curator of the show, was smiling at the end of the evening. Sales were good and he reflected on what drew him to the artists. "There’s a maturity to the pieces," he said. "You look at them and think they know something we don’t know."
As for the five young men, they are getting to know New York. Conor Fleck compared the city to his only reference. "It’s like Shaftesbury Square [Belfast] on Saturday night, but here it’s everyday," he said.
Colin Watson revisited the Egyptian collection at the Met. Paul Bell spent time observing life on the streets and hopes to paint the NYPD on patrol as a companion piece to his RUC policemen. Paul Wilson loved meeting New Yorkers. "People at home said you better watch it there — getting mugged and they’ll have no time for you," he said, but added that he found the people in the bars particularly friendly.
Eyre eschews stereotypes of violence in New York and in the North.
"We don’t want to be stereotyped that the Troubles is the only image of Northern Ireland," he said. "There are other images in the heads of young people who grew up in a society where they only knew sectarian animosity. Some became inured to it, others understood it and others looked for more positive things in life."
Many of these young men come from middle-class Protestant backgrounds and say they are unionists with a small "u." Most did not grow up in the flashpoints of West and North Belfast. All want the peace process to succeed.
All want Northern Ireland to provide a normal life for its citizens. They don’t see their art as escaping from life in the North but enhancing it.
They hope everyone will soon be able to think about things other than violence and anger and contemplate the beauty, culture and art around them.
(Gallery Revel is at 96 Spring St. in Manhattan’s SoHo district. Call (2112) 925-0600 for details.)