Territory

From the IAR Winter 2014 Edition

It is the implication of something beyond a simple landscape that makes Martin Gale’s art so compelling, writes Alison FitzGerald as his exhibition continues at Taylor Galleries, Dublin

One of the exceptional skills of a great artist is to make the viewer look again, to look closer, to linger, to question. As Seamus Heaney has written of Martin Gale’s paintings, they silence us, ‘they invite us to look twice, then to stand still looking until we begin to wonder if there is such a thing as innocent bystanding. They hold in a single, steady, local focus the reality and anxiety of the times’.1 Just as the Suffolk landscape around Dedham Vale has become known as ‘Constable Country’, after the landscape painter John Constable, so the landscape of the Wicklow-Kildare border has been designated ‘Martin Gale Country’. Having moved to Kildare some years ago, the late Dennis O’Driscoll wrote, ‘I realised that I had entered a familiar place, an abundant space – Martin Gale Country. He had changed my perspective on my surroundings, allowed me to discover a certain straggly beauty even in its most mundane features: the flaking gate, the smouldering farmyard barrel, the rainy rutted lane…I had become a figure in a Martin Gale landscape and there was nowhere else I would prefer to be’. 2

Gale’s affinity with the Irish landscape was nurtured early, long before he ever considered becoming a painter. Born in Worcester in 1949, his father was a steeplechase jockey and the family moved on many occasions throughout the 1950s, spending the majority of their time in Counties Kildare and Tipperary. His father was a keen amateur painter and Gale recalls holidays spent on Achill Island or in Schull, where his father would bring his paints and spend time recording the local landscape. His maternal grandfather was a friend of the artist Charles Lamb. Gale listened to his mother describing how she had seen Lamb paint one of the works that hung on the walls of their family home and, as he says himself, he grew up ‘thinking as a child that there were two really great painters in the world, Picasso and Charles Lamb’.3 In 1968 he became a student at the National College of Art and Design; this was the period of the student revolts at NCAD, when dedicated teaching was not the order of the day, but he describes how he felt at home the moment he stuck his head around the door of the painting studio. Pop culture had arrived in Ireland, and to a young art college student anything seemed possible, with dynamic visual art visible everywhere from album sleeves to carrier bags.

Gale is also a compelling recorder who is fascinated by the interaction between people and the landscape, or in his own words ‘how it changes them and how they change it’

It would not be correct to classify Martin Gale as a romantic painter, despite his attachment to the Irish landscape, nor does he belong to the painterly tradition of artists like Paul Henry, Jack B Yeats and Seán McSweeney. He is a realist painter. He is also a compelling recorder who is fascinated by the interaction between people and the landscape, or in his own words ‘how it changes them and how they change it’.4 He sets up intriguing narratives for us, narratives that are half-suggested by titles and compositional elements – and he invites us to tease out the stories ourselves (Fig 1). This comes of careful planning, multiple decisions, and countless technical challenges on his part. Advice given by one of his teachers at NCAD, Charles Cullen, continues to inform the way that he works: don’t try to tackle the big picture at the outset; start with a small piece of paper and figure out problems and ideas on a small scale first.5 Emphasizing the importance of drawing in the creative process, his paintings begin as multiple sketches, modest watercolours, and small oil studies.

A number of these watercolours are currently on view at Taylor Galleries, Dublin. Since his first solo exhibition at the Neptune Gallery, Dublin in 1974, Gale has used watercolour as an integral part of his working process. The spontaneity allowed by the medium facilitates the teasing out of compositional ideas quickly and with comparative freedom, before progressing to the more painstaking and deliberate execution of a large-scale work in oils. Martin Gale has earned his reputation as one of the finest chroniclers of the Irish landscape. It is telling that eminent poets have endeavoured to capture the particular qualities of his paintings in words.6 And yet he is also an exceptionally modest man. When asked to consider his greatest achievement as a painter he responds with characteristic humility, ‘simply to have kept going’.7

Martin Gale ‘Territory’ Taylor Galleries, Dublin until 6 December 2014.

Except for Fig 2 all images ©The Artist.

Alison FitzGerald is a lecturer in the Department of History at Maynooth University.

1 Seamus Heaney, ‘Martin Gale’, in Nuala Fenton (ed.) Representing Art in Ireland (Cork: Fenton Gallery, 2008), 86.
2 Dennis O’Driscoll, “View to Vision,” in Aidan Dunne et al, Martin Gale Paintings (Royal Hibernian Academy: Dublin, 2004): 44-5.
3 Martin Gale in conversation with Alison FitzGerald, May 12, 2013.
4 As note 3
5 As note 3
6 For essays by Peter Fallon, Seamus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll see: http://www.martingale.ie
7 Martin Gale in conversation with Alison FitzGerald, May 12, 2013.

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