Powerful new paintings of musicians at the Sol Gallery, Dawson St., Dublin until Dec. 12th
Brian Vallely art launch, 26 Nov, 2015
Launch address by Dr. Fintan Vallely, Professor Adjunct University College Dublin, School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics
I am delighted to have been asked to launch this exhibition of the work of the Armagh painter JB (Brian) Vallely, not least because my field is music, what I know most about, and that is what his work is best known for addressing. At a first glance it is surely larg
e scale art, and I am reminded by that that I was taught drawing in
school by JB’s earliest mentor, his father John, also a painter, who showed us how to use the wrist and forearm in our nature-study copybooks, not just the last two joints of the fingers. I only became aware of this years later in UCD when my Botany tutor was intrigued that I filled the whole page with plant images instead of the customary postage-stamp-size miniatures being done by my colleagues.
This exhibition is indeed of bold painting: sweeping and dashing brush and palette strokes, without parsimony as regards paint, and assured in the finesse of its disposition. The work here follows on JB’s progress through the years – from compositional, abstract and semi abstract forms, to more figurative work which seizes the mood of the occasion from inside the head of the subjects. Only occasionally does the viewer seem to be drawn in, most notably in his Ó Riada theme “hosts of the air” where snapshots of music occasions were juxtaposed as if in the clouds; but that was the 1960s, a time when Traditional music was mostly experienced on the wireless.
This intense interest in and accordance of nobility and primacy to the act of performance has been followed though too in JB’s sports imagery – the road bowlers (‘bullet’ throwers) with their studied intensity, who are observed in the act of galvanising themselves, focusing, compressing and synergising their mental and muscular resources for the spring that delivers the one chance at a perfect throw. The heroes here too- as in JB’s music, are always capped, masculine icons. This is as things were, not of course as they have come to be, for music in particular is well populated by women in modern time. But since it is a fact that this painter simply ‘does men better’, so be it: his figures are representative of passion in an artform, not prescriptive models for it.
None of this fabulous expressiveness has the explicit, accountable detail of photo-realism; it is musicians at work – music being made. It is no more about age than it is about gender, but it is about intensity and process. More variety of strong colour is in evidence in his work today, but this entered cautiously – via thin strands of often primary colours, but massed and intertwined so that they eye mixes to a final impression as it does the strands in woven fabric. Today’s work has more courageous celebration and disposition of colours, to the same effect: it is a tapestry at times indeed, with Bayeux shadows recalled in some work of recent years, such as the celebration of the 1600s Flight of the Earls; this was not so much political idealism as symbolism, an Irishness / Gaelicness – representation of the moment at which the centuries-ongoing development of a culture was suddenly arrested by political climax. Indeed, aggression as such appears little in Brian’s work: there have been some soldiers, some coursing, the latter vivid in its finale. But his themes hold a solidly introspective intensity that implies the body performing acts of careful consideration and subtlety, underscoring that a performance is always valuable, if not momentous, since every performance is unique.
The new work here has shadows of the rough-hewn muscularity of William Conor’s Mayo dancers and accordionists, a regional subliminality perhaps that may trace to JB’s mother being from Ballyhaunis. But the ruralness suggested by his work does generally imply its subjects being “of the soil”, an earthiness and standard by which few or any of our associates do actually live today – or can be let live by society. In that sense the work is heedlessly but confidently idealistic. Overall, what comes through in the work is quite the antithesis of what late 1900s novelists have vividly observed and described in modern society – ennui, boredom, what the Egyptian writer Naguib Mafouz highlights as “irrelevance” in post-revolutionary societies which leads to loss of sight of one’s personal value, and self esteem. None of that is here, no hopelessness. The participants in this work of JB Vallely are classic ‘sophisticated amateurs’, what might be regarded as “inverted professionals” – a concept which is has been established via the cultural re-enfranchisement of Irish Traditional music which was made possible by the post-1951 revival, a statement which in the mouths of JB’s subjects might take the form of: “our music is valuable … what we do is of worth … culturally important … we are artistes …”
The work also displays definitions: in particular the uniqueness of that we call ’the session’, which is not at all the long-standing tradition it is often assumed to be, but a modern-time response first to emigration, then latterly in Ireland to the weighty implications and impelling force of ‘revival’. You see in these figures care only about WHAT they do – the blanked faces, averted gaze, the inward-facing circle, activities engaged in primarily if not totally for the performers/players themselves; they are ‘minds at work’ in music-making, gender is not an issue, they are in a dimension outside of everyday representative reality. This can be seen too over the years in JB’s runners and cyclists too as well as the bowlers: all have an over-riding sense of noble purpose: the drive of physical exertion, the ‘high’ of personal achievement, the consequent, debilitating physicality of it all lifted by collaborative activity – in the team of runners in a field of teams, the lone cyclist in the pack, each of whom and all of them a link in a linear pulse of spatial progress.
Runners, cyclists, musicians, singers, dancers – these are what the artist depicts so well. Not the officials, rule-makers, commentators, not even the observers, the sports’ consumers. He shows us those who make the sport, the art and and action: structured contexts, depicted movement, suggested sounds, impulses and motion in which the observer has the freedom to invest themselves. In that sense the art work reaches the peak of visual art’s democratic potential. The fundamental representation theme is also a vital achievement because today we live in an age where artistic and sporting activity can be dwarfed by a preponderance of backroom directive, controlling, often financially self-serving, debilitating structures generated outside of the actual activity, against which participants and the artists alike have to battle for survival .
These paintings are like lyric fiction, poetry, scientific exploration and historical unravelling. In and though them we see life freshly, we selectively re-invest our selves. And in response to the painter’s skill the canvasses’ messages and mediation can change with the light and with the times, expand, and will live on.