martin gale

Aidan Dunne

There is an overtly theatrical quality to Martin Gale’s early paintings, including the works that made up his first solo show in 1974, shortly after he graduated from NCAD. They are theatrical in the sense that they often feature individuals pictured at moments when they are absorbed in personal dramas, caught up in narratives implied by the pictures’ titles and details, though never elaborated. But they are theatrical in another sense as well, in that their landscape settings are highly stylised, simplified and flattened out, literally like stage sets. The figures inhabit a world of artifice. Somehow, overall, the feeling comes across that we are being offered autobiographical vignettes, recollected, mulled over, and imaginatively restaged.

It is, in fact, a template for how Gale has continued to make paintings ever since. Of course his work has evolved considerably in many ways. Fairly quickly, for example, the pronounced stylisation gave way to a much greater degree of naturalistic description. But the precise, even attention to appearances that characterises his method of painting engenders not so much realism per se as a sense of an enhanced, heightened reality. This has led to his being linked to photo-realism but, while he has always been open about using photographs as references in his work, he is not a photo-realist. He doesn’t recreate photographic effects and his paintings are not like photographs in any meaningful sense.

The relentless clarity of detail in his pictures also places them at a considerable remove from the muted, misty tonality characteristic of much Irish landscape painting. This is not to disparage such painting, which is a truthful reflection of the atmospherics of the climate. It’s just that, while he has made some small studies of the Waterford coast that explore the effects of softer light, Gale seems instinctively to favour the hard, watery light that comes with recent or recipient rain, the kind that gives and edge to everything.

While he is exceptionally attentive to visual accuracy, it is also true that, rather than ocular sensation, it is the reality of the world beyond fleeting appearances that fundamentally engages him. He tends to look at the character of both people and places with the eyes of a dramatist or novelist. That is perhaps why things are never quite innocent in his paintings. We can never relax into the picturesque because there’s always something else going on in terms of human content. It would be a mistake to take this quality too literally, to try and figure out the meaning of each painting in terms of a paraphrasable if not immediately apparent plot, as though it’s a whodunit waiting to be solved. Once we can solve the painting in that way we can effectively discard it, and it loses something of it’s power. In many cases the something else that is going on takes the form of an unspecified feeling of unease, an intimation that there is an ominous fragility or instability built into the fabric of existence.

Gale is a faithful reporter of the Irish rural landscape. That is to say, his Ireland is culturally heterogeneous, a haphazard, utilitarian place of old and new, of dull, grey heavy clouds laden with moisture, of long empty beaches and expanses of chilly sea, of waterlogged fields and drainage ditches, forestry plantations of massed conifers, dead winter grasses and the shocked electric greens of poor ground laced with nitrogenous fertilisers. We can intensely recognise all this, together with the jagged clumps of rushes sprouting from boggy soil, hard-angled, white painted bungalows and half-acre sites, the reality of one-off housing, and ribbon development, the Japanese four-wheel drives and rusty, abandoned wrecks, sodden bonfires and wet concrete, the pervasive dam and decay.

This inevitably sounds, in summary, negative, yet the paintings underline something that can be lost on Irish people themselves: there is a subdued, paradoxical beauty to virtually all of these things, even if, from a human perspective, merely maintaining a presence in a saturated landscape exposed to the relentless action of the weather uses up huge reserves of energy and will. More importantly, perhaps, Gale’s fidelity to the facts underlines the fact that the landscape in his work is invariably a social landscape, as social as the world in a Breughel painting, an environment in which people live their lives and deal with everyday experiences, with minor triumphs and setbacks, with the normal comforts, losses and regrets.

More, in his paintings the external world always bears a relationship to the inner lives of the people who inhabit it. This is not at all to suggest that he subscribes to the pathetic fallacy. It’s just that time an again we see individuals linked reflectively to the landscape. There is an obvious affinity here to romantic painting in general, and Casper David Friedrich in particular. The Weather in Mayo, in which the diminutive figure of a man, almost sunken in the boggy ground, gazes out over an unpromising-looking field beyond a ‘For Sale’ sign while, in the foreground, a bulldozer sits parked in the mud, with rain sweeping across everything, could be a rural Irish reworking of Friedrich’s ‘Wander Above the Mists’, and similar observations could be made of other of Gale’s paintings.

But it is surely fair to say that his characters do not experience moments of Romantic transcendence. It may be overstating the case to suggest that they are alienated from their environment, but certainly they are never quite at home spiritually, never quite comfortable or at ease. There is a sense of slight though definite estrangement, even though in most cases they obviously are, in a literal sense, at home. Here, the distinction between interior, domestic spaces and the external world is marked. The interior is a refuge, perhaps an extension of self. The external landscape is for the most part a formidable, forbidding realm, unyieldingly and implacably other. Often it is as if it’s inhabitants instinctively recognise that they are at odds with it, that it’s beauty is not, in the end, for them.

In different paintings Gale catches people at the point of relinquishing troubled pasts, contemplating the sharp fact of departures, dazed by arrivals, coveting the land, wondering, puzzled, dreaming, remembering. They are generally, that is to say, preoccupied with their own concerns. On the surface, nothing much is happening, but we know they are dealing with things unseen but implicit. And the idea of things unseen is always important. A girl covers her eyes in Hide and Seek while in the background the broken panes in a greenhouse suggest disquiet; a boy is blindfolded in Indoor Games, facing outwards but still oblivious to domestic secrets in the wider world beyond; the ominous note in a view of an uninhabited expanse of forestry is crystallised in the title, indicating what we do not see: Missing Person, a sailor gazes out to sea but his view is for us blocked by an obtruding wall; the ‘Sleeper’ is adrift on a turbulent sea of dreams, visualised in the restless folds of agitated sheets; a landed boats sits against the unbroken surface of an expanse of water, beneath which lurks the untold story of what separates the figures in the background. Time and again in work that is acutely attentive to both surfaces and what is beyond the surface, Gale displays an uncanny knack for encapsulating quintessential aspects of life in rural Ireland – and hence of life itself.