Martin Gale is the only professional painter from whom I ever took a lesson. Not that he knew I was among his students. And not that I wanted to learn how to paint. I was in class to learn how he painted. Having heard that the artist would be conducting a post-Christmas workshop for children at the National Gallery, I sneaked into the back row of the crowded room. Too old to be one of the class, too young to be one of the proud dads, what brought me there that distant December afternoon was sheer enthusiasm for his paintings: a hunger for some insight into how he worked and how he managed to transmute casual, ditchback observations into permanently arresting images which defied the eye to stray.
To watch Martin Gale painting a cockerel's head in the National Gallery, refining oils into an oil-spill rainbow of feathers, was fascinating; and what it revealed, above all, was the artist's intensity, his total absorption in his art. He didn't crow over his dazzling achievement. He didn't strut artistically about. He encouraged the marker-daubed children to watch and copy but never once did he pander or play to them. He was expertly at work - to facilitate copying, the emerging image had been segmented into squares, as if the fowl awaited a mad chef's carving knife rather than a gifted painter's palette knife - and nothing could distract or disturb him. This was performance art of the most modest and instructive kind.
I recognise in all of the highly distinctive stages of Martin's artistic development the tireless concentration which he displayed so masterfully that Christmas among the masterpieces of the National Gallery. He sees not only what is in front of his eyes but also sees through and beyond those sightings, evoking the scene behind the scene: some aspect of a life or a landscape that has been tainted or haunted, blighted or bypassed, redeemed or transformed. I think of his work as super-realist more than photo-realist - at least in the strictly literal sense of taking us beyond reality, conveying hints of the ineffable in a suggestive wisp of wood smoke or the ominous bend of a lonely back-road. Each painting is an original in every respect: a discovery, an exploration, a revelation for both artist and viewer. Nothing in this oeuvre is ever settled but it can be deeply and profoundly unsettling.
Martin Gale lays to rest some of the more hackneyed conventions of Irish painting. His West of Ireland has evolved from báinín cap to baseball cap. And it seems that the last thatch-coloured object remaining in a district once dotted with traditional cottages is a mechanical digger plonked in a Mayo bogscape. One suspects that the digger's drainage or building works will inflict architecturally and environmentally damaging wounds; that - before the painting is dry - the foundations of yet another untraditional bungalow will have been laid. Sceptical and ironic though their gaze can occasionally be, these paintings never preach; they quietly observe and absorb and record. If the fields are squelchy wet and the whole countryside porous, Martin will treat the scene as lavishly as if it were a Caribbean sunset, letting the shimmering liquefaction of a pink rain mac (worn by a woman walking her dog) contrast with the tawny tones of a shivering, sodden, comfortless winter landscape. And what a cold eye for winter he has, for the bare bough, the semi-deserted strand, the forlorn thorn, the rain-grouted flagstone, the waterlogged field, the putrid phosphorescence - you can almost smell it - of a decaying ditch.
Most of Martin's locations are populated (however sparsely) or they reflect human habitation in some oblique way. One of his great contributions has been his response to an Ireland which is largely ignored by artists: the landscape that is cultivated and peopled too long to qualify as wilderness and yet is too rural to be called suburban (coinage is tempting: rururban? subrural?). This is the territory of the Sunday trek, the forest park, the trout-fishing expedition, the four-wheel drive, the ewe premium farm. The land has been tilled and grazed for generations; the hill fields that gently ascend the horizon are neatly fenced and chemically fertilised. Increasing affluence brings the pick-up truck, the grandiose hacienda, the commuter housing estate with the pompous incongruous name. But, beyond the taming influence of human settlement, the soil retains dark secrets and long memories which - through mood, texture, atmosphere and exquisite attention to detail - Martin Gale captures lyrically in paint.
As befits a painter who has lovingly and unsentimentally portrayed children, he is a subtle storyteller and a very absorbing one. The titles of the paintings, like their contents, are immediately intriguing: 'Strait is the Gate', 'I Remember Vaughan Williams', 'Missing Person', 'Laying Ghosts', 'The Ties That Bind'…. Like good short stories, the works themselves prefer to tantalise than to explain; they spark the viewer's imagination but they don't dictate its direction; they illuminate but they never merely illustrate; they have a story to tell but they are (wisely) not spelling it out. If the still life paintings seem somewhat reserved, this is a strength - because the viewer is granted ample space in which to draw on his or her own reserves of associations and memories; to contemplate the depicted objects simply as objects or to weave elaborate stories around them. Like his landscapes and his swift and supple watercolours, the still lifes are part of a long tradition but are not bound by any convention. A Martin Gale work is instantly recognisable as his alone.
In one of his finest recent paintings, 'Coming Storm', the black clouds above the scene are at breaking point; their killjoy shadows - already smearing the screen of trees and the tangle of summer grass below - are hell-bent on eliminating everything radiant in their path. Pitched in the centre of the field, a storm-taunted marquee tent (the gaiety of its stripes at odds with the sour mood of the weather) is like a girl in a summer dress about to be trapped in a downpour. Any second now, the rain will be heard tapping its hollow fingers on the tent and the jeep parked alongside it. What was installed with high hopes (for use as the tea-tent at a country show perhaps) is clinging to the ground for all it is worth, its fabric billowing, its ropes tense, its dress ruined...
The poignancy and vulnerability of the tent epitomises the timeless human drama we are witnessing: it suggests how easily our dreams can be threatened, our hopes thwarted, our expectations dampened. Yet the strain in 'Storm Coming' (might there be a playful personal significance in the fact that the elements of this masterwork include canvas and a gale?) is offset by a counterbalancing defiance. As with any crisis, personal or artistic, the storm must be weathered. Calm will be restored eventually; the tent will be pegged optimistically back in place next summer when the time for the event comes round again. The show - like life, like art - goes on.
Only when I moved house a few years ago, to a 'lost field' location in Kildare, half-way between where Martin Gale grew up and where he now lives, did I realise how deeply his narratives had lodged in my consciousness, how precisely he had caught the timbre - not to mention the timber! - of this area. Exploring the bushy back-roads, surveying the sinewy outlines of sheep-nipped hills and forest-furred mountains from my upstairs window, responding to a nuanced landscape that is neither idyllic nor drab, spectacular nor bland, 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 in even its most mundane features: the flaking gate, the smouldering farmyard barrel, the rainy rutted lane. Having earned his own firm foothold by patiently painting his way through every individual blade of grass, he conferred on me - as a house-warming and heart-warming handsel - an amplified sense of place; instead of a mere view from my window, his example yielded something closer to a vision. After long soul-searching about where to live, I knew I had made the right move this time. The place I had chosen felt like home from the very start. I had become a figure in a Martin Gale landscape and there was nowhere else I would prefer to be.
- Dennis O'Driscoll