The Real World
In the beginning was – a cabbage head. Not just any cabbage head, you understand. But one proud of its very being, it’s position and standing in the world. It’s veins, the tips of its broad leaves curling just so. I see them still though – impossible! It’s more than thirty years since I first encountered and became enthralled by the work of Martin Gale. For more than three decades his entries into the essence of things and places have displayed the signature of meticulous art and have been a treasured part of my life.
Indeed there are paintings by Martin Gale, which have become part of the image-store of a generation, as familiar to us as family photographs. I can’t believe, for example, that I have not been to wherever his ‘Tennis in the Mountains’ (1977) is set, that I didn’t play on that court. And I’ve still got to convince myself that his ‘Hide and Seek’ (1981) isn’t really a painting of our home in County Meath, with the roof and gable of our house peaking over the garden wall, with Frank’s hill in the background and the decayed greenhouse run-to-seed walled garden where we keep the horses and donkeys… And all this despite the fact that Martin’s never been to Loughcrew though more than a dozen Christmas cards promise ‘maybe next year!’ Where this painting is I don’t know, but when the watercolour study of it (without the girl, hands over eyes, in the foreground) appeared in an auction some years ago, I had to have it. Martin’s watercolours, incidentally, are seldom given due praise. In what he recognises as an ‘unforgiving’ medium, in which one who exercises such control in oils is loosed to the mercy of materials he has achieved glorious effects. They have the glow of a lightening strike. (All that said, I wonder sometimes if I have imagined the cabbage.)
Much has been made of the dramas inherent in Martin Gale’s paintings – the palpable strains they embody. The bicycle leaning against the fencepost in ‘Bus Stop’ (1981) suggests all kinds of questions, nags us for answers. From the mood of the boy on the motionless swing in ‘Outsider’ (1981) to the intrigue of ‘Sonny’s Day’ (1980), it’s central character in his Sunday clothes, carefully treading the rutted track, his mix of sheep huddled in the corner, from the figure on the edge of town in ‘The Ties that Bind’ (1996), standing in a roadside field – unusual for it’s lack of ditch or fence – and clearly a division between them, to another carefully planned composition, the sinister ‘Leaving’ (2001), in which one man has his back to the wall while the other – gloved – is stealing off stage eyes downcast – each of these is pregnant with tension. His people are isolated and desolate as Hopper’s. Again and again, they are lost in separate thoughts. Indeed it’s their exclusion from dialogue or social interaction, which intensifies their participation in that other conversation, the one with us, as viewers. Even in the aforementioned ‘Tennis in the Mountains’, where the protagonists actually face each other, there is a net between them and they are competing, while the men on the sidelines have nothing to do with the game, engrossed as they are in their own affairs. As much as for these vignettes, his narratives’ local rows, Martin Gale’s work is distinguished by its attention to apparently unprepossessing parts – his ‘Scarecrow’ (1981) lingers on a stunted tree, a mishmash of outbuildings and a rusting field gate – (who has painted corrugated iron and galvanise better than Martin Gale? Who paints the still water of puddles and gathers better than he? Or, for that matter, who paints as well as he does crumpled textures, be they a buckled oil drum, ‘Outback’ (1980), or the crumpled sheets of ‘Sleeper’ (1988) – while the raw gravity block wall behind ‘The Glasshouse’ (1981) would be considered too lowly a subject for many painters. Who else has found room for JCB’s and cement mixers and the real world of housing developments crowning the hill in the background?
Perhaps it’s this that I value most in Martin Gale’s work, his continuing evolution of style and vision. By eschewing it’s romance and nostalgia, he has helped to redefine the genre of landscape. In new paintings, and in particular his Mayo suite, a documentary accuracy is matched by a moral concern. This work faces up to the complexity of mans habitation of open spaces and his mark on the natural world. It succeeds in demythologising a version of Ireland spawned in the albeit serene and beautiful work of, say, Paul Henry, whose images especially became the image of Ireland but persisted long after they reflected any reality. Hard to imagine then that Martin Gale was alive, a boy nearly ten, when Paul Henry died, so different is their Ireland, and their art.
His work differs from the impulses and attentions of outstanding younger painters, like Bernadette Keily, whose conscious attempts to make the landscape abstract focus on simultaneously intangible and powerful forces – fire, smoke, the movements of cloud – or on persistent fragilities, bog cotton and gorse; or Mary Lohan, whose unpeopled, marvelous sea studies are, in effect, renderings of the outer and inner weather. Rather, Martin Gale – and Barrie Cooke, and Nick Miller (all three English born) – engage with the environment in instructive ways. By showing us how it really is – Barrie Cooke’s exquisite algae designs, Nick Miller’s spaces transgressed by power lines and posts – they suggest how it might and probably should be.
As a writer, a countryman, I feel a deeper affinity with these artists work than do with most Irish writers. Their responses to the physical world don’t abrogate responsibilities. They know in their bones that nature has rights, and we have duties. No wonder It pleased me so much that Martin adopted and adapted, one of my poems, ‘The Lost Field’, as a title and theme for a show in Cork in 2002.
His is a brave art: it has the courage of its own convictions. This is part of its necessity; part of what confirms him as a major realist. Its validity and value are guaranteed for a reason the American poet William Stafford pinpoints in ‘Bi-focal’:
So, the world happens twice –
Once what we see it as;
Second it legends itself
Deep, the way it is.*
*Stories That Could Be True
New and Collected Poems (Harper and Row, NY 1977)