Un Esprit Sauvage: feature by Frances Ruane

Irish Arts Review, 2011 Summer Edition.


Although Cormac Boydell’s exhibition of new ceramics at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris, revisits themes that have preoccupied him over the years, there are new twists and turns as the artist connects these ideas with the place where the show is taking place. Many of the wall pieces refer to Irish and French mythology as well as to older art and artefacts from both countries. The image of the bull has often appeared in his wirk but here the myth of Cuchulainn and the Brown Bull of Ulster collides with images inspired by the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux. Boydell expands the animal theme in another piece that depicts King Cormac MacAirt who, according to medieval Irish legend, was carried off and raised by she-wolves. This motif is echoed in La Bête du Gévaudan, the man-eating wolf that was an object of terror in 18th-century France.

    However, the majority of pieces in this show take their inspiration in various ways from predecessors in the visual arts rather than from myth. In one series Boydell reworks the blue and white Chinese-inspired porcelain that is so pervasive in the history of ceramic art: the Chinese imitated by the Dutch, who eventually were imitated by everyone else. Like many of hisIrish contemporaries, Boydell grew up surrounded by the ubiquitous Arklow Willow pattern. By drawing on this tradition, his blue and white pieces, often edged with gold, feel both familiar and new. The subject for these pieces are ‘landmark’ places in Paris and Ireland, the latter focussing on the dramatic coastline near his studio on the Cork/Kerry border. These recall another outdated convention: the commemorative plates of historic and scenic places that were frequently aimed at the tourist market. His images of places like Notre Dame and the Skelligs bring that tired, familiar and sometimes kitsch tradition back into the realm of art; the strength and fluidity of his drawing brings energy and freshness into each piece.

    Other works in the exhibition are overtly connected to French art - the ‘après Matisse’ series borrows compositions from paintings by the great master and reinterprets them in ceramics. While in France a few years ago, Boydell was bowled over by an exhibition of paintings by Derain and Matisse, particularly the looseness of the early Matisse pictures done in Collioure around 1905. The invitation for him to exhibit his own work in Paris triggered a renewed interest in these paintings, their linear quality having a natural connection to Boydell’s own style.

    With the current emphasis on originality, the tradition of appropriating motifs from past artists is often overlooked. More prevalent in Eastern art and in older Western art, it occasionally surfaces in more modern painting. Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe  overtly paraphrased a classical composition by Giorione. Manet’s unashamed appropriation of Titian’s Venus of Urbino  in his own painting, Olympia, had such an impact on Cézanne and Picasso that they both did their own parodies of Manet’s painting. Similarly amused by the idea of borrowing from the borrowed, the American artist Larry Rivers more recently did his own take-off of Manet’s painting. And van Gogh also embraced the idea of an interpretive copy. One just ha to look at his Hiroshige-inspired Flowering Plum Tree to how another artist’s work can be the starting point for improvisation. Boydell used the Matisse paintings as a starting point, simplifying each composition and adapting it to the tricky demands of ceramic glaze application. Gradually he improvised more freely around the original motif to create an homage to the master with its own distinct character.

    His robust handling of clay, with its irregular edges and handmodelled surfaces, enhances the work’s expressiveness. None of Boydell’s source material for his show is so richly tactile: the handling of clay and glazes is central to his art. Although the themes running through the exhibition have their origins in the past, the finished objects are shaped by Boydell’s distinctive contemporary style, which is fluid, quirky and full of humour.

©Frances Ruane HRHA, 2011.

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