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Kennys since 1940

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Back to Basics

Exhibition of Bronze Sculptures and Drawings
by John Behan RHA
Sep 1st - Sep 22nd 2000

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Remarks made by John Quinn at The Opening of "Back to Basics" by John Behan R.H.A. on 1st September 2000 At The Kenny Gallery

I begin with the Blacksmiths Forge, an experience common to many in this room and to many who are of a particular vintage, and from a rural background. There were two in my own village. I always found them dark and forbidding places, full of smoke and smut and steam. Seamus Heaney captured the forge perfectly in a poem that opened with a wonderful line "All I know is a door into the dark" and he went on to describe the unpredictable fanfare of sparks, and the anvil where the blacksmith extends himself on the altar of shape and music. It creates a wonderful image of the blacksmith being the high priest. Everytime I look at John Behan I get that sense there is something of a druid about him. He has that look of a high priest. The reason I mention the forge is that one of John's teachers, one of the formative influences in his life is a man called Paddy McElroy who was a blacksmith, and, who taught him how to structure metal into expressive pieces of artwork. Just to say with the forge for just a minute and the language of metal sculpture, to forge, to fuse, to cast, to temper, to weld and to mould, for me it has a lot a sexual connotations. It suggests a kind of virility, fertility and union, and again when I look across at John Behan. He has that look of potency. You thought I was going to say bullish, well alright he has a bullish look but not the dot com bullish or as they would say in Connemara the punc com bullish. The virility, the power, the continuity and the wonderful bulls are all about you here.

The title of this exhibition, "Back to Basics" could equally be called "Back to Bulls". I did an interview with John for the series 'My education' in which he told me that the first thing he ever made was a bull. He grew up in the Sherriff Street area of Dublin and he created a wonderful image for me of when you'd see the exported cattle on the way to the boat, wonderful mass of cattle on the hoof on the way down to the docks. He compared it to Kansas City in the 1860s. How times have changed. We still have cattle on the hoof but standing at the Point we have a different kind of hoofing. River dancing. Dancers who are also being exported all over the world. It is a rapidly changing world and in such a world uncertainties and discontynuity makes us a little bit uneasy. There's a scene from a play by George Bernard Shaw called 'Back to Methuselah' which is set in the garden of Eden. Adam is depressed bu life's uncertainty, life is uncertain, love is uncertain. "Have you a word for this new misery ?" he says to the serpent. The serpent replies 'fear, fear, fear'... "Have you a remedy for it ?" 'Yes, hope, hope, hope'... We link uncertainty with fear but it is the foundation of hope. We may fear the great mass of the bull and its threatening power but we are equally in awe of it and reassured by its solidity, its firmness and indeed its virility. It is a symbol of hope and boy, do we need hope in this modern day Bull Island which is bulging with back handers and brown envelopes and awash with Ansbacher accounts.

The Famine Ships are here two, behind me one which reminds me of the one that moved us all so much and eventually became the major sculpture at Croagh Patrick. I was so affected by the original Famine Ship, in my eulogy I wrote a poem, the next time I saw it, it was taped to the table in here beside the ship, it was not what I intended it was a very personal reaction but typical reaction. There are other Famine Ships like this wonderful Maquette of the piece that is now in the United Nations in New-York and will be unveiled on the first of December. But what a different Famine Ship, all of those huddled masses are still on board but look at the immigrants stepping off, the wonderful courage the way they carried themselves stepping off. There's new hope in the new dawn that awaits them.

So we have the Bulls, we have the Famine Ships, we also have a certain amount of the other animals. I am referring now to the beasties. Mr Mc Ginty's Goat is there, there is also a nanny goat and a couple of others. John is a much travelled man. He travels in the body as well as in the mind. His travel affects his work, for instance these wonderful dwelling places he has created Greek dwellings and desert dwellings, which are to me a new side of him. To come back to the boats and the ships and around the corner there is our friend Icarus. Beloved by many artists. This exhibition is really all about the voyage, the attempt to be free, and about hope. John has recently turned 60, a major landmark in anyone's life and I get a sense in this exhibition that he is returning, he is going back. Hence, the title. There is a sens of freedom, a sense of loosening out, no doubt he is experiencing that wonderful freedom of mature years. In one sense you don't give a damn, you hang loose. As Seamus Heaney puts it, "You let go, let fly, forget, you have listened long enough, now strike your note". In another sens John is giving one almighty damn in striking his note, in extending fields of earlier work. Work that speaks to us individually. By pure coincidence when I was trying to assemble these few notes, there was a page on my desk which had an excerpt from lines by a Northern poet John Hewitt. He wrote, "I write for my own kind, I do not pitch my voice, that every phrase be heard, on those who have no choice, where quality of mind must be withdrawn and still, as moth that answers moth, cross the roaring hill." At an opening like this, we are all happily enjoying a drink, and it is easy to enjoy the exhibition but I think we should come back, be with John, be still, and listen to what these works are saying. We need to listen. There is a very interesting introduction to this show by Fred Johnston, and I quote one short paragraph. "We muddle through a daily world where no icons live; no primitive (in the best sense) images remain or speak to us. We have lost, therefore, part of language and our voice as participants in the world has dropped tone by tone until it is almost inaudible above the clack of keyboards and the hysterical sing-song of mobile "phones". Now, we'll drink to that.

Only last week, I did an interview with a very eminent man of letters, Dennis Donoghue, probably one of our most respected literary critics. It began as it was supposed to, an overview of the last millennium's literature, but then it went off in a diferent direction, which fascinated and intrigued me. We began talking about how literature and language had become marginalised, and no longer as central in our lives as they were. Interestingly he too used the phrase "The need to go back to basics." He was talking of the need to teach people how to read. I don't mean the abc but about how to teach post graduate students, on now to approach a story, a chapter, a sentence or whatever. In his going back to basics John Behan restores to us those icons and images that speak to us and restored us, in the process. This helps us experience the shape and the music which comes from the older and the highland priests. In going back to basics John has restored to us a wonderful world, a world full of wonder, so I invite you to step beyond that door into the dark. Be not afraid, be withdrawn and still, keep an open mind about this place, these works that speak to us. We must all just listen.

John Quinn

Goats, Bulls & Doves

Over at the Kenny Gallery John Behan’s show Back to Basics was opened by the broadcaster John Quinn on Friday. Behan is now probably Ireland’s best known sculptor, particularly because of his Famine Ship memorial at the foot of Croagh Patrick. I’ve been a fan for a long time, and the title of the present show means just what it says. Here you’ll find all Behan’s favourite subjects revisited, from bulls to goats to ships – the doves, flights of which were among his most striking early work, are now more sedately perched at home in their columbarium. Which may or may not say something autobiographical.

John Quinn (of The Open Mind on RTE radio) gave an excellent opening speech, reminding his audience of the musicality of the sounds from the blacksmith’s forge, and that of the bronzes created by the artist. He reminded us that the bull was the first image John Behan ever cast, and how that figure symbolises both fear and its counterpart, hope: fear as in awe, destructive power; hope as in virility, potency, faith in the generation of the future. Then there are the famine ships and the more optimistic immigrant pieces, in which people are walking down gangplanks, having survived a hazardous voyage, to make a new life in a new world.

And just in case all this seems too solemn, remember that John Behan has a vast sense of humour. The No.1 piece in the catalogue, which you can see here, is Paddy McGinty’s Goat. Go on, walk in and look. It won’t cost you a penny.

The Tuam Herald
Saturday, September 9th 2000

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