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Kennys since 1940

Maps & Prints

Metamorphosis

Exhibition of Paintings & Monoprints
by Padraic Reaney
Sep 22nd - Oct 20th 2000

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Exhibition Notes - Barbara McKeown

Exhibition Notes - Michael D. Higgins

Exhibition Notes - Desmond MacAvock

Opening Speech by Jeff O'Connell

Yesterday morning I spent almost two hours talking with Padraic Reaney, whose wonderful exhibition I have the privilege of introducing this evening, at his lovely, secluded house near Moycullen. We talked about everything under the sun the impressive megalithic temples on Malta that inspired him some years ago; the revulsion we both felt at the way the pathetic remains of Egypt's pharaohs are displayed in glass cases in museums throughout the world; the symbolism of bees; and the lovely Charles Lamb that hangs on one of the walls of his house. The one thing we didn't talk about at least not very much is the work that features in this exhibition.

Instead, I looked at the work in the artist's studio, in the forge where these extraordinary images were made. "Looking a marvellous thing of which we know but little," the poet Rilke once wrote. "Through it we are turned absolutely towards the outside, but when we are most of all so, things happened in us that have waited longingly to be observed; and while they reach completion in us... their significance grows up in the object outside."

And it struck me once again how presumptuous, how almost insulting it is, to ask an artist to talk about his work. As Francis Bacon, who has made a considerable impact on Padraic Reaney, once exasperatedly declared, "It's always hopeless to talk about painting one never does anything but talk around it." For the artist's language is shape, form, structure, colour, and much more besides, and it is through the imaginative use of this language that the artist 'says' whatever it is he or she has to say. And Padraic Reaney has, over the years, had much to say, and he has had invariably said it with grace and eloquence.

I was a great admirer of his work quite some time before I came to know him. I sensed a great love for the forms, the textures, the colours, and the burgeoning life, of the natural world. I also loved his approach to landscape, and the way he conveyed both its solidity and antiquity but also the way humanity dwells in, making his mark, whether through the organic structuring of its fields, or those things humanity as creator, as artists, makes to complement and complete it.

I am thinking of that sequence of works done on the Aran Islands a few years ago, in which he situated sited early Christian churches, megalithic tombs, ancient forts, the immemorial patterns of field walls. Some of the works from that sequence struck me with particular forcefulness; these displayed the interior, the deep structure, of the limestone pavements, into which he had 'sunk', like artesian walls, the lines of the churches on the surface, suggesting that these surface constructions from the hands of the builders, were only drawing out, as it were, the 'implications' of the landscape itself.

For this new exhibition, Padraic has hit upon something wonderful the phenomenon of metamorphosis, which, according to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), refers to "the action or process of changing in form, shape, or substance, especially" the otherwise sober and scholarly compilers of the dictionary add "transformation by magic or witchcraft". And we might recall that in alchemy, this precursor of chemistry, the key to the mysterious of nature, the so-called 'great work' of this symbolic science, was metamorphosis of nature, both outside of us, and within.

The great poet we might say, the great 'theologian' of metamorphosis was the first century Roman author, Ovid, whose masterpiece is called simply 'Metamorphosis'. Ovid retells the old stories of gods and heroes, delicately illustrating his theme by showing how their fortunes, good or bad, were examples of one of the primary laws of existence.

"Nothing retains is form; new shapes from old
Nature, the great inventor, ceaselessly
Contrives. In all creation, be assured,
There is no death no death, but only change
And innovation; what we men call birth
Is but a different new beginning; death
Is but to cease to be the same."

And in a passage that could be a commentary on several of Padraic's paintings in this exhibition, Ovid writes:
"Note how the offspring of the honey-bee,
Sealed in their wax six-sided cells, hatch out
Mere limbless maggots, then in course of time
Acquire their legs, in course of time their wings."
All things are subject to metamorphosis:
"We too ourselves, who in this world are part,
Not only flesh and blood but pilgrim souls"

So Padraic has chosen or perhaps was chosen by a great theme. And he has handled it with his characteristic grace and insight. He has really looked at metamorphosis as it is displayed in nature, rendering with great delicacy and inspired perception the transformation of wasps, bees, and that creature which has been both a visible sign of transcendence and paradoxically an equally profound instance of transience: the butterfly.

One thing you will already have been struck by in the oils, and prints, and watercolours in this exhibition is their stunning colours: the stunning reds of In the Nest; the beautiful seductive greens gloriously set off against a swooping river of gold of Queen I; Metamorphosis (Bee II), where we can watch the stages of transformation taking place before our eyes; and a revelation particular to this new show the superb coloured monoprints, in particular Nest Site.

I have mentioned Francis Bacon already. And it is no secret that Padraic's imagination has been richly fertilised by some of the techniques of this powerful artist. In particular this is evident in the way Padraic situates his images of bees, hives, gestating butterflies and wasps against a background of strong undifferentiated colours, most strikingly, perhaps, in Queens and Metamorphosis (Butterfly II).

The effect of this is to focus the attending eye on the central image, giving it almost a feeling of weightlessness, as if the image is floating in space. This has the consequent effect of highlighting the detail and delicacy of the image, while also emphasising the spectacular changes belonging to the different stages of metamorphosis and what they are aiming at the creation of order out of chaos and dissolution.

Goethe wrote that "the most beautiful metamorphosis within the inorganic realm occurs when the amorphous changes into what has form"; the same thing can be said about organic transformation, where the caterpillar is literally dissolved in a kind of 'soup' prior to being rebuilt into the beauty of the butterfly.

One of the interesting things Padraic did say about the work in this exhibition is that the seed of it was done as long ago as 1982. He showed me a painting on his wall that resembles Metamorphosis (Bees), that I had initially thought was going to be part of this show. But, he told me, it had been done many years ago. And only when he began thinking about this current show did the seed suddenly start to grow.

I expressed astonishment at the distance in time between the prototype on the wall and the work in Metamorphosis. And then suddenly it hit me: what could be more appropriate for a show with such a theme than that the very process of creation was a prime example of how metamorphosis itself worked.

Here we have an artist with a delicacy of vision, an attunement with the natural and human worlds, who does exactly what the true artist is meant to do: to be a kind of oculist who adjusts our perception, and once the treatment is complete, says to us: now look! And behold, we see the world we know, ordinarily coated with that 'film of familiarity' that occludes vision, as something fresh, exciting, revelatory.

We owe such artists and Padraic Reaney is one of them an unrepayable debt of gratitude for having cleansed the doors of perception through a kind of magic, an alchemical magic that transforms us as well as our world.

Jeff O'Connell



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