Selected reviews 

(English) Independent    12th January 1988

Micky Donnelly     Orchard Gallery, Derry     December 1987 

Just two more days to see Micky Donnelly’s luscious exhibition of paintings at the remarkable Orchard Gallery in Londonderry, shortlisted for last year’s Turner Prize.

Donnelly, a Belfast painter now in his mid-thirties, examines the realities, ideas and iconography behind the Troubles from both sides, exploiting the fact that many of the images are rooted firmly in both traditions, Catholic and Protestant. The lily, for instance, appears in many of his paintings, as the Protestant Orange lily, and the Easter lily, a Republican symbol, as well as the lily of peace, in a highly ironic juxtaposition of references.

In his painting of a phoenix and the bullet-holed hat of James Connolly, one of the main protagonists of the Easter Rising of 1916, the phoenix - used by the Provisional IRA as a symbol of progress through hardship - appears with its head in the clouds. And in a series of paintings of donkeys, he examines the romantic myth of the remote and beautiful west of Ireland as propounded by everyone from landscape painters such as Paul Henry to the Irish Tourist Board, and comments grimly on the tough reality of this unforgiving environment, and its poverty, for the people and animals that live there.

This sophisticated and witty re-examination of symbols is carried out with a lush and sensuous use of paint, colour and form that gives the paintings a vivid life of their own. Well worth seeing.

Hildi Hawkins


Artscribe International    May 1988

Micky Donnelly     Taylor Galleries, Dublin     March 1988

Not any old hat. Not any old lilies. Easter lilies they are, worn in Ireland to commemorate the Easter Rising of 1916. As for the hat, it's James Connolly's, the socialist leader executed by the British for his part in the events of 1916. You can see it, replete with bullet hole, in the National Museum, Dublin.

Micky Donnelly's paring down of the symbolic resources which militant Republicanism possesses to just two elements brings a mythic circuit of violence to the surface. The flowers arise, it would seem, out of Connolly's death. But this new life leads nowhere... Other than, short-circuiting, back to death, Connolly's included. A double elegy, then. Connolly has been murdered twice, the second time by those who imagine that his self-sacrifice was a mythic act of regeneration which literally returns in their sacrifice of self - and of others. Back to the earth. It mocks at the supposed mythic life of hat and lilies by simply having nothing to do with them.

For without a connection with nature, myth withers. The idea that such mythic cycles emanate from nature is revealed as the ground from which they spring. A ground of illusion. Plastic lilies. Donnelly has also dealt with Loyalist (i.e. Orange) lilies and with hats of the bowler, Orange Order, variety. But none of these works, included in his one man show at the Orchard Gallery, Derry, over the New Year, made it down to Dublin.

In the paintings on show - mainly hat and lily studies, interspersed with lilies on their own - the connectedness of myth is undone by the extreme disconnection within the figure/ground relation itself, i.e. between the two symbols (the figure) and the earth.

Donnelly, a Belfast-man who was seventeen in 1969 when Northern Ireland finally erupted, has in previous work done violent, new things to that house-trained animal, the figure/ground relation. The canvas became a war zone made up of two opposing forces. Spinning pots, amphoras of sorts, or pipes, one to a work, analogues all of the human body, are sucking us, with one aperture apiece, into their empty shells. Each a wondrous reduction of male and female bodies and desires, down to and into one swirling object which contrasts rawly in colour with its swirling, monochrome, ground. Sensation is absorbed by the pot - or whatever -  in a circular or elliptical movement of concentration, reduction, disappearance. The figure, i.e. the spinning object, even as it goes under, physically resists the ground.

The hat and lilies series sees political ideologies become visible, as mythic circles, which Donnelly reduces to circles in sensation. Hats and lilies, caught up in their own elliptical circuits, spin round and round, in total isolation from each other. Inside themselves so not inside a larger mythic whole. Like the pots of 1984/5. Though there are circles in reality (the latter represented here by Donnelly's undifferentiated ground), reality is not a circle.

Conor Joyce

 

Fortnight No.375 Supplement   December 1998

from The Work in Question: Painting and the Critical Void    

Micky Donnelly's 'Belfast Series' uses overt symbolism as a starting point. Iconic hand gestures, hats (whether Edward Carson's or James Connolly's), black gloves and images of the black rose litter these works. Symbols deliver meaning. In the 'Belfast Series', however, they appear strikingly hollow. Certainly they still resonate as encrusted rhetoric. But their setting ensures this density will recede. In 'Belfast Series (No.2)' for example, images of stacked hats are inlaid and overlaid upon other hat images. A cycle of myth within myth upon myth resounds to the effect that the significance of the initial symbol diminishes.

The symbols are sunk into a thickly layered surface of paint dashes, colourwashes, drip flows, scumbled pigment and aleatory marks. Meshed strips of plaster of Paris, themselves ripe with allusion, also contribute to the sense of depth. The paint marks register a layering of decision and chanced movement before silent space. These marks promise but never fully yield meaning. They point to the limits of understanding in as much as we retreat to the familiar in the face of the unknown. Yet this language of paint further silences depicted symbolism in as much as symbol is torn from familiar setting and re-contextualised. Caught in this void, only the visual potency of the painted surface can allay fear. But its lure and intrigue can only keep us hovering around the points of irresolution.

The strength of this work lies in an ability to tease and frustrate expectation at every point. It is as if wave upon wave of potential meaning will retreat slowly to expose the liminal. It is as if an aesthetics of Belfast can only be grasped by working through the visual detritus of the political landscape.

Gavin Murphy 

 

Circa No.81   Autumn 1997

Micky Donnelly    Reflex Series     Butler Gallery, Kilkenny     June - July 1997  plus National Tour

There could hardly be a more graphic demonstration of the shift in Micky Donnelly's way of making pictures than the contrast between the stark iconographic imagery of his Easter Lily and similar series, and the icon he chooses to treat in his "Reflex Series", the Rorschach inkblot. The point of the lily, or the other motifs he employed, were their culturally determined, constructed meanings, relentlessly pinned down as they were by their religious, political and historical positioning.                 

The point of the inkblot, of course, is its generative ambiguity, its infinite imaginative mutability. As the theory would have it, meaning is determined here by the processes of our own unconsciousness. If Donnelly is addressing the same areas of concern from a much more oblique angle (and we needn't assume that he is) we might infer that he's suggesting an alternative paradigm here: that people see things as they want them.

A progression in the work is further underlined by differences in treatment. A hitherto heavy, schematic form of representation has given way to a much more understated deployment of line, colour and texture. The canvases appear close to monochrome, with subtle shades of green and blue melting into creamy whites, pale yellows and a range of greys. The surfaces of the paintings are - literally, with collaged panels - gauzy, almost tender. This, too, suggests a more tactful approach to the business of making paintings.

No attempt is made to disguise the procedures used. What emerges is a continual interplay between chance and design. The symmetry of the random blots are set against stripe and dot repeat patterns. Besides the central inkblot shapes, other, similar, smaller shapes are, so to speak, seeded into the picture plane within the collaged squares or windows, which occasionally bolster the symmetry of the mirror image inkblots but more often offset it. On the one hand, we're free to read whatever we want to into the inkblots. On the other, there are constant reminders that we are looking at a constructed surface. There is a certain correspondence here with the work of a number of diverse textural painters, including Mark Joyce, Ronnie Hughes and Blaise Drummond.

It's worth noting that, while Donnelly's current work is in a way much more tentative than what went before, the effect is not at all of a growing uncertainty. The pictures are confidently and decisively made, and have a definite presence that belies the subtlety of their surface effects. The show marks what should prove to be a decisive stage in the artist's development.

Aidan Dunne

 

Irish Examiner   14th May 2004

Micky Donnelly    New Work    Vangard Gallery, Cork      May 2004

Micky Donnelly's new work (at the Vangard, Carey's Lane, Cork until May 22) consists of a series of 11 works in mixed media on paper entitled Notes From a Garden Shed, and four larger works on canvas which apparently belong to the same series, also relating to what may be found in a garden, but untitled.

This is extraordinary work, unusually beautiful in a strange way, consisting of layers upon layers of colour, pattern and texture, with pieces of fabric and pages of botanical drawings collaged into the whole, until it is hard to believe that so much could be happening on one piece of paper. The source of those images that can be deciphered is both the garden as seen in the natural world, and images drawn from flora used as motifs on fabric and wallpaper. These paintings work very much like abstract expressionist paintings, in that they catch a mood, a feeling - a kind of nostalgia - and yet they use identifiable images, among other things, while doing this.

Micky Donnelly was born in Belfast in 1952, and graduated from the University of Ulster in 1981 with an MA in Fine Art. He has received many awards and prizes, and was elected a member of Aosdana in 1996. A founder-member of Circa magazine of contemporary art, and of the Artists' Collective of Northern Ireland, he has had numerous one-person shows, and his work has been included in many prestigious touring exhibitions of Irish art. Donnelly's early work investigated specifically Irish iconography - the lily, the shillelagh, bowlers and bullet-riddled hats - and also took issue with the idealised landscapes of Paul Henry.

A move from Belfast to Dublin led to his Reflex series, which toured Ireland in 1997. Here he first began using a motif which apparently still influences his work, the Rorschach blots, a series of blots and stains devised by Herman Rorschach in 1921 for use in psychotherapy. His interest lay in what associations these shapes conjured up in the minds of his patients. The two large works on canvas, Untitled 12 and Untitled 14, each have a Rorschach-like shape (flower? spider?) superimposed as the top of many layers. The deepest layer is delicate, and intricately painted in pale colours. More Rorschach-like blots occur where reddish ink or paint has been allowed to run and seep. In addition, panels of fabric with a floral design have been collaged on to the canvas. Seen from a distance, the strong over-painting of the spider-flower shape dominates, while close-to you can spend hours separating out the layers.

The works on paper are perhaps even more remarkable in their multiple layers and strong impact. A limited range of faded colours - pale green, reds and pinks, a little brown, a little pale blue - contribute to the gentle, nostalgic feel of the work, while there is something wistful about the intimations of decay in their distressed surfaces. While the 'reading' of the many layers to analyse how the whole is made up can become obsessive, the works can also be enjoyed for the play of shapes, colours, textures and mood, although you never forget that their origin is in the natural world.

Alannah Hopkin

 

A Buyers’ Guide to Irish Art   2007      Invited Commentary

Landscape With Donkey‘s Feet (Henry's Dawn), I987 by Micky Donnelly.                                                                                                                Oil on canvas, I68 cms x168 cms.                                                                                                                                                                       Collection of the Department of Finance and Personnel, Northern Ireland.


When I first saw Micky Donnelly’s painting Landscape With Donkey‘s Feet (Henry's Dawn) in the window of the Arts Council's highly acclaimed exhibition ‘On the Balcony of the Nation‘ in 1993, I smiled and then laughed with pleasure. Apart from being impressed by the large scale of the canvas and the technical expertise displayed by the artist's handling of the paint surface, it was his compositional manipulation of the subject matter that impressed me most. The cheeky juxta-positioning of Paul Henry‘s iconic Dawn, Killary Harbour 1921 under the belly of an unkempt donkey was a welcome sight as it presented a timely challenge to the visual language and cultural politics so associated with Paul Henry and his contemporaries and their dominance of landscape painting throughout twentieth century Ireland.

My initial reaction to the painting was reaffirmed when I encountered the work for a second time later that year when it was included in the ‘Art of Works‘ exhibition. In the accompanying catalogue, Paula Campbell and Samantha Hill suggested that the “ill-treated and neglected donkey placed amid the idyllic scene points to the grim reality of rural existence in Ireland“, and that the painting “expresses the untruths which lie beneath the myth of Ireland”. Certainly, Donnelly’s work, exhibited alongside works by artists of an older generation such as Basil Blackshaw, Tom Carr, T.P. Flanagan, Jim Allen and Brian Ballard had an edgier, more interrogative slant on contemporary Ireland - one shared by fellow exhibitors Rita Duffy, Chris Wilson and Simon McWilliams (whose Red Cow 1992 included in this show, possibly owed something to Donnelly’s composition).

For me, Donnelly’s painting is about appropriation - the manipulation, exploitation and ultimately the devaluation of the imagery and concepts of both the artist and Ireland. Just as S.B. Kennedy asserts that Henry’s Dawn, Killary Harbour is ‘one of his most important works …a watershed…’ so is Landscape with Donkey’s Feet (Henry’s Dawn) a seminal work for Donnelly, painters and Irish art historians alike, for it marked in 1987, the beginning of a  practical and theoretical reassessment of the role and interpretation of land and its politics in the development of contemporary visual arts in modern Ireland. A reassessment recognised by academics such as Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith who has commented that “Micky Donnelly, Willie Doherty and Mick O’Kelly shared a critical, even subversive approach to the romantic depiction of a ‘poeticised’ Irish landscape favoured by many of the senior painters of an earlier generation“, and by Yvonne Scott who noted that Donnelly’s painting, included in ‘The West as Metaphor’ exhibition at the RHA in 2005, raised and questioned “the fiction of the imaging of Ireland”.

Donnelly’s painting highlights how easily the imagery of Henry’s idealised construct of the West has been appropriated and transformed from national essence to national stereotype. As Catherine Nash points out, “the celebration of the West as an archetypal landscape was part of an attempt to identify with a landscape which was a confirmation of cultural identity” and Paul Henry’s work, though not politically motivated, “became synonymous with the idealised programme of the new state”. With one of his landscapes selected “for the frontispiece of Saorstat Eireann, Official Handbook of the Irish Free State” (1932), and others based on scenes of Connemara and Donegal being used as posters by the LMS Railways to promote Ireland as a tourist destination from the 1920s, Henry’s work and imagery quickly became the accepted norm for the outsider’s vision of Ireland, as well as the gold standard for the native Irish landscape and its painters. The ubiquity of his imagery, particularly when equated with the whitewashed cottages and postcard donkeys of the tourist industry, ultimately debased Henry’s reputation and it is this that Donnelly’s Landscape With Donkey‘s Feet (Henry's Dawn) addresses.

Donnelly’s painting is not malicious, seeking to undermine Henry’s reputation (he genuinely likes/respects the original work), but he is concerned how the Irish landscape, and Henry’s paintings in particular, have been absorbed and drowned in the nostalgia for ‘the West’. In other works by Donnelly, Killary Bay (after Paul Henry) and Loch Altan (after Paul Henry), the outlines of Henry’s headlands and fjords, set alongside a donkey’s leg and a shillelagh, are totally submerged in a sea of green, and the original conceit of ‘the West’ has all but vanished. As Judith Higgins argues, Donnelly’s painting “takes aim at Ireland’s (and Irish art’s) sentimentality towards the land, reinstating the hardship and nature’s role as an adversary”. Donnelly’s donkey’s hooves are overlong and untended - like the land, it is taken for granted and neglected.

Like Mainie Mellett who, in 1942, exhorted the younger generation of artists to “open their eyes, to wake up, to produce work that at least had the characteristics of youth, energy and life, and to become creators, not bad colour photographers …”, Donnelly’s painting challenges both the generations of artists, past and present, who have been seduced by the easy aesthetics of Henry’s elegant, often anodyne and formulaic landscapes, and the viewer/audience for its complacency in accepting, even encouraging, their stereotypical responses that usually fail to address the contemporary cultural, political and territorial issues of land and national identity.

Whilst I admire the work of Paul Henry, I wouldn’t want the original Dawn, Killary Harbour at home - too pretty, too bland, but Donnelly’s Landscape With Donkey‘s Feet (Henry's Dawn) has a subversive wit that appeals immensely.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Amanda Croft                                                                                                                                                                                                        Teaching Fellow in the History of Art Department, Queen’s University, Belfast

E-mail:   hullbuilding@gmail.com                                                                                                                                                                                                           © Micky Donnelly 2016