A new form of beauty

Guggi still gets asked about his rock’n’roll past, but it’s his art that occupies him now, writes Alan O’Riordan

ON A stormy Dublin afternoon, the stillness of the Kerlin Gallery is amplified: a calm space in which to contemplate both the beautiful and the mundane. Or, rather, the mundane made beautiful. Guggi’s new exhibition is full of the familiar still-life images that have become almost a trademark: simple shapes of bowls and jugs, taken out of everyday settings and transformed into symbols.

While the viewer may ponder the universal associations of a jug transformed into art, for the painter, the meaning is more personal. “These old jugs, my grandmother had them on a shelf in her kitchen,” he says in his rich and raspy voice, pointing to one of the paintings. “I just saw these jugs as the ugliest things. They weren’t made to be beautiful. I hated the design: it was dark, it was of the past. But then I started collecting a couple because I began seeing them as something beautiful. It just becomes part of one’s vocabulary. It’s what words are to a poet, it’s just my vocabulary.

“People look at this and see this childlike jug and a bowl, but that only takes up about three percent of the painting. There’s a huge amount in it, but these become the foreground of the painting.”

The Kerlin show is Guggi’s first in Dublin for four years. In between he’s been to London, New York, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Monaco. “And I’ll continue to do that,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in showing in other countries, but, yeah, it is incredibly special for me to show in Dublin, to have an opening with all your friends there.”

Almost as a reminder of who those friends are, we are interrupted by a man looking for a photograph. He’s a fan going back to Guggi’s other life: as a member of the Virgin Prunes, the Gavin Friday-led post-punk outfit. Guggi was in the band for six years, and, as he says himself, was a painter before, during, and after those years. Yet, the association serves as something of a pigeon hole.

One reason for this is that music is easier to talk about than abstract art, but, nonetheless, it’s easy to imagine an artist bridling at the overemphasis on a small window in his creative life; if that’s the case for Guggi, he hides it well.

“The Virgin Prunes, for me, was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had,” he says. “I painted as a young child, it’s something I spent a huge amount of time doing. Then in secondary school I loved still life, composition, learning how light hits an object, how it casts shade and so on. I think this was something I had a real passion for way before the Virgin Prunes ever started. Then we formed the band. What we wanted to do was bring music and the visual arts together. That was the idea — and performance, makeup and costume was my main contribution. I was very much coming in as the visual artist.

“But it is a tough route, leaving a punk band and announcing that you’re going to be a full-time painter. People are not going to take that too seriously, so you’ve got a lot to prove.”

By longevity and success, Guggi has proven any doubters wrong. His pieces now often command five-figure sums. Guggi’s career has progressed, almost in line with the Irish art market, from small beginnings, through the boom years of intense demand.

“Before the so-called Celtic Tiger I was selling well. “But during the Celtic Tiger I had a long waiting list of people looking for work, which I simply could not produce. I wasn’t going to turn into a factory, I was doing what I wanted to do. It went from being able to make a living to an incredible feast. Now, as we all know, it’s a bit of a famine, but you take the good with the bad. This is where I live, this is where I work and I hope I can afford to stay here.”

Guggi lives and works is in south Dublin, where his studio is adjacent the home he shares with his wife, artist Sibylle Ungers, five children, and six dogs. That home life reveals itself as we continue our tour of the exhibition, in a collection of collage prints: images and odd bits of offprint with Russian lullabies on them.

“I get my boys to print out anything I’m interested in from the internet, and these sheets are always around the place, lying on the studio floor. I’d pick up the nearest piece to test a colour, or a wash. Slowly they would change, you’d walk on them, the dogs would come in and run over them, they’d start falling apart in some cases. I always thought they were beautiful in their own right.”

What’s printed on these sheets of paper is a repeated motif: Russian texts. It’s not the meaning that is Guggi’s prime focus — although all of Psalm 100 appears in one painting — but the Cyrillic script itself. For an observer who doesn’t read Russian, the effect is to defamiliarise the written word, to make you stop and think about its arbitrariness.

But, again for Guggi, it’s about memory. “It’s something that goes back to childhood. I was brought up in a very strict Evangelical church, and when we were kids we would have preachers talking about what would happen to you if you were caught trying to smuggle Bibles in behind the Iron Curtain. Then you’d come across black and white stills, or pieces on the television and you see this bold writing ... I found it incredibly scary. I had this picture of the USSR that I learned as a child. So, I found it visually very powerful. I think it’s that emotion I’m using, trying to relate that.”

There is a final reminder in the collages that the Prunes years remain fully attested in a show that draws heavily on the artist’s past: two pictured mannequins.

“These were props we used for the Prunes. Myself and the boys were walking past Brown Thomas — then Switzer’s — and there’d been a fire and there were skips outside with damaged stuff in them. These mannequins had been burnt, but were still wearing clothes. We took them, put makeup on them, and we used them as props.”

Thinking back on the band he left almost 29 years ago, Guggi adds: “It’s a little slice of my painting life. Painting was really the only thing I wanted to do. I was shit at everything else. I wouldn’t have had much confidence as a kid, but when it came to painting, I knew I was good. Had I not had that, I wouldn’t be here now.”

*Guggi shows at the Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, until February 23

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