For 20 years, the photo-realist work spanned 80ft in a shopping mall, says Colette Sheridan.
Although we’re halfway through it, leading Irish artist Robert Ballagh hasn’t earned a single euro in 2019. He says this to illustrate how difficult it is to work as an artist.
However, the Dubliner, whose work has included designing postage stamps and illustrating banknotes, is delighted that a mural he was commissioned to create, in the early 1970s, is being given a new lease of life as an installation at the Clonmel Junction Arts Festival (July 1-7).
Entitled People and a Frank Stella, the piece depicts life-sized, photo realist images of people looking at contemporary art. It was commissioned for the inner walkway in what was originally the Five Star Supermarket in Clonmel. It remained in the same location, as new stores replaced the original supermarket.
The panels, made out of formica and extending 80ft, were gifted to Tipperary County Museum in 1992 and conserved. The installation will be on display at the Showgrounds Shopping Centre in Clonmel as part of the town’s Junction Arts Festival. He will give a talk about the art piece.
It originated as part of a series of paintings of people observing modern art. “The series was questioning the role of contemporary art in society and the way it is displayed. It turned out to be quite successful, both here and abroad. It was in about thirteen shows in Europe. When I was asked to do the work, it was the biggest commission I had ever got, up to then.”
The depiction of people looking at the work of the American minimalist artist, Frank Stella, resonated with the public.
For the Clonmel Junction Arts Festival, about 12 panels will be exhibited. “There isn’t a space big enough to put up the full 80ft, but it will still be a big picture.”
Ballagh, who is currently working on a portrait commissioned by UCD, of cardiologist and Samuel Beckett scholar, Professor Eoin O’Brien, has had a successful career. He says that for young artists coming up, things are much tougher now than when he started off.
“There are less opportunities and much more artists. In my day, there were only a handful of art colleges. Now, there’s loads of them, turning out graduates every year.”
While Ballagh, now in his 70s, didn’t try to dissuade his daughter Rachel from becoming an artist, he says that, deep down, he worried that she was “going to do something that it’s almost impossible to make a living from. But she’s still at it.”
Ballagh didn’t formally train as an artist. He spent three years studying architecture at Bolton Street.
“Architecture training was very helpful. There can’t be many artists who have rolls of tracing paper and T- squares in their studios. I still would plan a picture, using a drawing board, a bit like how an architect plans a building.”
An admirer of Rembrandt and Vermeer, Ballagh values old-fashioned skills, now being revived, such as life drawing and a certain formalism. When it comes to communicating with the world, he keeps things simple.
“I don’t have a computer or a mobile phone. I’m an analogue person. I like things that I can understand, so if they go wrong, I can take fix them with a screw driver.
“I don’t like things that are a mystery. And I would be concerned about the digital world and kids watching porn by the time they’re twelve.”
For years, people gave out to Ballagh for not having an email address or a mobile phone number. “Now, they say I’m so lucky, because they find that they are slaves to technology.”