Hughie O'Donohue's art is down to earth

Artist Hughie O'Donoghue

THE sublime terrain of Erris, Co Mayo, has informed the paintings of Hughie O’Donoghue for three decades. ‘Gort Rua’, the exhibition of his paintings at the Oliver Sears Gallery in Dublin, is a testament to the relationship.

“Erris is where my mother came from,” says O’Donoghue, who was raised in Manchester. “I’ve been going there for many years. The paintings are about place rather than being landscapes — how place can take a hold of your imagination. It’s a place I feel really rooted in, that I’ve felt compelled to return to over the years.”

O’Donoghue has lived in the UK and Italy, but the Irish landscape consumes him. Kilkenny was home for 15 years, while his children attended school, but now Erris is his base.

“In the early days, it was very simple,” he says. “You didn’t wear shoes. You’d take off your shoes when you went to Erris, and that kind of connectivity to the earth, to the place, was very formative. It’s probably more formative than any other influence on my painting — which is vastly about the elements, it’s about the earth, and air, and fire, and those are things you encounter in an immediate way in Mayo, and it’s not changed that much over the years. There are a few new houses there, but the landscape itself predominates.”

The new paintings are rooted in the landscape of O’Donoghue’s ancestors. The colours are more vivid than his usual — perhaps a result of his recent work in stained glass, though he attributes it to Erris. “It’s the place itself,” he says. “People often think of it as being dark and wet. You get every season, sometimes in the same day, in Erris. I was there in the spring and the rhododendrons were in bloom this year and the colours were just unbelievable, these incredible violets and intense greens. So I’ve been focusing on that in the paintings. The intensity of colour is meant to relate to the intensity of feeling, and the persistence of certain memories or translations that are associated with place.”

Walking the land is crucial to O’Donoghue’s work practice. While he uses photography and new media, his senses and experience underpin work. “When you think about the concept of drawing,” he says, “traditionally, artists drew things in order to inform their work. They sat down and drew a model. The way I draw, is to draw on the place, to literally draw on the sensations of the place, like Turner, who strapped himself to the mast of a ship to experience what the sea was like. The Atlantic is a motif in my work, and I walk the north coast of Co Mayo to experience the Atlantic in all its majesty. I absorb that.”

The pure abstraction of O’Donoghue’s early career has become more representational. He is known, particularly in Britain, as a painter of the human figure.

For the ‘Gort Rua’ series, he uses the image of a bird, often abstracted, in place of the human figure. “Some of the ideas would emerge subconsciously.... You also have personal history — so the paintings in the Oliver Sears exhibition kind of revisit something that occurred in my work 20 years ago. There are red roofs, and the ploughed field that has not appeared before in my work, though I expect it will appear again.”

The Hunt Museum, in Limerick, is hosting a second O’Donoghue exhibition, ‘A Need for Gardens’, comprised of his designs for new stained-glass windows in Westminster Abbey, London. This is the Hunt Museum’s first exhibition in its City of Culture programme.

O’Donoghue is the first artist in a decade to receive a stained-glass commission for the Abbey. Its original windows were destroyed in World War II. The two new windows, in the King Henry VII Lady Chapel, were completed this year to coincide with the Queen’s jubilee. The panels are laid out in the gothic fashion, to be read from the base up to the heavens. O’Donoghue has incorporated religious emblems — stars, the fleur de lis and the lily — to represent the Blessed Virgin Mary. The images are soft blue and white, with hints of burnt-red oranges. “Sometimes, things are impossible for you,” says O’Donoghue. “For years, I never used blue in my paintings, I just couldn’t use it. Not that I physically couldn’t use it, I’d squeeze it out of the tube, but I couldn’t use it. Almost as soon as I said that, a whole blue series of paintings emerged, because I found I had a need for it in my work... That’s what great poets do, they tend to notice things that nobody else has noticed. And once they’ve noticed it, everybody else notices it too. I think that’s what you strive to do as a painter, to give form to something that’s there, that connects with people.”

* ‘Gort Rua’ runs at the Oliver Sears Gallery, Dublin, until Jan 9, 2014. ‘A Need for Gardens’ runs at The Hunt Museum, Limerick, until Jan 21.


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