Beara is currently paying tribute to John Kingerlee, perhaps the greatest of the
area’s many artists, writes Colette Sheridan
THE title of a retrospective exhibition of the work of leading West Cork-based artist, John Kingerlee, is taken from Seamus Heaney’s admiring description of the English artist’s paintings. ‘Beyond the Beyonds’ at Beara Community School, Castletownbere, taking place as part of the Beara Arts Festival, features over 160 works from 1962 to the present.
Conceived by art collector Larry Powell, who is Kingerlee’s patron, and curated by Beara Arts Festival director, Marc O’Sullivan Vallig, the exhibition traces Kingerlee’s early figurative art to today’s abstract expressionist work. Powell says that Heaney became a champion of Kingerlee. The late Nobel Laureate was “flabbergasted” when he first saw his work. Among the painter’s other creative fans are the likes of U2’s Larry Mullen and the writer, Brian Lynch.
Powell discovered Kingerlee in 1986. His art was very different to what Powell was collecting at that time. The Newry-based collector and businessman, who at one stage had the largest private collection of Andy Warhol’s pop art, says he has always been an eclectic collector since he started buying art 40 years ago.
“I don’t deal in Warhol anymore. It was a phase at a time when you could buy Warhol. John Kingerlee’s work is something that I was drawn to. He’s probably the finest painter in Ireland and one of the finest in the world. He’s a unique painter. Whereas other painters are easily copied, John’s layering technique can only be done by him. He will often have 50 to 100 layers of paint on a painting. He doesn’t work on one painting at a time. Some of his paintings take up to five years to finish and some take a year to dry out. Try copying that!”
The layering gives depth and perspective. “John wants you to see things in his paintings that are abstract. There are figures there but you have to let your mind work to find them. It reminds me of listening to Micheál Ó Hehir on radio in Croke Park. You had to use your imagination to understand what was going on. With John’s paintings, the more you look, the more you see. He’s a master at collage but he then puts paint on top of that.”
Powell was so impressed by Kingerlee’s paintings that he assembled an exhibition to tour museums across America in 2005. Powell also brought Kingerlee’s work to the National Art Museum in Beijing in China in 2008 .
“It was an amazing success. Over 1,000 people were at the opening. There were ten exhibitions in Beijing opening that day. John was given the star treatment.”
But Powell says that the 80-year-old artist, who now lives in Skibbereen with his wife having lived in Beara since 1982, has not received the recognition he deserves in Ireland. “I think he is seen as a kind of an outsider. It’s hard to understand why big museums in Ireland haven’t shown his work. Some of the top art critics in the world love it. The late Bill Zimmer from the New York Times really loved his work.”
Zimmer, who discovered world class artists such as Julian Schnabel and Keith Haring, curated Kingerlee’s touring exhibition in America. It raised the artist’s profile to a huge extent, bringing him to the attention of critics and collectors who might otherwise have not heard of him.
ONE OF THE GREATS
Another prominent figure in the visual arts world in America, the late Dr Ted Pillsbury, who famously turned down the directorship of the National Gallery in England, also held Kingerlee in high regard. He edited a book of essays on the artist by art critics and academics and wrote one himself. The book is entitled The Whole Planet is a Garden.
“In his essay, Pillsbury described John as the greatest artist since Turner.” He is seen as an artist whose instinctive use of colour captures the other worldly nature of the landscape.
Because Pillsbury committed suicide, his book, one of his last projects, was never formally launched. It will be available for sale at the exhibition with all proceeds going to Pieta House.
Kingerlee and his wife, Mo, who have reared five children, are converts to Islam. They lived in an isolated farmhouse on the Beara Peninsula for many years. While the couple eschew launches and mixing in arty circles, Powell says that Kingerlee is not reclusive. But now that he is getting on in years, he has sold his studios in Morocco and Spain.
“His health is not too bad. I can see him slowing up a bit but he still works every day. He never stops working. If he goes to the cinema, he’ll take a sketch book with him and will sketch in the dark. If he’s in a taxi or a hotel lobby, he’ll always sketch. His mind never stops. He is widely read in the classics and speaks three languages fluently.”
Kingerlee paints standing up. “He doesn’t paint like an ordinary painter. He paints looking down, pounding the paint onto the canvas. He has very strong wrists.”
Kingerlee was born in Birmingham in 1936. His mother had relatives in County Cork. After living for 20 years in Cornwall, he took up residence in West Cork. Kingerlee and his wife enjoyed their life in Beara, growing their own vegetables and making good friends in the area.
Beara has been a draw for artists since the late 1960s/early 1970s. “The first wave of artists to settle would have included Tim Goulding, Cormac Boydell and Charles Tyrrell,” says O’Sullivan. “By the time we organised the first artists in Beara exhibition in 1992, the number had swollen to 25 professional artists who lived in Beara or had homes there.”
Part of the attraction is the natural beauty of the place. “The vistas of the mountains and the sea are God’s gift to a visual artist and the light is extraordinary. But there is also a sense of community. Beara was multi-cultural before the term was invented. It had to be. Local chieftains and merchants traded with France and Spain for centuries. It’s probably on that account that Beara has always welcomed strangers.”
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