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Review: Brian Bourke, Five Decades: 1960s-2000s by Brian Bourke


VIBRANT VISIONS: Artist Brian Bourke's work is celebrated in a handsomely produced volume

VIBRANT VISIONS: Artist Brian Bourke's work is celebrated in a handsomely produced volume

VIBRANT VISIONS: Artist Brian Bourke's work is celebrated in a handsomely produced volume

Artist Brian Bourke has a wild, urban, tinker-boy energy which pours through all his work, gorgeously reproduced in Lilliput Press's Brian Bourke, Five Decades.

The Bourke characteristics -- images speared within an oval, vibrant landscapes, single-figure portraits, dizzying, vertiginous intensity lit with Van Gogh colours -- are all here.

The paintings and sculptures are shown ("as they should be") from the present to the past. Here are Didi, Gogo and the Two Thieves from Waiting for Godot (as a penniless art student in London, Bourke was reading, and interpreting, Beckett as he was published), savagely beautiful portraits; and his Herms series, a bravura eight-painting set with Bourke's own head atop a plinth, or herm -- totems that date back to ancient Greece -- placed at boundaries to denote ownership; give protection. The originals were also phallic, the penis shown halfway up the plinth, but says Bourke, laughing heartily, he left that out; his studio in Connemara is too cold: "Feel it? I couldn't even see it."

One of the remarkable aspects of Bourke's work -- informed as it is by classical art and literature -- is the artist's own Dublin background. "Poverty was an issue, but the main thing, as my mother used to say, was everyone went to proper schools." He remembers going barefoot. "Loads of children did." Not that he's whining. In an interview here with Rosemarie Noone, he says: "I was dyslexic, asthmatic, eczematous and covered in bandages; I had all the advantages for becoming an artist."

He left school early, got a job in the art department of Players Wills, told his mum he would only be taken on if he attended art college, and signed up to the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), where one professor observed there was more liberalism in Vienna under Nazi rule.

Within a year, Bourke was thrown out and after a series of "dirty" jobs went to London, where more dirty jobs awaited, but also the riches of the British Museum and the big art galleries.

He attended St Martin's for a time, sleeping rough and giving tutorials of his own to put himself through.

Through the Sixties and Seventies, Bourke travelled and painted in Bavaria, Switzerland, Spain and France, while also being centrally involved in the emerging arts scene in Dublin, with Independent Artists and the Project Arts, where young artists such as John Behan, Michael Farrell, Michael Kane, Brian Henderson and co were putting it up to the establishment.

Bourke's first marriage (to Ann, a lecturer in NCAD) ended and he left Dublin with fellow artist Jay Murphy. They have lived and worked together in Connemara for almost 30 years. His wonderful portraits of Jay (Jay in a Basque Beret) are here; also, some very early, beautiful portraits of Ann.

It's hard to choose favourites among such a visual feast, but Bourke's portrait of his father, The Progenitor, is stunning. ("A wonderful sitter," says Bourke, "he would sit like a stone.") So is his study of the garden of his brother, photographer Fergus Bourke in Garden at Pollough. (Tragically, Fergus died in 2005); finally the Herms series.

This book was a two-year labour of love (much of the labour by Jay), and designed by Galway based, award-winning designer Tony O'Hanlon, of Propeller. With its imprimatur from Seamus Heaney and rich production values from Lilliput, it would make a wonderful present for someone special. Well done to all.

Sunday Independent