Wednesday 21 February 2018

Review: Conor Fallon, Thoughts on Sculpture Edited & Introduced by Brian Fallon and Dublin and Thereabouts by Thomas Ryan

Gandon Editions, €20
Gandon Editions, €29

WONDERFUL: Conor Fallon's
sculpture 'Pegasus' at City
West in Dublin
WONDERFUL: Conor Fallon's sculpture 'Pegasus' at City West in Dublin

Rosita Sweetman

Thoughts on Sculpture is a beautiful book. Beautiful to hold, to look at and to read. It's also a testament of love from one brother to another.

Brian Fallon, long time arts editor of the Irish Times, writes to Conor, his younger sibling and "one of the finest Irish sculptors since the Second World War", who died suddenly in 2007, less than a year after the death of his wife, Welsh born painter Nancy Wynne Jones.

Tragedy transformed into an elegy for art, specifically for sculpture.

The manuscript for Thoughts on Sculpture was found in Conor Fallon's studio after his death and indicates the artist's awareness of his own impending demise, adding a unique urgency to its objective: to lay bare the artist's workings. To show the way.

Conor Fallon was the third son of poet Padraic Fallon and Dorothea Maher, and brought up in a home rich with artistic stimulation. Writers, artists and poets visited regularly. His Irish past, "gave me a very rich powerful inheritance, which I always felt was effortlessly mine", but it was only later he realised how rich an inheritance his was, coming as it did from "the imagination of my elder brothers and my father", with older brother Brian telling the whole of The Iliad and The Odyssey "in serial form over weeks, sitting snugly in the hay barn", and eldest brother Garry, reading descriptions of paintings from a National Gallery book, only showing the illustration afterwards.

Initially, Fallon painted but his father deemed the work "awful" and it wasn't until he went to visit Irish painter and family friend Tony O Malley in Cornwall's artistic community St Ives that he began to find his metier (sculpture), and his wife-to-be, Nancy.

After making his first sculptural piece, one of the artists declared Fallon would never paint again. All of the 'awful' paintings were destroyed, and he was on his sculptor's way, with advice from some of England's finest artists (such as Denis Mitchell, who said the last 100th of an inch you shave off a sculpture is crucial), and a serious work ethic, "I don't believe in invention. I believe in seeing".

Fallon's most iconic and recognised works are of "birds, horses and fish".

Among public pieces, there are the wonderful Pegasus sculptures (commissioned by the O'Reilly family for the Independent's building at City West), three gigantic horses with stainless steel wings and tails, each atop its own steel and aluminium pillar, water gushing down from the plinths; the 6.7 metre high Singing Bird at the Irish Life building in Dublin, and the beautiful Bird of Hope in St Patrick's Hospital, Kilmainham.

And then his birds of prey. He describes an injured sparrowhawk he nursed back to life: "as his strength returned, he turned more and more back to his wild state but the thing I remember most about him was the incredible intensity of his eye, his gaze. It transfixed you -- in that big room it was the only thing you saw. The absolutely concentrated intensity, with every atom of the body pointed in the same direction."

Or again a kestrel, frequently spotted on the Old Head of Kinsale: "he occupied that whole big landscape with the energy of his hunch and his gaze".

Fallon also did some wonderful heads. The one of his father, made after his death, "for me was more than a portrait, it was actually his head I made". There's his wonderful stainless steel head of James Joyce, a sorrowful Self Portrait, and a head of Apollo. Fallon writes: "I really felt the god appearing under my hands. My father (the artist had invited him in to see this new piece) lifted the damp cloth from the clay and bent over it. I asked him eventually, if he liked it and he said, very softly, "Like it? It's an experience".

As befits a book on art, Thoughts on Sculpture is stuffed with wonderful photographs of the artist's work, home and studio. The sculptural pieces speak (eloquently) for themselves, the family snapshot of Nancy Wynne Jones with all six Fallon brothers in Trinity is charming, and the photographs of their home in Wicklow are genteel Irish country living at its best -- verdant sloping lawns, huge native trees, Georgian windows, deep cills decorated with tiny sculptures. But it's the artist's studio that really says it all.

Last summer, artist Eamon O Doherty's wife Barbara invited friends back to their home after her husband's funeral. I will never forget the scalding sense of emptiness in his (gorgeous) second-floor studio. Eamon was gone but it was as if his presence still hovered, aching to put a finishing touch here, a final daub there.

The same holds true for Gillian Buckley's photographs of Conor Fallon's workshop/ studio: crammed with figurines, horses, a cawing crow and the massive array of tools that go with sculpture -- drills, clamps, hammers, sanders, all attesting to the enormous physicality of sculpture, and all frozen in the stillness and shock of their creator/owner's departure. Too sad.

Thomas Ryan's book, Dublin and Thereabouts showcases the artist's trademark studies of Dublin and its environs. I loved his description of the requirements of a watercolorist: "a butt of a pencil, an eraser, a small paintbox and brush, a watercolour pad, and, of course, a 'drop' of water. The pocket of the raincoat would probably hold the lot."

He has created a delightful collection of familiar aspects of the 'dirty aul' town'. A wonderful gift for a visiting relative, though I must say I'd first want to rip out and save the stunningly gorgeous study Fishing Stands on the Liffey.

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