Tuesday 18 June 2019

What Lies Beneath: Over Our Heads the Hollow Seas Closed Up by Brian Maguire

Over Our Heads the Hollow Seas Closed Up by Brian Maguire, Acrylic on linen; 2016; Courtesy of Kerlin Gallery

Over Our Heads the Hollow Seas Closed Up by Brian Maguire.
Over Our Heads the Hollow Seas Closed Up by Brian Maguire.

Niall MacMonagle

There's a story told about Bertie Ahern - during his time in office he attended a play in the Abbey. Yes, play singular, not plural. Can that be right? Politicians are busy, busy, busy, their backroom teams are even busier, but if they can't get to a play, concert, exhibition, if they don't make time to read anything other than their briefs, they're doing themselves no favours.

Of course, they're entitled to go to Croke Park or the Aviva, and go they do, but theatre, music, poetry and painting deepen our understanding, tell us about ourselves. If it's something we would prefer not to know, all the better.

Brian Maguire never paints a pretty picture. His work has captured prison life, psychiatric institutions, women's shelters; he has met with families of Mexican factory girls - abducted and killed - and painted their portraits; he has given us images of abandoned buildings from the crash. Now, he has turned his angry and passionate attention to one of the most devastating phenomena of our time - the plight of the migrant.

People have always been on the move in search of work, justice, happiness. If you're born into poverty and oppression, what other option is there? But it seems that we 'better off' just don't want to know. Immigration fuelled a Brexit vote, and we've all seen how the Mediterranean became a risky, dangerous route to freedom, a watery grave for too many.

'Over Our Head the Hollow Seas Closed Up' shows a young man afloat in a blue, blue sea. He's not swimming, he's not on a lilo topping up a tan. This dark-skinned, nameless man is fully clothed: t-shirt, jeans, beanie, runners, a few belongings tied to his waist. And his life is over. Closed.

The title of the painting, from Dante - "infin che 'l mar fu sovra noi richiuso", and quoted by Primo Levi in the Auschwitz chapter in If This Is a Man - tells of an awful finality, a descent into hell. The paint work on this picture is beautiful; the subject matter is rightly disturbing. It's not a pretty picture, but it's a powerful, necessary one.

Kerlin Gallery until 20 August.

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