An artist and native of Belfast finds art in the dark 'Troubles' Exhibit: Gerard Devlin thinks it's finally possible to put Northern Ireland's long war on canvas.

July 26, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Gerard Devlin's "End Game" paintings have the look of ash-gray relics collected from an ancient fire.

The Belfast Irishman's newest works, now at the Halcyon Gallery in Fells Point, emerge from the "Troubles" that have burned and bloodied his Northern Ireland homeland nearly all his life.

His dark, brooding paintings evoke the shadowy interiors of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's bleak play "Endgame" and the black atrocities of Francisco Goya's suite of etchings called "The Disasters of War."

Devlin floats images and symbols of his life, of Irish culture and politics, of sport and urban warfare on a swirling, agitated palette of blacks and grays and umber, subdued swatches of ocher and rose and blue and violet, illuminated in flashes of dawn-gray whites.

His pictures have an attic gloom, where objects appear out of the dark as shards of memory. He paints like a historian collecting artifacts of the mind, recapturing the present as viewed from the future.

He's 41 now. The contemporary armed struggle in Ulster has smoldered and flared since he was a teen-ager. He's an Irish Catholic nationalist who was born and grew up in a working-class neighborhood in North Belfast. He bears the scars of the conflict on his body. When he was 19, he was shot in the back and chest in a random attack by Protestant Loyalist paramilitaries.

In the politics of Northern Ireland, the Protestant Loyalists, or Unionists, insist on remaining part of Great Britain. Catholic Nationalists and Republicans demand independence and union with Ireland.

In the shadows of Devlin's painting "Band Boys," a bass drum hovers on a shelf like an abandoned ghost. You can make out the words "Belfast Boys" in the gloom. The Protestant Orange Order bands beat such drums loudly in their triumphal marches celebrating famous victories 300 years old.

The Orangemen may have beaten the Irish peace process into oblivion this year with their march through the Catholic Nationalist neighborhoods of a place called Portadown.

"We've been set back 25 years," Devlin says.

The Troubles started in 1969 with Catholic reaction to a march by the drum-beating Orangemen.

For a long time during the height of the conflict in the 1970s Devlin believed "the imagery was too horrific for artists to take on.

"They were too close to it," he told an interviewer from the journal Art in America. "Nothing they would have done at the time would have been adequate testimony to what was actually happening."

He had a long period of abstract formalism that took him through graduate school at Syracuse University in upstate New York, where he received his master of fine arts degree in 1981. His bachelor's degree in painting, with honors, came from the University of Ulster, Belfast, in 1977. He earned his advanced diploma a year later.

When he returned home to Ireland from Syracuse, figures began to appear in his paintings: the hard men in their homes; the shadows of the gunmen, so to speak; a few women; many dogs; and some of the objects, the broken mugs, Venetian blinds and blank television screens that recur in his new paintings at the Halcyon.

He has since taught, lectured and exhibited widely in Ireland and Ulster. Then he came back to America about a year and a half ago. He chose to live in Baltimore over New York or Boston, say, because he figures he can get more work done here. And he supports himself painting theater, television and movie backgrounds at Props and Sets on Wolfe Street. Some of the paintings at the Halcyon are on boards salvaged from flats done for the Dan Rodricks TV show.

And once again figures have fled from the paintings.

"These paintings have less narrative," Devlin says. "They're more oblique. I hope they have a more universal reference. They're the equivalent of poetry that might be written about the situation in Belfast."

Personal and historical symbols abound, from spectacles that recall for him the mounds of eyeglasses taken from Holocaust victims, to the crest of his Catholic high school, to the boxing ring where battles are fought according to rules and without rancor. They occur in the gray light of rooms and spaces that recall Beckett's theater of the absurd or a bunker on some demilitarized zone of the psyche.

He did the 15 paintings at the Halcyon Gallery and in Margaret's Cafe Open downstairs in about six weeks during a hiatus from Props and Sets. He paints at a furious pace, says Dan Schiavone, one of the gallery's curators.

"I tell people I do two things fast," Devlin says. "Paint and drink beer. You want to keep up the ethnic myths, you know."

The Troubles

What "EndGame: Paintings by Gerard Devlin"

Where Halcyon Gallery, 909 Fell St.

When Wednesday through Sundays, noon to 9 p.m., through Aug. 4

Call (410) 276-1651

Pub Date: 7/26/96

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