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Michael Gemmell: A Painter of the Bogs and the Irish Earth

Written by: Peter Wiley

The Last to Leave, Oil on Linen

Encountering the work of the Irish artist Michael Gemmell, one is reminded of a poem by his famous fellow countryman Seamus Heaney called "Exposure" that begins, "It is December in Wicklow: / Alders dripping, birches / Inheriting the last light, / the ash tree cold to look at."

For Gemmell lives and works in Wicklow and his paintings look at the land with a similarly bleak and unforgiving beauty, judging from the ones on view at Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, from June 3 through 24. (Reception: Thursday, June 5, 6 to 8pm.)

Dark, dark is Gemmell's palette, given to earthy wintry browns, not much green, some blues and whites with the aspect of old snow, frosty and shadowed. And when there are reds they, too, are dark, deep, like the blood of animals on earth or snow. It is as though the landscape itself has been transmogrified by an abstract language all Gemmell's own, just as Heaney makes it his own in his poems. It is a place shaded by memory and moody musings, possessed of a psychological climate perhaps even more prevalent than the weather, as seen in Gemmell's oil on linen "The Wicklow Way," where the big, squareish white and brown form occupies the center of the canvas like a clenched fist.

"My paintings are from above and below which connects with the canvas and paint using mind and memory," Gemmell states. "I have explored the Bogs, the Burren, and the Islands in most of my work which intrigues me as the changes only take place at the moment of one thought at one time, bringing an almost ancient feeling of time and beauty."

Notice that Gemmell never stops thinking about the landscape as something interiorized "from above and below" rather than as something diagrammatically delineating the lay of the land. His process seems to be one of delving and digging into earthy essences, as when Heaney likens working with his pen to the way his father sinks a spade "into gravelly ground."

Thus one looks at his paintings from a different angle than most landscapes, inhabits them, actually, like a place where reality amounts to muted colors and strong forms. Sean Scully's stripe paintings have a similarly weathered look, a kind of slightly sullied visual atmosphere hinting at a kinship between the two painters. But Gemmell is also taken by the raw variety of form, as well as the cold climate of color. The shapes in his paintings bear many submerged allusions, "slippery glimpses" to use de Koonings famous term of things that never come into specific focus but brood blockily with the enormous dark weight of imminence in compositions such as "Winter Island," "Rebirth of a Field" and "Dreamer of Dreams."

Again one thinks of Heaney; now of his poem "Bogland," with its "waterlogged trunks of great firs" and "the skeleton of the Great Irish Elk" taken out of the peat and set up like "An astounding crate full of air." Encountering the paintings of Michael Gemmell, their forms pregnant with similar mysteries, their colors tinged by the timeless grime of excavated things, it is clear what the artist means when he says, "My work speaks for itself and I feel it stands on its own, as I have put a lot of years and thought into each painting."

Image Credits: The Last to Leave, Oil on Linen, 36" x 36"

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