Brian Maguire

“Around me the images of thirty years.” In his poem “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” W.B. Yeats surveyed, with a mixture of pride and wonder, a collection of images that charted the course of the first three tumultuous decades of twentieth-century Irish history. The country Yeats chose to reflect on was “an Ireland the poets have imagined, terrible and gay.” As the twenty-first century dawns, Dublin’s Municipal Gallery has temporarily consigned a sizable chunk of its permanent collection to the storerooms in order to devote an unusually generous amount of exhibition space to an extensive survey of the work of Brian Maguire. “Inside/Out” is made up almost entirely of work from the ’90s in a variety of media and characterized throughout by Maguire’s fierce but humane engagement with national politics and his unremitting concern with the mechanics of social injustice and exclusion, both at home and abroad. The terror persists in Maguire’s images of Ireland and elsewhere, but the world they depict is more prosaic than poetic, more grim than gay.

Maguire came to prominence in Ireland in the early ’80s as the most obviously politicized member of a loose group of neo-expressionist painters whose work paralleled similar movements elsewhere. His typical subject matter at the time included the dark mysteries of male heterosexual alienation and desire, the ongoing horrors of the Northern Irish conflict, and the everyday agonies of incarceration and institutionalization. (Maguire has for many years worked as a visiting artist within the Irish prison system.) The enduring nature of these concerns is clearly registered in the selection of more recent paintings chosen for inclusion in “Inside/Out.” Other works included in the show refer to the abortion debates that have periodically riven Ireland over the past two decades and to problems of mental-health care within the public health system. The impact of time the artist spent traveling and living in the US during the ’90s is also registered, especially in a series of mordant ruminations on American gun culture.

The most notable augmentation of Maguire’s practice in recent years has been his adoption of video and photography. These derive from his practice of making small paintings of prison inmates and subsequently presenting the sitters with their portraits. When it came to presenting these works publicly, Maguire chose to exhibit photographs mounted on lightboxes (or, in a work not shown here, a videotape) showing the paintings in their subjects’ homes while the people themselves remained in prison. He has repeated this process in a project involving outpatients in a hospital day room in Northern Ireland and, most memorably, with the children from Favela Vila Prudente, with whom he worked for four months during the 1998 São Paulo Bienal. The relative complexity of this process of distancing from the original painting and its context underscores the delicate negotiation of power structures and politesse that such trading in pictorial intimacies invariably involves. Which is to say that this strategy has allowed Maguire to keep faith with a tradition of expressionistic figuration even as he resists naturalizing or eliding context and convention—tendencies that have so often compromised the radical potential of that tradition.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith