Critique | Mick O’Dea, ‘West Northwest’

Molesworth Gallery; 4 – 27 November 2021

Mick O’Dea, Tim, Acrylic on Fabiano paper, 56 x 76 cm; image courtesy the artist and Molesworth Gallery. Mick O’Dea, Tim, Acrylic on Fabiano paper, 56 x 76 cm; image courtesy the artist and Molesworth Gallery.

“Drawing transparently reveals the level of depth, understanding and curiosity of the practitioner. It’s an essential tool to hone, in order to pursue vision.” – Mick O’Dea 

Mick O’Dea paints with honesty and precision. He has spent some 40 years painting portraits of friends and family, as well as more formal commissions. The Molesworth Gallery exhibition, ‘West Northwest’, presents a retrospective of sorts, comprising 32 oil paintings and acrylic on fabriano works, ranging in scale from the modest to the dramatic. The show combines tender portraits of friends with landscape paintings of the West and Northwest of Ireland, and history paintings, the result of O’Dea’s research into the Vandeleur Evictions in County Clare in 1888.

O’Dea is a familiar face on the Dublin art scene as a member and former president of the RHA, where he set up the RHA school. One of his many spells of teaching brought him to NCAD where he promoted the value of observational skills. He has a passion for drawing and puts his formidable draughtsmanship talent to good use, presenting historical and contemporary subjects in an unpretentious and relatable manner. 

‘West Northwest’ is testament to O’Dea’s gregarious nature and his sense of connection between people, place and culture. Residencies in Ballinglen in Mayo and visits to the Inishlacken project in Galway are an essential part of O’Dea’s practice. The artist speaks of the big skies and the lure of the wild Northwest landscape, which have enticed artists such as himself, Una Sealy, Donald Teskey, Pat Harris and Martin Gale to work there. 

The key painting in the first gallery is a portrait of the late Tim Robinson, a well-known cartographer and writer, specialising in the topography of Connemara. Viewed from behind, Robinson faces a large picture window that frames a view of his beloved Connemara landscape. Robinson was involved in the Inishlacken project and many friends from the project are immortalised here.

Spells at the Vermont Studio Center and the cultural impact of his American study and travels have also left their trace on O’Dea’s works. Junction has a cinematic quality and begs a comparison with American landscape painting. O’Dea traces the human presence on the land; the verticals of the telegraph poles contrast with the horizontal road, as linear habitations draw you on a journey up to the village. 

O’Dea’s fluid use of line drawing is effortlessly employed in these works. Acrylic is deftly applied in transparent washes in contrast with opaque layers to model the forms of the rural landscape. The saturated colour palette echoes O’Dea’s concern with the effects of media, in particular the role of colourised film in translating the Irish experience for American audiences during turbulent times. 

The artist brings to life a key turning point in Irish history when the media were able to draw attention to incidents almost as they happened. The press coverage of the time served to bring attention to the cause of the Land League and eventually forced the British establishment to discontinue the evictions of poor families. Research on the uniforms revealed the presence of ranking officers from varying British regiments called in by the landlord Vandeleur to enforce the evictions. The landlords, having served in the army themselves, took full advantage of their military connections. 

Eviction Party, 2021, and Enforcers, 2020, hang in the upstairs gallery on opposing walls, fastened by way of a wooden baton. The epic unstretched canvases take up almost the entire wall, hanging against the Georgian wood panelling, evocative of a gentleman’s club. O’Dea has paid particular attention to the details of the brightly coloured uniforms. The technicolour representations of the military regalia visually reinforce the social separation with the ordinary people. Shiny emblems on hats identify the RIC and the British regiments of the Sherwood Foresters in red and the King’s Hussars in blue. The elaborate fonts resemble those which might be used for a vaudeville play or travelling circus, undermining the seriousness of the occasion. The ‘Eviction Party’ stands deep in conversation, apparently atop a dung heap – the circus has finally come to town. 

Beatrice O’Connell is a visual artist working in painting and media currently studying on the MFA in NCAD.