When the wolves own the island: Gabhann Dunne

5 - 23 December 2019

The Molesworth is delighted to present When the wolves own the island, Gabhann Dunne’s third solo exhibition at the gallery.

In his latest body of work, Dunne creates an alternative Ireland, a country re-wilded, where its human population has offered up a restitution to nature. This alternative vision of Ireland is anchored at St Patrick’s purgatory in Lough Derg, an island located on the border between counties Donegal and Tyrone. 

For many, Lough Derg is associated with fasting and prayers, with walking barefooted on jagged rocks, but in medieval Europe Lough Derg was believed to be the only gateway to purgatory in the earthly realm. References to the island in historical records date back as far as the 5th century, when St Patrick visited and was said to have been shown the gateway to purgatory by God. A monastery was established at the lake shortly after, supplanting an earlier Druidic settlement. Lough Derg came to be so significant, that on some medieval maps of Europe, the monastery is the only Irish site identified, a beacon for the holy and the not-so holy from all across the known world.

It defined how Europeans saw Ireland in the Middle Ages and was often the only reason they travelled here. Its success was its undoing, however; the island ultimately became an embarrassment to the church, a quasi-commercial venture that sold indulgences to the faithful with the means to escape purgatory. The supposed entrance was destroyed 300 years ago on the orders of the Vatican

There is a natural segue into Dunne’s new work from his previous exhibition at the gallery - inspired by the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne or Mad Sweeney, in which an Irish king is cursed by a priest to wander the wild as a bird-like creature for the remainder of his life. In the poem, the wild seen as an allegory for purgatory, a metaphysical space, a Third Space. 

Dunne sees parallels between purgatory and the in-between spaces that our native species have come to occupy, and in particular the psychological space the wolf has come to inhabit, with talk of its re-introduction in Ireland raising fears of its impact on farming and the wider human population. Does Dunne see echoes of the Direct Provision system here, in the fear and suspicion of migrants, in a system that traps migrants in a temporal purgatory? For underpinning all of Dunne’s work is the idea that every species migrates and always has, wolves and humans among them. 

The artist believes all of these ideas can be mediated through painting without resorting to conceptual conceits. “Gabhann Dunne’s work does not deal in conceptual irony,” Seán Kissane, curator of exhibitions at IMMA, has written, “he is a story-teller and his narratives are those of nature and the world around us. In this he can be compared to Scottish Canadian artist Peter Doig, who demonstrates a similar preoccupation with nature in his painting. Doig, like Dunne, works in a style that straddles figuration and abstraction but he said of his practice, ‘All painting is conceptual. Every painting is an idea. Conceptual art just removes the pleasure of looking - colour and beauty, things like that’. Despite the tragic themes underlying much of Dunne’s [work] he revels in these ‘pleasures of looking’.”

And so, in his latest exhibition, we are presented with an array of animals, figures and topographical references in the artist’s trademark limpid colour palette, in which every image is invested with a visionary, almost poetic quality. Each subject is cast against a richly-opaque ground, conjuring a hauntingly-beautiful parallel world. The wolf is a central motif in the work, reminding us that in recent decades, large swathes of mainland Europe have been re-wilded by wolves but that Ireland remains apart. In Gabhann Dunne’s re-imagined Ireland, however, the wolf once again has dominion over the island.

Born in Co. Kildare, Dunne is a former winner of the RDS Taylor Art Award and the Hennessy Craig Scholarship at the Royal Hibernian Academy. He was described by Cristín Leach - writing in The Sunday Times in May, 2015 - as ‘one of the best Irish painters of his generation’.