Gabhann Dunne: The end of a / sure beginning

7 - 29 October 2021

The Molesworth Gallery is delighted to present its fourth solo exhibition of the work of Gabhann Dunne. We've published a hardback catalogue to coincide with the exhibition. The introductory essay by Cristín Leach can be read below, while copies of the catalogue are available from the gallery.


N O  P E O P L E  A N D  P R E V I O U S  P E O P L E S

 by Cristín Leach

“Kids are the devil’s metronome,” says Gabhann Dunne as we chat in his Dublin city centre studio. “They are a time system that puts you in a machine – and they’ll be here after you.” He’s talking about some of the impetus behind his current work. On the walls are paintings of trees, animals, insects, and kids. Our conversation ranges from the Kiltorcan Fossils to the concept of the Rapture and its influence on world politics (“they believe the end of the world is coming”), the failures of geography, the British-Irish Ice Sheet, cave paintings, and the limits of archaeology.

Kiltorcan Quarry in County Kilkenny is an internationally renowned fossil site where fossil ferns were first found in 1853. In 1908, a fossil was discovered there which has recently been shown to be a larger cousin of the common woodlouse. This means these creatures were crawling on land that is now Ireland at least 360 million years ago. They might be the oldest known peracarid crustaceans.

“These are important in the discovery of deep time,” says Dunne. “Deep time removes humans from being the centre of time. There are billions of years there… we don’t even have proper words to describe deep time.” Sometimes when words fail, images step in.

Dunne has been painting impossible scenes. In Wolf and archeoptryx, Fox and giant dragonfly, and Imagined mammoth tusk carving from Cork, he reveals those imaginings, potential possibilities for new stories about where our world comes from. An archeoptryx is a bird-like dinosaur.

“My problem with geography is that it can’t incorporate animals,” he says. “It’s always about humans.” If the default perspective or position is human, what about other measures of the passage of time? What about scales that are not human scale, in terms of lifespan, gestation, etc? “Can space exist without people?” he asks. “It can. Did it? It did.”

In his work, Dunne is blurring the gaps between timelines, imagining concurrent or layered worlds. His painting of the Cork carving is tiny. He invented this imagined, found, carved object that would prove that the Lascaux people (palaeolithic cave painters we know once existed in now modern-day France) were also here in Ireland. “The Ice Age scrubbed this land clean” he says. He talks about the mutability of history. By necessity, it is based on discoverable evidence, which means the story keeps changing. In April 2021, it was reported that a reindeer bone found in a County Cork cave shows evidence of humans in Ireland 33,000 years ago. That’s more than 20,000 years earlier than previously thought. Archaeologists announced, “This bone just changed Irish human history”. But Dunne’s point is that the history hasn’t actually changed. Humans were here, and Dunne feels it in his own bones whether the evidence is there or not. So, he paints it. 

“That’s what you need poets and painters and writers to do,” he says, “the academics will only do it if they find something.” Dunne is making up his own stories in paint, driven by a faith in the possibility they are true, or at least in a belief that without imagination we have nothing. His work is utterly deliberate. Paintings on board that do not succeed are abandoned and destroyed. There is a moment when it breathes, he says, when it is right. If that doesn’t happen, he drops it (literally on the floor – the studio has a small pile of postcard-sized failures on the ground next to the easel). What’s wrong with them? I ask. “They all fail in the story,” he says. And when the story fails, the hypothesis breaks. 

First Irish shows a richly dark-skinned swimmer in a deep blue sea. He has painted A Waterford Lynx. “They were here,” he says with certainty. I Know There Was an Irish Lion depicts a turquoise lion, running. His animals are always moving. Dunne’s painted birds fly, his animals take flight and take fright too. They leap, flee, run. His skies are also always moving, even when they are just pools of blue. These are intent-soaked images. “There has to be a breath in them” he says. 

If the paintings contain propositional stories, they also contain the essence of what is driving Dunne to paint these things in this way. Work on board is unforgiving. There is very little chance of redeeming a piece that has gone wrong. Larger works are limited by the reality of gravity and weight. Many of the pieces are postcard or notebook sized. This offers an interesting implication: that they are highly portable, that you can put them in your pocket, or carry them. It appeals to the nomadic ancestors in me: something handheld, something sharable; the intimate, totemic nature of the tiny painting as object. “People move. We are animal, we are nomadic too,” says Dunne. 

“Ireland was once covered in a 3km sheet of ice. Our entire history of previous peoples is gone.” He’s positing a new approach. “If we look at Ireland less as a landscape and more as a continuum of people and animals…” then what do we see? Dunne speaks of the Burren as a place in which time stood still, while inevitably moving forward. What does this mean for landscape painting? This body of work contains paintings of trees like tropical explosions. A palm that implies a once-tropical island, opens the show. History tells us that three or four hundred million years ago, parts of Northwest Europe, including much of what we might call Ireland, disappeared beneath a warm sea.

Extinct and endangered animals dart across Dunne’s boards like ancient wisdom bearers. Paintings of Morrigan and Durragh, the artist’s kids, are an acknowledgement of his own personal slice of history, “a measure of my time, now”. “It’s about time travel,” he says. Is it about the past? “It’s about the past, present and future.” But is he painting the future? Not yet. He is painting imagined realities based on connections he has felt. These are not logic-based works, they are more gut and instinct-based, qualities that have helped keep humans alive this long. 

The paintings imply that we are in a broader, parallel continuum rather than a linear timeline. “We live with ghosts,” he says, and he means in the landscape as much as in memory. These are paintings about a refusal to put limits on perception, knowledge, imagination, wisdom, insight, or the bigger picture. The show is called The end of a / sure beginning, a quote from a poem by Maya Angelou. Dunne points out that time itself can be understood as a construct. These paintings are a proposal in which multiple timelines, realities and truths are present at once.

And another thing: “It’s about accepting failure in what you set out to do,” says Dunne. Is it about extinction? I ask. Or future fear? “Well, yeah, you better get your shit together… But painting the future is a whole other set of things to do,” he says. Maybe that’s next. 

Cristín Leach, August, 2021