COLIN GLEADELL,  Belfast Telegraph 1988

Features Editor, Galleries Magazine

My first encounter with Martin Mooney’s paintings was brief.  They stood on the floor, fresh and unframed, leaning against a wall on which hung a host of work by other hands, jostling for attention.  I knelt, not out of reverence and noted: Architecture and still life…..traditional drawing, balanced compositions.  Absence of figures and movement……absolute stillness.  Spanish heat and dust…..light and shade in bold, simplified contrast.  Muted tones and restrained harmonies of mellow browns and yellows.  Thinly textured, controlled brushwork…..unfussy.  Classical and lean…….a solidly arranged twilight world…….’

Falling helplessly into the pool of references that generate comparison and classification, I toyed with a dozen Dutch masters, with a hint of Cezanne or Andre Lhote in the still lives, and then a sort of Mediterranean James Pryde or Venetian Sickert for the Baroque churches of northern Spain.  Dissatisfied at that, I consulted Euan Uglow who had been Mooney’s tutor at the Slade.  Of course!  It was Chardin, Piranesi and de Chirico – masters of the atmospheric, the magisterial and the half dreamt – not plagiarized, but mulled together within and original and consistent personal vision.  The voguish untamed expressionism that was swamping the art schools had found no foothold in Mooney’s imagination.  Highly recommended by Sir Lawrence Gowing, then the Slade’s professor, he won the Brinsley Ford Award and took off for Spain where he still works.

It is no less than coincidence that this, his first one man exhibition, coincides with the rumblings of a neo-classical revival among contemporary artists (currently on show at the Royal Scottish Academy).  However, Mooney’s classicism, subtly transfused from the sources of his inspiration is, in comparison, the more honest, uncomplicated by the gimmicky and crudely collaged references to history that clutter a certain type of post modernism.

Our second encounter, with canvas framed and hung at eye level, will be more equal.


Taking on the bucket and slosh brigade

Art critic Brian Sewell tells Francine Cunningham that he detects a European revolt against modernist painting and he sees Martin Mooney, whose exhibition opens at the Solomon Gallery, Dublin tonight, as a leading figure in the new movement.

Young Belfast artist, Martin Mooney, has found an enthusiastic and energetic champion in the London Evening Standard art critic, Brian Sewell, who has been noted “Critic of the Year 89/90”.  Sewell, who has been interested in Mooney’s work since he first came across it while the artist was still a student at London University.  He has written very warmly of his work in the catalogue for Mooney’s first Dublin exhibition, which Sewell will open at a private reception in the Solomon Gallery tonight. 

Sewell says that his support of Mooney is “almost a political move”.  Speaking at the Solomon Gallery, where final preparation were being made for the hanging of the paintings, Sewell explains:  “I sense that all over Europe there is the beginning of a revolt against the bucket and slosh brigade, against the kind of artist whose painting is entirely abstract but entirely accidental.  It is almost like a new form of neo-classicism.

“I have been watching Martin for some years and I’m astonished by the way that he has arrived at traditional solutions by experiment; he has found his own way there.  He also has great mastery in terms of technique.  I think that this stage of his life is a springboard and I can see marvelous things ahead.  Martin’s pictures are very often extraordinarily beautiful, they have a kind of somber, emotional resource which appeals to my own sense of melancholy.”

Sewell himself studied History of Art at the Courtauld Institute in Britain under Anthony Blunt, Johannes Wilde and Michael Kitson.  After spending time on research projects which ranged from Rubens to English neo-impressionists, he joined Christie’s as an expert in Old Master paintings and drawings.  “Working at an auction house is a baptism of fire,” he says.  “It is all very well being an academic, but academics do not have to make immediate decisions about authenticity, date, and value like an auctioneer does.  It is exactly like doing one’s national service in the art world.”

Sewell is the first art critic to be voted current title of “Critic of the Year”.  He puts this compliment down to his Frankness of judgment.:  “I don’t give a damn for my won kind; I don’t write glancing over my shoulder and wondering what others in the art world are going to say when they read it.  I’ve got a reputation for speaking the truth, and my version of the truth is based on sound art history and a rather fierce judgment of quality.”

Apart from his work as a critic, Sewell acts as a London-based adviser for museums in Germany, America and South Africa.  “When I know a collection very well I can see that there are gaps in it and advise if other aspects of a collection would be enhanced by something that would spark it all into a new kind of interrelationship.”

Last year Sewell brought out a book on the architecture and sculpture of Turkey, entitled, “South from Ephesus”.  Of the architecture he has seen in Dublin, he says:  “I am appalled to find in Dublin there are exactly the same architects’ designs as in every British city.”  In May he will be launching a biography of the controversial late restaurateur and art collector, Peter Langan who was a personal friend.

Sewell is outspoken about what he sees as the British Government’s lack of concern for young artists:  “I think the British Government doesn’t give a damn about young artists.  It would privatize art if it could.”  He is likewise critical of the quality of the artists now emerging from the art colleges in Britain.  “There is a generation of tutors and so-called professors who are dishing out so-called degrees to thoroughly incompetent youngsters because they are themselves thoroughly incompetent.”

He finds the work of art students emerging from Northern Irish schools generally more robust and passionate.  Martin Mooney, who was born in Belfast in 1960 and studied at the University of Ulster and at Brighton Polytechnic College of Art and Design before going to the University College, London demonstrates the return to discipline that Sewell admires.

“What Martin has done has happened many times in the past”, says Sewell.  “He is one of the painters who is quite deliberately rejecting all the current idioms and trying to find a better root for his work.  He is gong back in order to come forward.”



Introduction by

BRIAN SEWELL  Art Critic of the London Evening Standard

I first saw Martin Mooney’s work five years ago when he was still a student at the Slade School, part of London University.  Prowling round the studios there, my spirits sinking as in room after room I found no painting (as I understand that term) but only infantile determination to extend the boundaries of visual art into sound, the video recording and the rubbish dump, I came upon him with relief.  His small paintings were abstract but not accidental, their disciplined structure hinting at the forms of architecture, and his use of black graphically suggesting a romantic mood that seemed to stem from both Piranesi and Graham Sutherland.  I sensed that here was a natural painter with a fine intelligence who needed to escape the fashionable whims and pressures of the art school, and who, given support and encouragement, might return to the central traditions of European Painting.

I was not alone in my response to his work.  Euan Uglow, his tutor, supported him;  Sir Lawrence Gowing, his Professor, commended him for the Brinsley Ford Award, a travelling Scholarship that committed him to study in Spain; and within a month of graduating from the Slade School, the British Government (not much celebrated for its patronage of young painters) bought one of his paintings.

In Spain he became aware of the still lives of Zurbaran and Melendez, saw that behind their realism lay a quality of abstraction that was almost mathematical, and used the information to inform his own work, learning the lessons that the abstract painter has everything to gain from realism and that the work of the realist is nothing without the virtues of abstraction (though it has many vices).  As the graphic emphasis of his work diminished, so its painterly qualities increased, taking on the bravura touch of Brabazon and Sargent, but gentling it in the half light that is so often Mooney’s chosen moment, allowing, as it does the use of subtle glazes, tones, and what the Italians used to call sfumato – a romantic and mysterious smoke.

In its new maturity Mooney deliberately excludes his work from all current fashion, preferring to risk in his choice of subject – crepuscular landscapes, baroque facades, tumbled ruins and capricious evocation of Venice and the classical past – comparison with such older painters as James Pryde, Corot, Guardi and Magnasco:  these are masters whom he acknowledges but does not imitate of challenge (as did Turner in his references to Claude) as he takes up their traditions and adapts them to the present day.