Art Encounters | Out of the Ordinary

I flew into Shannon airport from Malaga with the family in tow. As the cool lovable air brushed in from outside, and I knew I had survived the intense heat of the Costa del Sol. As I came through that ‘nothing to declare’ sign I bumped into an old student of mine, Gerry Davis. Gerry had recently been awarded the Hennessy Portrait Prize for a portrait of his friend and fellow artist, Séan Guinan. He later made it onto the six o’clock news after his commissioned portrait of the Kilkenny hurler Henry Shefflin (‘King Henry’) was unveiled in the National Gallery. When I was planning my trip to Spain, thinking of all the Valesquez portraits I would see in the Prado, the news had come on and there was Gerry standing against the white walls of the gallery, with Shefflin standing on the other side of the space, in front of the large-scale portrait of him. I couldn’t get it out of my head that Gerry had made a remarkably profound work; a painting subtle in its power. He had taken a figure of relative royalty in Ireland and had captured the allure of his greatness, his power over us, the people. But he also grasped his ordinariness: King Henry stands as one of us.

I had gone to the Prado in Madrid on my holidays thinking of an ex-student who had just unveiled a signature piece, a landmark for the National Gallery, and then I bumped into him just as I returned. I congratulated Gerry on having the first painting to hang in the gallery of a GAA player. The first- yes, it’s hard to believe. And because it’s a landmark for the National Gallery, it’s also a landmark for the people of Ireland. I then began to think of the time Gerry was my student. I remember Gerry as one of those students I felt I should be sitting at a bar with, shooting the breeze over a pint, instead of doing the standard educational thing, discussing stuff like ‘theory’ and ‘aesthetic value’. There’s so much talk in art circles today about the lure of the local, the local as something we have to get back to. Maybe myself and Gerry were actually investigating this very topic, nattering about being from a small town along with more haughty topics like our love for European art films and paintings like the majestic candle series by German artist Gerhard Richer. Gerry ended up writing a great degree thesis on realism and the face in contemporary painting that perhaps had some bearing on his prize-winning portrait. My abiding memory of this time is that I should have been advising him on what he could be researching next, but we’d somehow end up banging on about our background in rural Tipp (where Gerry is from) and rural Galway (where I am from). We also laughed a lot in the process. I even recall receiving a phone call from Gerry one Monday morning to say he couldn’t come to his tutorial. ‘I’m in Tipp,’ a voice roared down the phone. I asked ‘are you coming to the tutorial?’ but he just replied ‘I’m in Tipp.’ Eventually I realized ‘I’m in Tipp’ is shorthand for ‘I’m otherwise engaged today’.

henry shefflin
Portrait of Sean Guinan | Gerry Davis

Recent developments within portraiture, especially those I consider to be pushing the boundaries of the form, have sought to capture the grandeur and ordinariness of the subject in the same moment. The point is, at least as I perceive it, to bring the history of portraiture – fashioned in its origins for royalty and aristocracy – into some sort of dialogue with the abiding political system of our times: democracy. In democratic systems, everyone has an equal vote, and therefore democracy is one of the few political forms of governance that recognizes a certain degree of equal standing among its subjects. The aim of this development in portraiture is, to a degree, to bring out the ordinariness of those perceived as godlike. In other cases, by contrast, these developments concern eliciting the godlike in the ordinary. Two examples come to mind. The first is the commissioned photographic portrait by the German artist Thomas Struth of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh titled Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh, Windsor Castle 2011. Struth, a well-established contemporary artist who had little background with this type of commission, depicts the royal figures relaxing against the backdrop of the opulent Windsor Castle. It is not, however, the figures that appear haughty, removed from the auspice of the ordinary, but the backdrop that makes them seem as such. The lush green furniture then pushes against this, however, and draws out the calmer green of the dress the Queen is wearing.  As a result we begin to notice her veiny arms and petite legs.. All of a sudden, I think the Queen could be my grandmother. And this, for me, is the point of this portrait: this Queen could be my grandmother. And this Duke could be my granduncle. The once distant and aloof is now close.

The other example is Philippe Parreno’s and Douglas Gordon’s 2006 film portrait Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. This film has been critically well-received by mainstream and art world aficionados alike. What interests me most is that both artists have spoken at length about a late night visit with the film crew to the Prado in Madrid to help instill a sense of the history of portraiture before the shoot. The film is a multi-perspective view of the French-Algerian footballer Zinedine Zidane playing for his then-club Real Madrid against Villarreal, a game Zidane was actually sent off in. What makes the film so interesting as a portrait is that it allows us to appreciate Zidane on his stage, to see at close quarter a master at work. The camera work brings us down to the level of Zidane’e playing while – at the same time – allows us to see what elevates him from us. Zidane is the Algerian immigrant who captained France to its first World Cup, bringing a nation together under the umbrella of diversity and change, and would assume an almost royal-like status when playing for Real Madrid. And yet, at half time during the film, the camera heads off around the world, showing images of war torn nations, impoverished ghettos, reminding us of the world Zidane managed to escape from: this is a man who comes from ordinariness.

henry shefflin
Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh, Windsor Castle 2011 | Thomas Struth

There are some athletes who simply glide, as if operating in slow motion. Their skill level makes it seem as if they have all the time in the world. They are, however, competing on the biggest stage, often playing a game at breakneck speed. Zidane is one. His balance, poise, elegance and vision, is so remarkable; the physical laws that we are all privy to appear suspended. Dan Carter is another. When Carter gets the ball I feel as if someone has secretly turned the television to slow motion: he glides around the pitch. Perhaps the most talked about example of this category of athlete, however, is Roger Federer, an artiste that led the American writer, David Foster-Wallace to declare ‘Federer is of this type — a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to.’ Henry Shefflin is of this type as well. My abiding memory of Shefflin is his gliding around Croke Park during the 2012 All-Ireland replay against Galway, turning the screw slowly as if he had all the time in the world. My disappointment at the end was tempered by a voice ringing in my ear saying ‘you’re in the Hogan Stand in full view of the great Henry Shefflin.’

When I met Gerry that day in Shannon Airport I recall saying ‘I love the Shefflin portrait…not bad for a Tipp man.’ But I forgot to mention that a friend who’s also heavily involved in Tipp hurling, and professes to have zero interest in art (he once said something to the effect of ‘I’ve walked around the Louvre and National Gallery and felt absolutely nothing’) had asked me to say to Gerry that he really liked the portrait of Shefflin: that it had touched him in some way. He was very keen for me to pass on this message. Why? Perhaps it’s because the portrait that now hangs in the National Gallery manages to do something that the portraits just discussed do. It captures Shefflin’s grandeur with subtle ease, what marks him out as great, while at the same time reminds us that he is indeed an ordinary man. Instead of depicting Henry in the black and amber of Kilkenny playing in Croke Park, winning one of ten All Ireland medals, Gerry depicts him alone on the pitch of his club Ballyhale Shamrocks. This implores us to think of hurling as a sport defined as much by the clubs that cultivate it, the local parishes where the pitch defines the community at large, as the big stars and big days out. Hurling isn’t cut off from its origins. Rather, the origin feeds into the centre, so that the periphery – almost paradoxically – makes the center possible. King Henry stands in his parish alone: a King of the little people.

Gerry’s portrait is thus simple and profound at once. Shefflin is simply standing on the Ballyhale Shamrocks pitch dressed in a suit. He has a hurl cast over his back. He is standing on the very pitch where he honed his craft; bare and empty. But this emptiness is complex in that it draws out the loneliness and dedication often concealed by the simple glamour of winning; the endless hours spent practicing alone. Whether Henry is coming back here now, having – maybe – gone to work and come to practice for another year, or whether he is now retired, and has come here from work to help others with their training, is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the great hurler goes about his business in such a way as to bring the ancient into unison with the modern. The suit, that form of apparel that most defines the modern age, is met with the detail of the hurl, an object that speaks of an intrinsically Irish heritage that is in fact ancient. Shefflin is staring into the distance, absorbed in thought, but what he is thinking is unknown. He has the look of royalty dressed in the apparel of the ordinary, transfixed by what we are not privy too. There is a mystery encased in the stare alone, an intensity that captivates and draws us in. And once in, we’re in a world that is essentially both local and universal: a world in which dreams are borne.

Last year, when I spoke to a friend who lives in the UK about a short film I had sent him to get his thoughts on, he said that it did nothing for him. He followed up by saying that great art allows him see the world anew. All year I’ve been trying to see the world anew, to get out of the deadlocked mourning that comes after a parent has passed. So when I sat down last Sunday to watch the Munster final, having written half of this piece, I watched with what seemed like a newfound sense for the game, awakened to the agility, the skill, the passion, anew. I watched the young nineteen-year-old Cork hurler Darragh Fitzgibbon glide up the pitch like Federer bursting onto centre court. I thought of the pitch Henry is standing on in Gerry’s painting, as the backdrop to such players’ dreams. The club pitch, where each player hones his craft, is the breeding ground for greatness. But it is also, crucially, where ordinariness is cultivated: where what it means to be ordinary brushes up against what it means to be great.

Featured Image Source: The portrait is on view at the National Gallery of Ireland as part of their portraits collection. Find out more here.