an tlarthar - the West

"I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on," cries she.
"Come out of charity,
And dance with me in Ireland"


I am of Ireland, W. B. Yeats

Barbara Rae’s seemingly compulsive and incessant travelling takes her all over the globe, from the vast plains of the Karoo in South Africa to the Painted Desert in the Hopi people’s homelands of America. On other occasions her obsessive artistic quests will seek out the immense majesty of the world’s vast oceans, whether it be the easily accessible surfers’ paradise of California’s Pacific rolling coast or the ragged Atlantic seaboard of western Ireland. The works in this exhibition are either County Mayo in the north or County Kerry in the south west of the “Holy Land of Ireland”.

These western voyages of Barbara Rae have become a kind of ongoing series of pilgrimages. Her previous major exhibition at the Scottish Gallery for instance simply West and presented a range of work inspired by her visits to the south western tribal lands of the United States, with their profoundly alien yet alluring beauty. Now the paintings in this subsequent display of her most recent travels concentrates on her time moving back and forth along thae west coast of Ireland. Although not geographically so far flung as Arizona, these richly austere images also convey the same kind of fascination which always seems to excite the keenly perceptive eye and receptive imagination of the artist.

Whether consciously or not, Rae appears to be constantly drawn to these geographical peripheries. There it seems, she is much more likely to discover and engage with those crucial encounters between the ever-changing human presences and the hostile or accommodating natural environment. Such significant encounters between the human and the natural are always going to leave significant marks, scars and broken remnants to stimulate, focus and concentrate the artist’s highly tuned attention and vision. Such lingering traces of past communities in these remote landscapes, be they multi-coloured bands of run-rig strip fields, broken-down walls of dry stane dykes and long abandoned cottages or the jagged, hermit-monk infested Skelligs rocks just off the ever-pounding Atlantic coast : all these lingering presences are the poetic voices which echo through Barbara Rae’s Irish paintings.

Along with these resonating ancient and historical memories, both distant and arresting, the other striking element which permeates these evocative paintings in the almost tangible proximity and physical involvement of the artist herself. As the captivated figure painting in the landscape Barbara Rae is very different from W. B. Yeats’ Horseman from the poet’s own epitaph casting “a cold eye, on life, on death” and passing by. Deeply engrossed, and emphatically absorbed, the artist is initially in closely scrutinising and pictorially describing the fluctuating visual appearances and impressions which briefly present themselves to her. Yet this is only the primary stage. She must then get under the surface of the things observed and give herself up to the intangible aura and mystery emanating from her absorbing subjects. The sensual responses and emotional bonds which are stimulated deep in the artist somehow need to find expressive form within the individual and personal language of her own particular art. This requires that the earlier direct observation and factual description has then to give way nad be translated into distinctive painterly expression. Actual occurrences and encounters in the landscape must be drawn into the artist’s pictorial domain to be magically transformed into sweeping gestural brush strokes of lusciously rich colour and enigmatic graphic marks. Thus for example, through the power of the painter’s vision and skill, the higgledy-piggledy fields of Belmullet Farm are miraculously turned into a be-jewelled celestial tapestry similar to the one for which Yeats’ love-lorn poet yearns.

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:”

He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, W.B.Yeats

Much more than most, Barbara Rae intuitively realises that the peoples of the past and their civilisations which we have inherited, were formed and profoundly influenced by their early travels and migrations. Thus she had a deep and long-standing attachment to Ireland and continues to visit the land of the original Scots on every possible occasion. As with her own native homeland, Ireland is redolent with majestic scenic beauty and epic historical grandeur, both glorious and tragic.

The blood-soaked, joyous story of Ireland which, like Scotland’s, is embedded in its landscape, has been continuously recited and recalled through both ancient and modern verse. Even though an outsider, but also a fellow Celt, Barbara Rae, by the sympathetic power of her art, continues that illustrious bardic tradition. Her paintings, such as Kerry Marks or Yellow Tide – Kerry with their extremely condensed and simplified compositional structure and intense luminosity of colour share the same aura of power and spirituality that is found in illuminated manuscripts and standing stones of Ireland.

The works in this exhibition, clearly testify that the painter, through the responsiveness of her highly tuned skills, has the ability and sensitivity to convey in as direct a manner as possible, an immense range of historical and cultural associations, along with a kaleidoscope of visual and poetical nuances. The worked and layered surfaces of her paintings allude to the geological, geographical, cultural, contexts of their subjects, while at the same time powerfully conveying the physical and emotional sensation of actually being there in a landscape with all its evocative lingering memories.

Yet most of all it is the vital movement and expressive energy, dancing through and across the surfaces of Barbara Rae’s painting, which gives us such immediate visual delight. We can all instinctively follow with pleasure and admiration the graceful flow and explosive whirl of her animated hand and brush as it traces the artist’s sensual and emotional response to her own vision of Ireland and the wonders of its distant western peripheries. She absorbs herself into her subject and her art. It now becomes impossible to separate the apinter from the painting. They have become as one; both moving and dancing in complete pictorial harmony.

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

Among School Children, W.B.Yeats


Bill Hare, October 2003