Keith Payne’s Early Marks

The Gallery in the Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, recently opened an extraordinary exhibition by Keith Payne – Early Marks is a summation of Keith’s own insights into the beginnings of art and the possible source of a prehistoric worldwide visual language.

Keith Payne (left) and friend

We worked closely with Keith on our Rock Art Exhibition – long-term readers will remember his enormous and colourful depiction of the rock art at Derreennaclogh which lent so much visual impact to the exhibition and it’s included in this show as well. In addition we have seen individual pieces from this collection in Schull’s Blue House Gallery shows so we knew his interest in early art of all kinds. But individual paintings and sculptures, impressive as they are, are one thing – an integrated vision is something entirely different.

Keith’s Derreennaclogh painting is on the right – but what are those antlers all about? You’ll have to check that out for yourselves

And that is what we get at the Burren show – Keith’s long preoccupation with archaeology, anthropology and early art come together in a stunning sequence of artworks that lead the viewer not just through time and space (he provides a ‘Genographic map of the Human Emergence’ that shows the location of the inspiration for each piece) but also into that part of the human psyche that has always striven to communicate through art.

Robert contemplates the Venus of Laussel (above) and filiform (scratched or incised designs) occur throughout the world

We don’t know, of course, what some of these Early Marks meant. On one canvas Keith shows how a piece of ochre from Blombos Cave in South Africa (below) was engraved with diagonal scratch marks over 75,000 years ago. Our brains leap to provide an interpretation of such marks – to the modern mind, they must mean something – a tally, perhaps, or a primitive alphabet. We will probably never know exactly, but what we can deduce from such early markings and from all of the art that Keith shows us is that symbolic intent was embedded in the human cultural experience from the earliest times.

Faithful as they are to their models – Keith depicts cave paintings, rock scribings, Irish rock art, masks, a Venus figure, finger flutings – these are not copies of the originals, but come also from Keith’s deep knowledge of prehistoric and primitive art and from his own aesthetic imagination.

Finger fluting – when fingers are used to make marks on soft clay deposits on cave walls. Torchlight moving across the wall would have given life and movement to the images

In a pair of paintings with almost 3D tactility he shows how two handaxes represent a startling continuity of technology – one comes from Olduvai Gorge and dates from one and half million years. The other comes from England and dates to about 400,000 years. But identical handaxes have been found in sites that date to 40,000 years. A useful tool and a reliable technology persisted over time and produced these beautiful objects that truly united form and function.

For Keith, early marks spring from the visionary state which was part of the everyday ethos of early humans. His exhibition notes talk about ‘animism’ – a belief that that all things animate and inanimate have an intention of their own where there is no boundary between the physical world and the spiritual or ‘Other’ world.

Physical and cultural evolution are underlying themes in the exhibition

Those of us privileged to be at the opening were struck, individually and collectively, by the continuity of the human imagination over time. Curiously, the works seem to bring us together as a species, reminding us of common threads woven through our collective consciousness over the millennia.

Title: When the Great Door Opens – Turn Left

Louise Janvier, an artist, art historian and lecturer, who opened the exhibition summed it up this way in her erudite remarks: The work has literally been brought out of the darkness and into the light to reveal the ‘Animism’ of thought and with antiquarian curiosity stir the imagination to further contemplate on the nature of being. . . We can receive the offering and experience the closeness of the ancient world then absorb it as a visionary gift.

I will leave you with a final example of this ‘visionary gift.’ In this piece, from the perspective of a hunter hiding in an enormous cavern Keith views a herd of Woolly Mammoth passing by the cave entrance. The mammoths are rendered in true cave-painting style, leading the viewer into all kinds of rumination about the nature of these early depictions.

A trip to the Burren is a great experience at any time – make it before September 7th and catch this wonderful exhibition!

Presenting Rock Art

A joint post by Finola and Robert

keith's dnc

On  Friday, the Blue House Gallery in Schull launched The Rock Art Show. It included everything that was in the exhibition at the Cork Public Museum, but with more of Ken William’s extraordinary photographs, and with the addition of some exquisite drypoint engravings from Brian Lalor.

The opening night was lovely. It was great to celebrate with friends and the community and to see their reactions to the show.*

Once the show was completely installed we were struck immediately by the way art and archaeology intersected on the walls. It’s designed partly as a museum exhibit, in which you walk around the panels, reading the information and digesting the accompanying illustrations. However, in this iteration, it is much more than that, and has truly turned into a show not just about the rock art per se, but about the power of these ancient and mysterious carvings to inspire an artistic response in others.

Some examples of what we mean…

dnc kp

derreennaclogh rhKeith Payne’s wildly colourful painting contrasts with Robert’s sober CAD drawing

gort

gortnagulla-lalorThe first drawing of the Gortnagulla stone was done 40 years ago by Finola, using a tracing technique no longer approved. Brian Lalor’s engraving is of the same piece
ballynahowbeg kw
ballynahowbeg ff
Can you recognise the same stone in Ken William’s photograph and Finola’s drawing?

But in the end, images on a wall will only go so far in helping us to appreciate rock art. Ultimately, you have to get out into the countryside and see the rocks in their landscape.

magheranaul kw

One of Ken’s superb photographs showing how this particular stone sits in its landscape  

Only then will you realise how hard they can be to see if the lighting is not good, to how difficult it can be to distinguish between natural and human markings on a rock surface, or how they all seem to be located in beautiful places with panoramic views. Or – to have an experience like this one, in which we made a breathtaking and unexpected discovery about one of our favourite rock art panels, and quite by accident recorded it all on video.

Derreennaclogh equinox circles

So  if you’re in West Cork before the end of September, drop by the gallery. We’d love to see you.

*With grateful acknowledgement of additional photographs of the opening night by Peter Clarke, Amanda Clarke and Miranda Payne.

Launched!

A joint post by Finola and Robert

Mingling

Hallowe’en (All Hallows – Samhain) was the perfect day to launch our Prehistoric Rock Art Exhibition at the Cork Public Museum. As Finola said in her remarks at the opening, it’s a time when the veil between two worlds is at its thinnest: in this case, it’s the veil between an ancient time and the present day. We hope the exhibition emphasises the work of our distant ancestors who have inscribed the landscape and given us the enigma that is Rock Art.

Blank Canvass

Almost there
Before the Exhibition – Robert contemplates the blank canvas (top) and installation work in progress (below)

As our regular readers will know, the exhibition has been a very successful collaborative effort: Finola and Robert (providing drawings, explanations and the overall design); Keith Payne, a West Cork painter whose work is inspired by ancient art; Ken Williams, the excellent photographer of megaliths and monuments; the staff of Cork Public Museum, including intern Clare Busher O’Sullivan who came up with the idea and Dan Breen, Assistant Curator and his team, who made sure it all happened.

The Team

The Core Team: Clare Busher O’Sullivan, Ken Williams, Keith Payne, Finola Finlay, Robert Harris and Dan Breen

After some intensive days, on site and off, it has all come together and was launched yesterday. It was a grand launch: Firstly, William O’Brien – Professor of Archaeology at UCC – outlined a history of rock art studies and research which started back in the nineteenth century. He mentioned a predecessor in the department – Professor Michael J O’Kelly – who was born exactly 100 years ago and is best known for his excavations and restoration work at Newgrange, the Boyne Valley passage tomb: Finola worked on those excavations and it was Professor O’Kelly who suggested that she should carry out the research on rock art in Cork and Kerry which led to her Master’s thesis on the subject in 1973 – and, 42 years later, to the undertaking of this exhibition.

Professor Michael J O’Kelly (left) was renowned for his work at Newgrange (right)

Next up was Finola, who told us more about her expeditions back in the early 1970s. In those days when the boreens of rural Ireland were mostly populated by donkey carts her own travel was by means of her brother’s Honda 50 motorcycle, and we pictured her loaded down with compass, tapes, chains, chalk and tracing paper – a recording methodology now completely out of favour. But the result was a set of beautiful monochrome illustrations that form the core of the exhibition.

Coomasaharn

Rock Art: a detail of the picking technique (top left), and Finola’s drawings from 1973

In our modern days non-invasive recording methods have to be used: Ken Williams has developed a very effective method of photography using slave flash units to provide low angle lighting over the carved rocks, which brings the maximum level of detail out of the panels. The exhibition contains many fine examples of Ken’s work in this field.

Ken Williams in action: at the Bohonagh stone circle (left) and in the Derrynablaha townland, Kerry (right)

Finola also talked about Keith Payne’s work. He produces large and visually striking paintings based on particular rock art motifs. Two of these artworks are in the exhibition and will inevitably draw the eye, providing a good and colourful counterpart to Finola’s drawings.

Keith Payne at the hanging (left) and at the launch, in front of the remarkable Derreennaclogh stone (right)

The official launch was in the capable hands of Ann Lynch, now Chief Archaeologist at the Irish National Monuments Office. Ann and Finola were fellow students at UCC. Ann outlined the work of her department in recording Ireland’s monuments – and the difficulties involved in pursuing the preservation and protection of these monuments, including Rock Art – before formally declaring the exhibition open.

Ann declares it open

Ann Lynch, Chief Archaeologist at the National Monuments Office, declares the Exhibition open

Noteworthy exhibits include one piece of Rock Art – the Bluid Stone from County Cork – which is in the safe keeping of the Museum, and will remain on permanent display after the exhibition closes at the end of February next year. The Museum also houses an example of passage grave art from Cape Clear island (prominent in our own view from Nead an Iolair).

Tired

Fine Detail: the Bluid Stone under close inspection

Other exhibits include Ken’s superb photo of the iconic stone at Derrynablaha, Co Kerry, in its panoramic setting of a Neolithic landscape. This occupies the whole of the end wall – and is simply beautiful.

Gazing

Visitors are surprised to see much of the floorspace taken up with a 70% life-sized image of the stone at Derreennaclogh: some hesitate to walk over it, but the printing is on hard-wearing vinyl, so feel free. The idea is to give you the feel of what it’s like to discover and explore the Rock Art out in the field. We have to mention how impressed we have been with the printing work carried out by Hacketts of Cork in the preparation of the exhibition – in particular, we were fascinated to watch the professionalism of their installation of the large items.

Yes – that floor can be walked on!

The timescale is set admirably by Alex Lee’s ‘Neolithic Settlement’ on the approach to the exhibition room. It’s well worth studying closely all the artefacts set out in this, and imagining what life must have been like for our artist ancestors in Ireland four or five thousand years ago.

Alex

Alex Lee at work on the Neolithic Settlement

We were delighted by how many of our friends from West Cork and beyond attended the opening, and gave us positive feedback. If you go during the next four months, please sign the visitors’ book. We are so grateful to our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke for being so supportive throughout – and for taking most of these photographs of the event: very many thanks.

Earnest discussions (left) and one of Ken’s superb photographs (right)

Our own day was rounded off by a visit to the Shandon Dragon festival, which processed through the centre of Cork in the evening – another unmissable event which reminds us of ancient times and long-held beliefs…

Shandon Dragon

Hallowe’en: The Shandon Dragon Procession makes its way through Cork City