Transfigurations of Light

By Bruce Swansey

F OR A NUMBER OF YEARS and in an informal way, Irish artists have been visiting and working in Mexico.  This, in part, has been possible due to the presence of Irish people living in Mexico such as Sean O’Criadain and Peter Lamb, who invited painters like Patrick Scott to stay with him.  Pat worked with weavers in Teotitlán del Valle, in Oaxaca, merging his designs with the expertise of the artisans and exhibited his paintings at the Taylor Gallery.

On a more systematic basis and thanks to the enthusiasm of Alfonso López Monreal, a well known and respected Mexican artist in Ireland, a permanent Irish-Mexican exchange was started in 1980.  Marian Clarke from Northern Ireland travelled to Zacatecas, one of Mexico’s most beautiful baroque cities which would not be an exaggeration to describe as a poem carved in stone.  Marian has gone back to Mexico City and to Zacatecas, Alfonso’s home town, several times, and many Irish poets and painters have followed her steps.

Painting volcanoes-  photo by Daniel Dultzin

The artists that Alfonso, who has lived in Belfast for many years, has hosted in Zacatecas are numerous.  They come from as far afield as Cork, Donegal, Dublin and Northern Ireland, all united in a territory traditionally open to enriching and being enriched by contact with foreign artists and intellectuals.  Mary McGowan, Paddy Maloney, Oliver Whelan and Brian Ferran, among other painters, and Patrick Galvin, Paddy Donnelly and Joan Newmann, among other poets, have been in Zacatecas.  Other professionals like art historians Rosemarie Mulcahy and Denise Ferran and curators like Ted Hickey, have also been involved.  Their work in Mexico has led to various exhibitions and events since 1984 to this year, including Oliver Whelan’s next exhibition in July in the Gallery Marie-Louise Ferrari in Xalapa, Veracruz.

Alfonso is interested in providing his colleagues with a living and working experience that allows them to nurture their art.  Through these almost two decades of permanent cultural exchange, Alfonso created a true artistic dialogue between Ireland and Mexico and has discovered that both cultures have a lot in common.  All of the Irish artists who have travelled to Mexico have benefited from one aspect which is essential to all painters and visual artists in general:  the light.

On this subject, the reader knows that Ireland’s light is always subject to extreme contrasts.  Even when the sun is shining and the light is as clear as crystal there are always clouds creating a chiaroscuro effect.  Light is there but so is shadow.  Louis MacNeice has captured this quality of Irish light in The Sunlight on the Garden:  ‘The sunlight on the garden / Hardens and grows cold / We cannot cage the minute / Within its nets of gold / When all is told / We cannot beg for pardon.’

On the other hand, those people that have been in Mexico, regardless of the region they were visiting, will probably agree that it is simply impossible to ignore the light.  The sun literally collapses on the earth, creating explosions of brilliance, a light that is so strong that it is sometimes intimidating.  This light, that so generously inundates everything is also related in a peculiar way to the relating of colour which is, without exaggerating, the raw material of Mexican painting.  Alfonso Reyes, Mexican poet and essayist, synthesises the Mexican sun in his poem entitled Monterrey Sun, translated into English by Samuel Beckett:  ‘Indigo all the sky, / all the house of gold. / How it poured into me, / the sun, through my eyes! / A sea inside my skull, / go where I may, and through the clouds be drawn, / oh what weight of sun / upon me, oh what hurt / within me of that cistern / of sun that journeys with me!

Looking Down on the Street, Mexico City

The relation to colour is so important that even when Diego Rivera was in Paris experiencing his cubist period, according to Octavio Paz, ‘his bright colours took him aside from that tendency and exposed him to the criticism that cubists feared the most:  to incur in decoration.’  Certainly, Philppa Bayliss committed this sin.  She is quite aware of the Mexican light and each of the 52 oil paintings she has brought back to Ireland express her joy in that light.  It is a changing radiance as she travels from Mexico City, which was known to be ‘the most transparent region’, to Tepoztlan, where the light glitters among the luxuriant vegetation of the tropics and transforms the ocean into every-changing silver scales.

The Embassy of Mexico is delighted to further Alfonso’s initiative and to begin a programme that Philippa Bayliss has just inaugurated in 1998.  This programme aims to bring together Irish and Mexican artists, convinced that they are excellent ambassadors for both countries, and from whose experience we shall all benefit.  It also aims to open markets for Ireland and for Mexico because, lively as they are, they are not big enough to contain the effervescent creativity at both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The names listed above are, indeed, only the tip of the iceberg.  We are convinced that there have been more Irish artists who have travelled to Mexico and have been fascinated, like Phil Kelly, by its light.  For this reason, the Embassy of Mexico would like to find out as much as possible about all Irish artists who have worked in Mexico.  By combining forces, the Embassy is certain that a meaningful retrospective exhibition could be organised.

This would demonstrate that the geographic distance between Mexico and Ireland disappears by virtue of the fact that each of the countries exerts upon its artists a powerful magnetism.

Birds in Mexico City - Philippa Bayliss

Birds in Mexico City

PhilippaTransfigurations of Light