Black and Tan


Black and Tan

An exhibition by Mick O’Dea at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

From W. B. Yeats, “VI. The Stare’s Nest by my Window”.

This exhibition is a remarkable departure for Mick O’Dea and yet it is also a journey all the way back to his childhood home in Ennis, where, as a boy he played toy soldiers in the family bar in the unlikely shared company of ex-British service men who had fought in WW2 and Old IRA veterans. For the old men who had fought in real zones of combat, the boy’s plastic tanks and guns became tangible examples of what equipment had worked or hindered their own intricately remembered army manoeuvres. Forty years later, the artist recalled: “In my father’s pub the ex-British army men were rank and file rather than commanders, though when it came to giving me advice about how to lay out my plastic solders they took on the role of commanders.”
For Mick O’Dea, the childhood military toys would inform two decades of his visual art practice.

Aidan Dunne reflected on how O’Dea’s practice of portraiture was energised by that unique “lived encounter with the subject” after he sat for the artist in Paris in 2006: “The energy as much as the visual information is dependent on the presence of the person.” In previous work, the conversational personal essence of the subject radiates through the artist’s eyes and into the textures of each brush stroke. So how strange it is that O’Dea is now so excited about portraits re-imagined through old photographs using charcoal and Indian textured paper and the scale and grit of canvas as he imprints projected images from the past into an original body of work.

In this new exhibition at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, O’Dea brings to bear all his wealth of experience as a painter of the human face and body; and as a landscape artist consciously receptive to the ever shifting patterns of light. Throughout ‘Black and Tan’ previously inanimate faces are lit up by living warmth and personality; we can trace the seasons in trees and know the time of day by the way the artist re-captures a depth in light as it falls across shoes, buckles and straps in a Dublin Street or a Cork Barracks. The artist contends that: “history is never over. History is always present.” It is remarkable to consider what it is that Mick O’Dea achieves in transforming Irish historical photographs (nicknamed “the mirror with a memory”) into something more life-like and real. We so often think that the photograph – particularly ones taken so long ago and at liminal moments of history – will expose an authentic truth about a person we did not know or an event we did not witness. ‘Black and Tan’ emanates from a nuanced and intensely rich research ‘project’ the artist has undertaken: O’Dea has been delving into the national official and unofficial archives; disseminating information and images from history books; tracing and identifying police spies; drawing and painting vast canvases; creating multiple charcoal and pastel sketches; and pacing around the contemporary snow covered city remapping in digital the complex spaces of trauma captured in the early historical photographs he has collected.

The most unusual finding from his research is the one that underpins this exhibition. O’Dea reveals how the official Irish Civil War was foreshadowed by the Irish men who aided and abetted the notorious ‘Black and Tans’ during the Irish War of Independence:
“In the true sense the War of Independence was a war of liberation rather than a civil war… The show is primarily concerned with the War of Independence from the time of the arrival of the Black and Tans in March 1920 up to the truce in July 1921. The Black and Tans were brought in to augment the RIC [Royal Irish Constabulary] who were suffering grievous losses from assassinations and resignations. As a considerable minority of the '‘Tans’' were Irish and the rank and file of the RIC were Irish one could argue that the War of Independence like many of the struggles in Irish history was yet another Civil War with a lot of British on one of the sides.”

In this exhibition we are not only privileged in seeing photographs re-imagined from a radically innovative set of artistic perspectives, but O’Dea focuses our eyes completely on the historical ‘other’. It is surprising to see this version of war from the perspective of the British military: but it is equally challenging to consider O’Dea’s ‘famous men of Irish history’; to witness faces that changed the nation forever but who many would not now recognise. Straight from the trenches, soldiers shipped to Ireland arrived into a situation that was for them de-contextualised out of emotion or care for human rights. Soldiers are seen here for the first time literally showing their true colours: black charcoal and ink washed in the tan yellowing of sepia memory: “I have used the black and tan colour pallet to cover a range of related subjects outside the immediate 1920-21 period.”

Majors and Generals; officers and soldiers; auxiliaries and spies. From the battlefields of the First World War through to Palestine and India, Ireland was often no more than a playground stopover in between more illustrious posts abroad. O’Dea depicts British military personnel laughing out at us like filmstars posing on a set. The same faces; familiar faces; faces that we ourselves might recognise as friend or foe. Pink and warm and healthy and well fed from raids on stores and homes: soldiers catch our eyes with confidence and their cigarettes burn on and on forever without hurting hands or lips. No consequences. They wear their guns in a way that anticipates John Wayne in the cowboy movies and they dress like James Cagney about to take a city of gangsters by storm. They are the type of soldier Yeats finds “cracking jokes” outside his front door: “As though to die by gunshot were / The finest play under the sun.”

It is the articulate attention to the details of war that O’Dea really inspires us to see almost for the first time. The fetishistic over attention these young men pay to their dress style – boots that shine and straps and laces and leather that curves around the calf. A group of soldiers wear seven different types of hat and raincoated figures smoke cigarettes in iconic Bogart fashion. Fashion. These are men of destiny but not as Jack Yeats envisaged. We see the heavily-armed foot-soldiers of Empire confiscating hurling sticks or the musical instruments from a Trade Union Band: a Crossley Tender drives away looking more like a circus troupe than a registered army vehicle. Uniforms and parades and Maxwell in 1916 resplendent in medals inspecting the line. These are the official images allowed (and most often encouraged) by the British who posed so elegantly for that photographic hand of history. Such pictures were in danger of disappearing from memory: another slippage in the amnesia of our contemporary politics. By putting Edward Carson, Bonar Law, James Craig, the UVF and the top ranks of the British Army – Major General Tudor and Major Percival – back into the picture as “Great men of Irish history”, O’Dea suggests that the Establishment had decided the north would be central to the remapping of Ireland and Empire even as early as the 1912 Ulster Convention.

This is no easy subject matter. This is no easy narrative. Every face casts a shadow. Every soldier leaves a darkness. O’Dea has drawn richly on the visual traces of the Irish past to create a radical intervention into how contemporary audiences and future generations encounter and remember war. The artist began some of these portraits by literally projecting the archival photographs onto vast canvases. Then he sketched the bodies and the uniforms and built the characters in charcoal before painting washes of acrylic colour into the frame. In projecting memory onto the canvas, O’Dea casts Irish visual art back into a history of consequence that is still difficult to envisage. So intimate is this work rooted in his own Irish childhood, that sometimes O’Dea’s concern rests with the stage set of location: how a window in the background of three auxiliaries playing with a gun for the camera in a Dublin Street resembles the bar window of his father’s Ennis pub. These pictures often re-imagine war by re-animating the objects that feature in popular songs of the time: the intricate mechanical body of the Crossley tenders that contained eighteen Auxiliaries attacked by Tom Barry’s men in the ‘Kilmichael ambush’ of November 1920. In this show, O’Dea illuminates the coded minutiae of power as disseminated through clothes, fabrics, shoes, boots, hats, guns, cars, tanks. Moreover, he reveals a history that was not determined by De Valera or Collins or Griffith. The faces inscripted anew in ‘Black and Tan’ are not the known: they are the terrifying unknowns; the unnamed soldiers who left a scar on the country the size of a border. Mick O’Dea’s exhibition opens a new door to the visual cultures of Irish military history and the key is turned once again on our uncertainty.
Catherine Morris is a postdoctoral research fellow at the John Hume Global Irish Institute at University College Dublin and a guest curator with the National Library of Ireland. Her book “Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival” will be published by Lilliput later this year. “Discover: Alice Milligan archives to exhibition” will open at the NLI in April 2010.