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Paintings with maximum colour and glare
Longtime Trini resident and Dublin-born artist Erik Feely opens his latest show, Inscapes, at the 101 Art Gallery at Holder’s Studio, Woodbrook on December 3. If you’re expecting the muted colours of the Emerald Isle, which enjoys a perpetual rainy season, you might need a pair of darkers. Feely’s collection of acrylics on canvas is eye-strikingly vivid: scorching yellows and blood orange red clashing with gradations of purple, mauve, rampant green and turquoise, recalling the palette of the Fauvists, or, closer to home, the work of Isaiah James Boodhoo. Feely describes the collection as “semi-abstract landscapes…with religious themes,” as in All Done, in which the solitary figure of an old woman surveys a valley, a visual metaphor for her life’s journey, or the Ascension series of four canvases set in the Northern Range which suggest spiritual transformation.
Rather than impressionistic or even expressionist interpretations of motionless landscapes, Feely’s inscapes pulsate with near blinding explosions of energy, which the occasional human figure connects with. One such example is Paramin Hills: Sunset Rhapsody, where the figure of the artist himself stands below the sunset and his outstretched arm is in the process of painting. We might consider Feely’s inscapes as meditations on the divinity of creation, in a similar vein to the forceful poems of the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. There is the same turbulent energy—which accords with Feely’s statement, “In times of emotional turmoil, I turn to painting as a necessary means of expression.” Besides the emotional motivation, Feely cites two conceptual models which inform his autobiographical inscapes. First is St Augustine’s Confessions, regarded as the first western autobiography, which focuses on looking inward and then there’s his compatriot, the writer James Joyce, who gifted modernity with his stream-of-consciousness technique and whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces the artist’s path to self-definition and knowledge.
If all this sounds too cerebral for the intensity of the canvases themselves, then Feely’s explanation of the spontaneity and physicality of the act of painting itself validates the visceral rush they evoke. “I find all my senses come into play. Sight, of course, but also sounds and momentary events all feature in the final result. The inner senses of memory and imagination are also at work...my particular mood has a significant role in the final outcome.” While in one sense the paintings are “technical exercises in composition and line,” they also have the instantaneousness of the captured moment—a bird passing. This is helpful for our understanding of the sensation of a moment when the outer landscape is totally suffused by the distillation of internal energies. Many of the locations which are featured in the paintings will be familiar to viewers who will be prompted to reflect and enquire, by the new lights and colours they are presented in. Feely concedes that, “Art-wise my work has been creolised” by his long sojourn in Trinidad. For Inscapes, he deliberately “jacked up the colour register in order to get the maximum clash and a glare,” which capture both tropical quality of light and colour. This forthcoming exhibition represents a departure for Feely, who has previously worked principally in watercolours, but as an artist who also teaches, it’s not unexpected. Although he originally came to Trinidad in 1982 to establish a local branch of the Roman Catholic lay organisation Opus Dei (whose raison d’etre is “finding faith in the work you do”), as a practising artist, it made sense for him to use his skills, talents and experience in the service of his host community.
After an interview with the late artist and civil servant Isaiah James Boodhoo at the Ministry of Education, Feely began teaching in secondary schools throughout the island, which must have been the best possible introduction to his new home and its people. Besides Asja College in San Fernando and a Hindu school in Couva, he taught in Siparia before spending ten years at St Mary’s College from 1987-97. His own education was completed at Dublin’s famous Trinity College, where he took a double major degree in modern languages (Italian) and the history of art. A one-year scholarship to Italy took him all over the cradle of Renaissance art, from Sicily up to Milan. On his return, he graduated with a masters, writing his dissertation on Dublin’s unique stucco ceilings, originally created to enhance the elegance of Georgian townhouses, which like those of old Havana, when hard times came had been divided into multiple tenements housing the poor. A diploma in graphic art and courses in ceramics ensured he had a wide range of skills to share with his many future students.
After his long stint in Trinidad’s secondary schools, Feely crossed the Gulf of Paria in 2002 to teach at the Armando Reveron Art School of the Central University and the Instituto Universitario de Artes Plasticas in Caracas. A new interest in installations and social criticism resulted in individual shows at experimental galleries. He also held shows in Dublin and Rome 2004 and 2005, before returning to Trinidad in the same year. For Feely, art is not simply an individualistic exercise. It’s a vocation informed by his work with Opus Dei. As a part-time lecturer at Costaatt he has organised outreach projects, which take his students into the wider community—his most recent project a playground mural at Fatima RC Primary, Curepe, designed by students and executed by them and Fatima pupils during the Divali holiday. With projects like this, art not only develops drawing, design and painting skills, but maybe even more importantly a sense of group and social responsibility. This is transformative art, both functional and creative.
To experience Feely’s personal transformative art, check out Inscapes, which runs from December 3 - 12 at the 101 Art Gallery, 84 Woodford Street, PoS. There are previews on November 29 from 4-8 pm and November 30 from 10 am - 2 pm.
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