Gareth McConnell: The language of plants

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Words by Dr . Joseph   McBrinn

An exhibition of McConnell’s work, The Brighter the Plants , the particular Fiercer the Town , goes on show at Seen Fifteen in Peckham this Friday 13 May as part of Peckham 24

Although not a good artist associated with floral symbolism, flowers have long showcased in Gareth McConnell’s pictures. From floral-patterned wallpaper plus mournful, sun-bleached silk arrangements in The Undertakers (1998) to the lush sprays of blooms shot on nocturnal city walks against portentously dark skies in Night time Flowers (2004-8). And the psychedelic posies that punctuate the particular cinematic panorama of young ones who initially appear to be at a trippy rave but may also be engaged in some communal operate of naked devotion in The Dream Meadow (2019).

An exhibition of McConnell’s work, The Better the Flowers , the Fiercer the city , goes on show at Observed Fifteen in Peckham this Friday 13 May included in Peckham 24 and runs until 11 June. It does not take second in a series of displays at Seen Fifteen included in the wider project,   The Troubles Generation, and showcases new work that takes plants solely as its focus. Beneath the headings, Dream Meadow plus Dream Blossom , various arrangements of flowers in bright, over loaded technicolour evoke emotions and feelings and induce intoxicating blissed-out sensations. Yet these are not exotic hothouse blooms, but modest, everyday plants: apple blossoms and cherry blossoms, peonies, cow parsley and gerbera daisies, bluebells, buttercups, daffodils and carnations.  

McConnell’s earliest images of flowers date back towards the body of work this individual made in the late 1990s following the signing of the Great Friday Agreement in his indigenous Northern Ireland. This guaranteed inter-community co-operation across the social and political spectrum, enshrined demilitarisation, and established a new power-sharing executive that jointly signalled the Troubles may be finally drawing to a close up. These early images associated with flowers were incidental, consumed an undertakers that McConnell’s father, a builder, was renovating in the family’s indigenous Carrickfergus. Here dusty and discarded plastic funeral wreaths echo the endless procession of funerals on the streets and on television in which floral tributes bedecked coffins.    

Fantasy Meadow XXI. 2021 © Gareth McConnell.

McConnell grew up in a typical small, working-class, Protestant town in the North. A lot of such towns have become known for their exuberant floral shows as much as their markers associated with sectarian division (paramilitary red flags, painted curbs, murals). The particular coastal and county cities of mid-east Antrim – Carrickfergus, Larne, Ballymena and Antrim; the heartlands associated with Ulster Unionism – possess invested a great deal in their flower arrangements. The best-known town for this is Broughshane, the particular so-called ‘Garden Village associated with Ulster’, which has won numerous accolades and attracts website visitors specifically to see its hanging baskets. Here the prettifying role of the floral hiding the ugly realities of religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence reflects dialecticism inherent in the symbolic language of flowers. The ambiguous name of McConnell’s show refers to this, and is drawn from a comment made by Susan McKay in 2001 in a review of McConnell’s Portraits & Decorations from the Albert Bar (1999): “Sometimes it seems in North Ireland, that the fiercer the town, the more flamboyant the hanging baskets of flower”’.  

McConnell recalls that growing up in the late 1980s plus early 1990s in Northern Ireland, he was impacted not just by the all-consuming politics but also by its strong youth culture and especially the emerging rave scene. The location already had a flourishing, subterranean club movement and embraced the so-called ‘Second Summer of Love’ with its songs and drugs, its psychedelic projections and fashions, the all-night parties in remote fields and abandoned warehouses, which offered local youth a means to escape the banalities of poverty and the ubiquity of violence. Northern Irish rave culture, the tail-end of which can be glimpsed within the documentary Dancing on Thin Ground (1995), took to cardiovascular the movement’s wider utopian and pantheistic politics, nowhere better embodied than in its ‘flower power’ aesthetics, remnants of which entered McConnell’s evolving artistic sensibility.  

There is absolutely no shortage of contemporary art implementing flora and fauna in the tradition of the nature morte with reduce flowers operating as a sign of temporality and fatality. But , for McConnell, bouquets also reflect the mysticism and transcendentalism of existence, and he has long pointed to the hopefulness inherent within their very existence. His garlands bring to mind the chorus of a Jeff Buckley song in the 1990s: ‘all flowers in time bend towards the sun’.    

Dr . Frederick McBrinn

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Joseph McBrinn is definitely an Irish art and style historian. He is Reader within Art and Design History at Belfast School associated with Art, Ulster University in Northern Ireland. He has published and lectured widely on Irish art and design history as well as on the intersecting histories of gender identification, sexuality and disability. He or she is currently writing a biography of the Irish painter and stained glass designer Evie Hone (1894-1955).

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