John Burke at South Tipperary Arts Centre
Who wouldn’t love a sculpture called Medieval Gin Party? A diminutive form in patinated iron, it dates from 1977 and exhibits the balanced brilliance that is a hallmark of John Burke’s work. Three weighty shapes incline lightly toward one another on an asymmetrical base. This piece and Allihies at Dawn, 1997, stand out as the most personal in an exhibition otherwise devoted mainly to maquettes for monumental outdoor projects.
Burke, who died in 2006, was one of Ireland’s leading exponents of modernist public sculpture, and this show should open the way to a reconsideration of his work. As a teacher at Cork’s Crawford School of Art he introduced a generation to the properties of hefty steel, revealed bolts, and bright colors. He also passed on his own admiration for the work of David Smith, Alexander Calder, and Anthony Caro and shared his ability to persuade metal into marvelous shapes.
Allihies at Dawn, again in patinated iron, echoes the shadowed and sheer rock faces that dramatize the small village so beloved by generations of artists at the very western tip of Ireland. The maquettes, on the other hand, are arabesques in iron and steel, finely finished and exhibiting a fluid poetry that belies their medium. Blue Shadow, 1985, is a triumph of Burke’s ability to create a floating paradox of grace and weight in steel and wood. A large photograph of Burke’s Red Cardinal, 1978, in situ on Dublin’s Lower Baggot Street, calls to mind that other more famous Irish artist and his way with cardinals. Francis Bacon may have handled his different medium differently, but that outline of conflicted power remains the same.