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Guggi’s Art Attack

Irish Times – May 2000
by John Kelly

THE INDEFINITE ARTICLE: Guggi used to live in Lypton Village – an imaginary universe populated by people with strange names. He got the name Guggi because his mate Paul thought he looked like a Guggi. Then Paul needed a name too and Guggi chose it, dubbing him Bono Vox of O’Connell Street. The others citizens of Lypton Village had names like Dik, Strongman, Edge and Gavin Friday and between them they came up with two extraordinary bands and much more besides.

Guggi’s band, The Virgin Prunes, first appeared on the Dublin music scene at the end of the 1970s. They were part-band, parttheatre and part-ferocious cultural assault. They wore make-up, dresses and hair products and purveyed a level of musical terrorism which, at the time, was quite unthinkable. In the middle of it all, Guggi, who knew nothing whatsoever about bands, was more inclined to think about art. He never stopped drawing and painting and when he finally parted company with The Prunes back in 1986, he was suddenly free to concentrate solely on the visual. For Guggi, s whose exhibition of new work is currently on at Dublin’s Solomon Gallery, drawing and painting had always come first.

“As a kid, I remember that milk-bottles was a favourite. It was the idea of light hitting the bottle and being able to show it with just one colour. I started developing that technical thing very, very early and I started making things actually look like something at about six or seven. Regarding the looser thing which is part of what I’m doing now, I would have been a very late developer. It took me a long time to realise that while there isn’t as much technical ability evident in a certain type of painting, it can be much more powerful.”
The new work reveals both sides of Guggi. There are paintings which are certainly powerful and loose, with the newest of the paintings perhaps the most expressive of all, but there are also his familiar urns and bowls executed with delicate precision. Anyone who ever saw the Prunes in action might well be surprised at this aspect of his Guggi’s approach – technical precision seems a long way from the wild, confrontational, chaotic and loin-cloth madness of old. “Yes, but I still have old biro drawings from those days and they are so very precise. When I was a teenager I was amazed at how you could get so much with just a pen or a pencil. And I worked very hard at that. And I do think you’ve got to have that ability because the technical thing is really about understanding the medium. If my medium is paint, then I’ve got to know what I can do with it. Otherwise, it’s like somebody coming along and proclaiming themselves to be a great poet, but they don’t actually speak any language.”

Guggi never formally studied art, but he does remember attending an art class somewhere off Molesworth Street. He recalls sketching a clay figure in a “slow and precise” way and being quite pleased with it. The teacher, however, was not so impressed with its delicacy and advised him to go darker and harder with the pencil. And so ended the classes. In later years, when others were going to art college, Guggi was devoting himself to the band – perhaps a curious passion for someone who wasn’t actually a musician.

“Well, I’m not a musician at all, and I don’t have much of a singing voice, so my contribution to The Virgin Prunes was more in what we were as well as the music – make-up, costume and performance. But I wasn’t really conscious of too much because, to be honest with you, I was quite stupid. I love music, but not in the same way as the people I grew up with. They had a real passion for it and it was Gav who was the main music man and the driving force. He came up with these wild ideas and perhaps my contribution was in helping to make them work.”

Much has been written about The Virgin Prunes. They still enjoy cult status, especially in Europe where their antics were particularly well received. Their relationship with U2 continues to add further to the mystique, with Guggi, Gavin and co often described as the pioneering alter-egos of U2. Back then, however, any reputation which surrounded the Virgin Prunes was entirely down to their extremely over-the-top brand of cross- dressing pun performance art.

“Our first ever gig was supporting U2 in The Project Arts Centre. Our second gig was in Saint Anthony’s Hall and soon after that we played in McGonagles and 400 people were turned away at the door. It got very serious very quick and word spread like wildfire. Everybody wanted to see the band. If they saw us on a good night, I know they saw something very special and very powerful. But those were about one in 10 gigs. If they saw us on a bad night, I would imagine we were so dreadful.”

In 1983 The Virgin Prunes were unleashed on The Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin. Together, and still in their teens, they produced an exhibition of paintings, drawings, installations and sculpture. It ran for two nights and was followed by a performance in the Edmund Burke Hall. The event is well-remembered for its mix of noise, cheesecloth, birdsong, carpet, a pig’s head, a man dressed as a sheep and the unmistakable smells of urine and excrement. Whatever way you looked at it, it was an assault which confirmed their reputation. Terms like Surreal and Dada would stick to them forever.

“I think by nature we were all of those things. These were all terms that Gav talked about and I’d just go along with them and I’d learn what he meant later. But I think you don’t have to know the words to actually be something. We certainly didn’t analyse what we were at the time, although I could see what was powerful and I did have a feel for it. But the thing people really miss when talking about The Virgin Prunes is that there was a very strong sense of humour working through it. And we took our humour very seriously. When people asked us what we were trying to do, our answer was `to establish dresses for men’.”

ONCE Guggi had ceased to be Prune he began to devote more time to his sideline as a sign-writer. He loved it and still talks, with considerable passion about “the onestroke thing”. His painting career took a turn when his friend Bono suggested that a bunch of them get together to paint few nights a week. It was part relaxation (this was Joshua Tree time) and part experiment, and it resulted in a 1988 show at the Hendricks Gallery – a four-man exhibition featuring the work of Guggi, Gavin Friday, Bono and C harlie Whisker.

Guggi’s first solo exhibition was at the Kerlin Gallery in 1990 and in 1996 he was commissioned to come up with a permanent collection for Dublin’s Clarence Hotel. What had happened in the intervening 10 years is that Guggi the mud-caked archPrune had finally “loosened-up”.

“That period in 1988 was when I really started becomin g a painter and started to drop this technical tightness. And I just loved it so much. I just decided not to be afraid any more and just to enjoy doing it. I thought to myself that I didn’t mind being broke if I could do this every day. And now with The Solomon Gallery show I want to cover what it is that I’m interested in at the moment, and use all the spaces available. Yes, I love the freedom of doing whatever painting I want, but I also like any exercise which is out of the norm. Anything like a commission or a show stretches me as a painter. So some of the painting in the show came from me looking at the space, thinking what it needed and deciding to do something fresh and new that I’d never done before. It was a question of trusting my instincts.”

An exhibition of Guggi’s work is at the Solomon Gallery, Dublin until May 24th
The Solomon Gallery ‘s web site features photos of Guggi’s work at http://www.solomongallery.com/current.html.