Guggi Knights

Sunday Times, May 21, 2000

As he unveils his first exhibition for five years the artist formerly known as Derek Rowen looks back on a disciplinarian childhood and his escape from conformity with Bono, the Virgin Prunes and painting, writes MICHAEL ROSS

Everyday objects in art: Guggi’s Urns with Stripes at the Solomon gallery is representative of his current style.

His earliest memory is from the age of three. It’s a memory of his reaction to the other children in his primary school, and on Cedarwood Road in Ballymun, where he lived. He knew he felt different from them, and as he grew older the reasons crystallised. They were preoccupied with football, with having the same haircuts and clothes as each other, with wanting to fit in; he wasn’t.

Eventually, he got to know the youngest from number 10 across the road, whom he discovered was equally uninterested in football, fashions and fitting in. And so they became friends, Derek Rowen and Paul Hewson, Guggi and Bono.

Later, in their teens, the pair took an interest in Fionan Hanvey, a David Bowie fan who lived at the other end of Cedarwood Road and sported a huge head of hair, an exotic contrast to the penitential bowl cut forced upon Guggi. They had difficulty befriending Hanvey, however, because of his extreme shyness; if they crossed the road to talk to him, Hanvey ran. Eventually, Bono struck up a conversation with him about Bowie, another friendship was sparked and, in due course, Fionan Hanvey became Gavin Friday.

Later came Lypton Village, the Virgin Prunes, U2 and the accretions of myth that accompany global success. At the centre, however, remain a cluster of people who found themselves out of sympathy with their surroundings, then re-created themselves from the bootstraps up to become some of the most innovative and provocative artists Ireland had yielded in the last quarter century.

“It wasn’t coincidental,” says Guggi, whose first solo exhibition in five years is at the Solomon gallery, Dublin. “I grew up believing you could be a postman or a bus conductor but not a singer in a band or a painter. I didn’t believe people’s dreams could come true. Bono showed me that they can.”
Born in 1959, one of 10 children in the Rowen household, Guggi grew up in one of the rarer things in suburban Dublin, a fundamentalist Christian family. Raised in the Church of Ireland, his father had as a young man become a member of the Plymouth Brethren, attending meetings in Merrion Hall in the city centre, where Guggi and his siblings were later brought to worship.

“My father was a strict disciplinarian,” says Guggi. “When we lived under his roof we lived by his rules and there was no questioning that. It went on for what seemed a very long time, until I could afford to set up home elsewhere, which I did at the age of 17.

“The way I was brought up was unhip but I can’t fault it. There isn’t anything I was taught then that I don’t believe now. I still have a strong Christian faith, though I’m a bad example of what a Christian should be, sometimes the worst example you could meet.”

Apart from his father, one other male figure proved hugely influential on Guggi as he developed: Jimmy Burns, his art teacher in secondary school in Whitehall. Just as Donald Moxham became a crucial mentor to the fledgling U2 in Mount Temple comprehensive, Burns nurtured Guggi, offering encouragement and allowing him unhindered use of the school’s art facilities.

“In Plunkett’s in Whitehall, you were judged not by the important things but by how good you were at football,” says Guggi. “I was made to feel useless until Jimmy Burns came along and I was made to feel special in the thing I loved most, and that’s something that has stood to me.”
Soon after he left school, and Cedarwood Road, Guggi formed, with Gavin and others, the Virgin Prunes, a blitzkrieg art-rock group. Its members were drawn from Lypton Village, the notional community to which Bono and The Edge from U2 also belonged.

The strange politics of Lypton Village showed themselves in the various degrees of membership U2 and others enjoyed. Bono was a founder member, The Edge belonged from an early juncture, as did his brother Dik, guitarist in the Prunes. But Adam Clayton, U2’s bass player, remained only an associate member, while Larry Mullen, the band’s drummer, occupied a still more distant orbit.

“It was based very much on a shared sense of humour,” says Guggi. “The few of us there from the start developed our personalities and our sense of humour together, and people who came in afterwards maybe didn’t feel quite so secure about their place. We took our humour very seriously. We knew we were on to something.”

The Virgin Prunes, for a time the id to U2’s ego, were never a commercial proposition, so Guggi kept various sidelines going, including a spell working for his father, who imported batteries and Peugeot bicycles.
“He had a strong belief that you couldn’t be second in anything you did, whereas I think sometimes it’s okay to be second, or even 10th. Working for my dad put me off ever wanting to work for anyone again. My brother Clive held the record for getting sacked by him: he was sacked 22 times, while I came a pathetic second with 17 sackings.”

In the Virgin Prunes, Guggi neither sang nor played an instrument, for he could do neither. His role was performance, which included such activities as covering himself in pig’s blood for an anti-abortion song that featured prominently in the Prunes’ show. “Everybody wanted to see the Virgin Prunes, nobody wanted to buy our records, and I could clearly see why,” he says. “It’s not that our music wasn’t powerful, but with a couple of exceptions it was powerful only as the soundtrack to a performance.”

After eight years in the Virgin Prunes, Guggi’s dwindling involvement ended when, in a last gasp before disbanding, his fellow members fired him, freeing him to concentrate on painting.

In the year or so that followed, Guggi moved beyond preoccupation with detail to a new fluency in his work. A crucial shift came when Guggi and Gavin videoed Mary Dunne, who spreads the Catholic message from the spot on O’Connell Street where Nelson’s Pillar used to stand. Guggi drew a series of portraits of her, working in oils for the first time.

“She has a brilliant face. I photographed a still of that from the television screen. I did some portraits of her head. I got free with the oil paint and it helped me loosen up. That was the start of me as a painter.”
In the intervening years, Guggi’s work has moved through distinct phases, the expressionism of his late-1980s paintings giving way to a spell of rarefied minimalism in the early 1990s, to the relative playfulness of some of his commissioned works in the Clarence hotel, to his current style, not dissimilar to that of William Scott, characterised by minimal treatments of familiar objects, mostly bowls and urns.

“I’ve always been an instinctive painter, and I worry less about imitating others than imitating oneself,” he says. “That’s something a lot of painters suffer from, it’s something I’ve had problems with and have struggled against. If I’ve changed, it’s that I do more better work than I used to. I’ve done many series of works and I sometimes make a huge jump, which is what happened to me about 15 months ago.”
With the Clarence commission in the mid-1990s, Guggi turned a corner, leaving behind his former gallery, the Kerlin, and becoming more assured as a painter. The financial gains that have also accrued have come as a welcome bonus, he says, in a line of work that he never thought would yield a living.

“I can’t believe my luck, to be honest,” he says. “I was told in school that if I worked hard, changed my ways, one day I might be able to become a petrol pump attendant. I’m glad I didn’t listen, and that I had Bono to inspire me. I never want to settle for my lot, I just want to be a great painter. It’s not for reasons of money or ego, because I believe a painter is just an instrument for a much higher power.”