Guggi: “We were just teenagers with nothing to do”

Sunday Times, September 2002

They didn’t fit into Cedarwood Road, nor into the lower middle-class niche of their youth. Neither of them liked football, the drinking culture that they saw the older teenagers slipping into nor the grinding poverty of ambition among their peers. It helped that they lived opposite each other: Derek Rowen in number five, Paul Hewson in number 10. Neither was academically outstanding and both were unhappy, to a greater or lesser extent, in their home lives. To escape the greyness of 1970’s Dublin they invented a parallel world and one by one invited other to join it. They had a fascination with finding the precise words that best described people. Rowen gave Hewson the name Bonavox of O’Connell Street, the name of a hearing aid shop.
“I thought he looked like the place,” he says. Shortened to Bonavox, the name mutated to Bono Vox before being shortened once more. Bono named Guggi because of what he describes as a hiccup in the shape of his face, imagining a dribble of spit hanging of his lower lip going gug-gug-gug.

“I was in the Virgin Prunes for eight years, so it was an important part of my life” – Guggi

“He hated the name,” says Bono. Guggi concurs. “I was embarrassed by it, particularly in front of girls. But at the same time I knew that’s what I looked like.” Guggi’s appearance was dominated by a severe bowl haircut, the most unfashionable hairstyle of all at the time, inflicted on him by his disciplinarian father. As a young man, the father had converted from the Church of Ireland to the Christian fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren. Guggi and his nine siblings had an unusually strict upbringing.

“We lived by his rules and there was no questioning that,” says Guggi. “I wasn’t allowed to have long hair and it was the one thing I so badly wanted. The bowl haircut was my dad’s statement against long hair.
Other children laughed at us. At the far end of Cedarwood Road, in number 140, lived Fionan Hanvey. Handbag country, the locals called his end of the road, because the big-boned Hanvey, though painfully shy, clomped around in his Dr Martens slathered in make-up and swinging a handbag. The three of them formed Lypton Village, a notional place to which some, such as David Evans, were admitted, while others, such as Adam Clayton, were granted only associate membership.

Guggi was the giver of names in Lypton Village. The angular Evans became The Edge. Guggi’s bother Trevor became Strongman, because of his sickly constitution. David Watson became Dave Id because he pronounced words slowly; and Hanvey became Gavin Friday. U2’s rise to global success was accompanied by a mythologising of Lypton Village. Says Guggi, although there was a banal reality about it, there was also something special about the small northside tribe.

“We were just teenagers with nothing to do – most people thought we were eejits,” he says. “But there was a spark there: we knew we were on to something. We were a group of artists and we didn’t know it. It was based largely on a shared humour. But we took out humour very seriously. “The few of us there from the start – Bono, Gav and myself – developed our personalities together, developed our sense of humour together and have remained close. People who came in afterwards maybe didn’t feel quite so secure about their place.”
“We didn’t go to university,” says Bono. “We came from a place where you went to school, then got a job or went on the dole. U2 and the Virgin Prunes became our university. Bono and Guggi had painted together from early childhood. Even at the age of seven or eight, says Bono, Guggi was good. “He had a natural talent for drawing that was extraordinary. I’d try to draw a horse and it would end up looking like misshaped elephant. Guggi would effortlessly draw a perfect horse. He could get outlines, he could do the shading. “When we were teenagers, my old man, who also painted, would come and have a look when we were painting. “You’re good,’ he’d say to Guggi. ‘You’ve got talent.’ He never said that to me, though,” says Bono, laughing.
Having crucially been nurtured by Jimmy Burns, his art teacher in secondary school in Whitehall, Guggi developed a sideline in signwriting while still in the Virgin Prunes. “I wasn’t a musician, I couldn’t sing and my contribution to the Virgin Prunes was a tangent of me as a painter: costume, make-up and performance.” He drifted away from them as he got more signwriting work, and eventually was sacked.

“I was in the Virgin Prunes for eight years, so it was an important part of my life,” he says. “When they fired me I was really hurt, but it was a blessing in disguise because I realised I had to paint.” He found himself stalled: still painting in a childish way, obsessed by technical perfection.

“He was a natural draughtsman and had to work hard to get beyond technique,” says Bono. “It was a struggle but he didn’t think much of other painters. There were a few he approved of. ‘Picasso, yeah, he’s all right.’ The breakthrough came when U2 were recording The Joshua Tree. The band rented Danesmoate, a Georgian mansion in Rathfarnham that bass player Clayton subsequently bought. While U2 recorded downstairs, Gavin and Guggi painted upstairs, Guggi moving into oils in a determined way for the first time and painting on a larger scale. Once a week or so during that period, usually on Wednesday evenings, Guggi, Gavin and Bono travelled to a painting studio in the city centre to work with artist Charlie Whisker.
“Guggi quickly began to develop a dramatic style,” says Gavin. “As he developed, Bono and I could see just how far ahead of us he was.” Early in 1988, they showed the results in an exhibition called, Many Wednesdays, though Bono, as he puts it, “bottled out” of showing his paintings at the last minute and showed photographs from his 1985 working trip to Ethiopia. With the show a success, Guggi realised that painting fulltime was viable. “Once I got even a smell of it I went at it full tilt,” he says. Guggi’s work evolved in a series of leaps.

The overtly Christian imagery of early work such as the First Day and Last Day series, which took cues from the books of Genesis and Revelations, was followed by a long series of abstract heads, his first mature paintings. A brief minimalist series followed before Guggi began, in the early 1990’s exploring the form that has become his signature: bowls.

“To a large extent, all three of us are reactions to our fathers,” says Gavin. “Bono has always spoken highly of his father, but he had the easiest time of the three of us when it came to fathers. In Guggi’s case, you don’t have to be Freud to see that the man with probably the longest hair in Dublin, who paints bowls, just might be a reaction to the father who inflicted the bowl haircut on him as a child. His upbringing and his partner, Sibylle [Ungers, also a painter] have been his biggest influences.”

“The most important thing about his painting is its religious quality, which can be traced back to his upbringing,” says Bono. “There’s a religious intensity to it, a monastic quietness, even in the canvases that look the least religious: a bowl is never just a bowl with Guggi – it’s the most intense bowl you’ll ever see.”
Gavin regards Guggi’s bowls as the equivalent of pop singles and can see him moving into more abstract work. “The bowls are immediate, they’re easily digested. Guggi has done the pop thing: the concept album awaits.” Guggi is not so sure. “Bowls are my language,” he says. “They are no more important to me that they are to anybody else. They’re just shapes. But I’ve no plans to move out of bowls. I’d change tomorrow if i felt I should. But I see endless possibilities for the bowl”

by Michael Ross