“I gotta say, when I see it hung, I’m pleased.”
24 hours before the opening of his latest exhibition, Guggi, born Derek Rowan, reclines in an office room in the Kerlin Gallery, mere yards from where the fruit of his last few years of work adorns the walls.
“It’s a strange thing,” he says, “you don’t really know the exhibition you have just done until you see it hung.”
Guggi looks exactly like what he is: an ex avant-garde rock musician turned painter. Lean, with shoulder length hair and lupine features, he appears significantly younger than his 50 years. His paintings eschew the fireworks, flamboyance and shock-theatricality one might expect from a former Virgin Prune. No abstract expressionist action paintings or Bosch-like horror shows here. The work is simple, contemplative, Spartan. Vessels are his vessels: still life studies of jugs, cups and bowls, painted on board instead of canvas, and of late adorned with interpolations of text that look like the remnants of some lost Soviet dialect. This is his fourth exhibition with the Kerlin, located on Anne’s Lane, off South Anne Street in Dublin. A flip through the price list tells the casual browser that one of these paintings can be yours for anything up to 28,000 euros.
“I used to be a vegetable man when I was a kid,” Guggie says, “and the way the way I try to price things is the same as a bag of potatoes is priced in the corporation market: supply and demand. And the reality is, art is no different to a bag of spuds. So I try to get the pricing right, whereby the demand is a little bit greater than the supply. And the few quid that you don’t take in, that you could’ve, turns to a little bit of excitement. Whatever the market price determines your work is worth, you have a duty to your gift to get that, because if you don’t get it somebody else will. It’s all incredibly secondary to the art, but you can’t help notice things.”
What kinds of things?
“Just to give you an example, I had people coming up to me for so long saying, ‘I would so love to own one of your paintings but I can’t afford anything – I don’t know why you can’t do something small that ordinary people can buy.’ So I did these little oil paintings on canvas-board, and I said, ‘I’m gonna keep the price right down and put three or four in the gallery in a group show, and anybody that can’t afford to buy a big painting, if they really want one, they might like one of these.’ The four of them sold immediately and went to public auction a few weeks later for twice the price. That was a very cheap way of learning an important lesson.”
As the former member of a band of self-styled subversive artists, what’s Guggi’s take on the Biffo on the Bog controversy, whereby artist and schoolteacher Conor Casby came under fire from the Fianna Fail power bloc, and indeed the Gardai, for planting nude caricatures of Taoiseach Brian Cowan in the Royal Hibernian Academy and National Gallery?
“I thought it was a bit harsh. The artist probably didn’t do it for terribly bad reasons, I mean, it was a very good caricature. I really think the baddies in all of it are the newspaper that printed it and made a big deal out of it. They made the mountain out of the molehill. The lady whose newspaper it was in was on the Late Late Show giving painfully stupid, obvious answers: ‘We have the right to report the news, we think it’s newsworthy.’
“And in the light of him (Cowan) being a family man with daughters and so on, I thought it was wrong. Not on behalf of the artist, because it was well enough done to convince me that it was worth doing, I thought it was incredibly well executed. But about two days after that I saw part of the image in, I think, one of the Sunday papers. It didn’t show him actually sitting on the bog, but it did show part of the top half of him, I think, holding a toilet roll. And then somebody had done some naked thing of Bertie (Ahern), probably just for the same article, and it was dreadfully badly executed, absolutely clueless.”
One of ten Rowan siblings reared in the northside of Dublin, Guggi is self-taught. When asked if artists compensate for lack of formal training with an exaggerated approach to discipline, he says, “I do have what you described, but I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t formally study painting. While I would accept that for some painters it’s absolutely correct to study it formally, I really believed at a young age that it wasn’t right for me.”
By way of illustration, he recalls being enrolled for Saturday afternoon art classes by his mother when he was 12 years old. After Guggi had spent about an hour and a half sketching a still life study of a glass or a bottle, the art teacher used a heavy pencil to go over the lines he’d drawn, changing the shape of his composition. Guggi bristled at the imposition.
“Now it might have been my naivety,” he admits, “but I actually thought mine was so much better than his, and I didn’t want to draw like him, I wanted to draw like myself. And I think it was at that moment in time I decided, ‘I’m never gonna do this again.’ I was very sure I didn’t want to go to Art College.”
Instead he found a surrogate family in the form of the fabled Lypton Village collective that spawned the Virgin Prunes and U2. Part teenage gang, part secret Surrealist society, its members included Bono, Edge and Gavin Friday. A remarkably close-knit lot, their friendships have endured for most of their lives.
“My friendship with Bono goes back, I think I was four and he was three, he lived across the road,” Guggi says. “We were attracted to each other, all of us when we were young kids. In our early teens we met Gav and were fascinated by this other oddment on the street and realised we weren’t the only ones. One thing we probably had in common that a lot of kids maybe didn’t have was the importance that we put on friendship. And I guess looking back on it all we might have all been a bit lost.”
Guggi was the first to break from the Virgin Prunes fold to pursue art as a vocation. And while his mates devoted themselves to music, they never completely abandoned the visual arts. Before embarking on his solo career, Friday took a sabbatical to paint, while Bono used the medium as therapy to offset the pressures of the Joshua Tree sessions. They shared a studio throughout 1986. One wonders how the dynamic of the friendship changed within the context of painting – did they now regard Guggi as the master?
“I think they might have described it like that, but I certainly wouldn’t have seen it like that. I mean, the marks that Gav makes on a canvas with paint are very different to anybody I’ve ever come across. I don’t think I would have been any influence. He didn’t care about how you did it; he just knew the colour that he wanted and the mark that he wanted to make. Bono might have said to me, ‘What do you think about this?’ but while he would ask me, he’d never take my advice. But that was a wonderful experience for me, because painting with your mates, I think any situation that you find yourself out of the norm, and you’re painting, in some way stands to you.
“We had an exhibit in the Hendricks Gallery, it opened on the 12th of January 1988. I think my first solo show in the Kerlin Gallery was about 1990, and that would have been the start of trying to paint as an adult. Anything that went before showed technical understanding and good craft, but I don’t think it said an awful lot more than that. And I suppose it’s what you decide to do with the craft that is in some way part of you.”
And what Guggi does with the craft is bestow significance upon apparently humble objects. His paintings evoke an almost Buddhist regard for the correct presentation of commonplace things – a bowl of rice, a jug of water, a cup of tea.
“I’m a great believer in, if a stroke isn’t needed in a painting, it can’t be there,” he says. “But when the background starts to come together and you see how the jug should be shaped and where it should be placed and at what angle and what colour it should be, there’s a huge amount of information that can come across in what can seem like an extremely simple painting.
“This is what’s fascinating me more and more, and with the wooden paintings, they allow me to be a lot more immediate and more instinctive, and even if I change my mind regarding a mark that I wanted to put on it, I’ll paint over that, but you can still see the mark coming through, so the history of the thinking that has gone into this is still apparent. The very fact that I felt so strongly about putting it there in the first place I think should be represented in the finished result, it becomes part of the background, which means I was right, but I wasn’t right in the way that I thought I was. And that is what these paintings are about in some ways: that every mark is an honest one.”