Billy Leahy on Guggi's new exhibition at the Solomon Gallery, which will do little to reconcile the many admirers and cynics of 'Bono's Best Friend™'
Being Bono's Best Friend™ is a doubled-edged sword – and one which is perhaps destined to divide opinion on Guggi for his entire career. To the cynics, Guggi is little more than a charlatan who is more likely to appear in the social pages than those dedicated to visual arts. To admirers, his paintings of bowls are the credible output of an accomplished, avant-garde artist who successfully battled against the formal structure of the art world by developing his own style outside of the rigid education and discipline of art school. Guggi is self-taught, having honed his talents during his time with cult (read: not very popular) band The Virgin Prunes, before 'becoming' a fully-fledged artist 19 years ago at the age of 27.
His current exhibition at the Solomon Gallery will do little to reconcile either of the two camps. For his last show in Dublin three years ago, Guggi displayed works based around his trademark motif of the bowl, with clean lines and neat edges the order of the day. This time around, the precise and orderly outlines have given way to a looser, more casual and spontaneous feel, with a well-constructed sense of distance present in all the works. Incidental numbers and letters are also a new addition.
It is easy to be intellectually dismissive of an object as humble as the bowl, but this motif is laden with meaning. On a physical level, it was designed to contain water or food and is therefore a vital part of the most fundamental of human activities. While on a metaphorical level, in the words of Douglas Hyde curator John Hutchinson, "a full and open bowl both withholds and offers in a single measure and in the same gesture. An empty bowl is different, as it holds the potential for either giving or receiving. This coincidence is a reflection of the state of contemplative consciousness, in which all things are born and to which they all return."
Whether this intellectual reasoning lies behind Guggi's work is open to debate, but as works of art, his paintings are grand. They are well-turned out, balanced and the more casual element adds an intrigue – whether actually present or not – that was noticeably absent a few years ago. The sceptics, though, are unlikely to be convinced. The works are smart, neat but still a bit average; they would not be out of place in Habitat, or hanging on the vacant back wall in a minimalist conservatory. The idea that Guggi is as much of an interior decorator as artist is hard to shake. This point was reinforced a couple of years back when John Rocha invited Guggi to produce a three-dimensional work for a building in Sandyford – to coin a term, lobby art.
The cynic might also accuse Guggi of producing paintings specifically designed to be as inoffensive as possible in order to have the ladies-who-lunch set digging in their Gucci purses for crisp wads courtesy of a recent divorce to some horsey type straight from a Jilly Cooper novel. And boy, do his works sell well!
But of course all this might just be a juicy bunch of sour grapes cultivated on the fertile fields of the dual traditional Irish pursuits of begrudging success and Bono-baiting.
It is, however, hard to name many other Irish artists with no formal education that enjoy such a high-profile career and command such high prices for their works. Guggi even had a show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York, which was attended by Christy Turlington, Michael Stipe, Moby and Jeff Koons, no less.
To restate: Guggi's art is fine. It probably lacks substantial intellectual weight, but it is fine. It is unlikely, though, that such a body of work by an outsider artist on its own merits could have brought Guggi the success he now enjoys. It is sad to admit, but Guggi would probably be selling his work on Merrion Square on a Sunday morning if he were not Bono's Best Friend™.
But despite how he got there, Guggi is now a significant artist. The art market – in other words, the price his paintings command – is now the defining factor in Guggi's career, rather than how well he can cling to Bono's shirt-tails. And the the price is healthy. A positive move is the inclusion of the reoccurring initials 'MB' in Guggi's current work, a reference to Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, one of the last century's most underrated artists. It seems Guggi's associations are starting to move in a more kudos-gaining direction.
And so now is the time for him to ban Bono and Gavin "I-Read-Ulysses-standing-against-a-wall-wearing-sunglasses" Friday from his openings and separate his career from his famous friends. Only then will Guggi rob the cynics of their ammo and stand alone as an artist... even if it remains highly unlikely that we will ever hear the words "There's that guy, you know, Guggi's mate – the one that used to be in that band".
More: The exhibition runs at the Solomon Gallery, Powerscourt Townhouse, South William Street, Dublin 2 until 22 November. 01 6794237, www.solomongallery.com, www.guggi.com