An Occasion to Celebrate Occasional Press and the Artist Joe Wilson


I have been a fan of small and independent presses ever since I discovered the Grolier Poetry Book Shop  (6 Plympton Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts) during my senior year of high school. It was in that shop, which is the oldest continuously run poetry bookshop in America, that I discovered numerous poets and small presses, many of which existed only briefly.  I still have my copies of the chapbook, Plan of the City of O by Michael Palmer, and the full-length book, The Carnation by Paul Hannigan, which I bought shortly after graduating from college. Barn Dream Press, a small publisher in Somerville, Massachusetts, put out both books. For a young poet, it was great to see books seemingly appear out of thin air, and realize that there was much that one could do with, as the song goes, “a little help from [your] friends.”

This is one reason why I went to a book launch at Ballynahinch Castle, an upscale hotel, north of Galway, that collaborates with Occasional Press, a small publishing house run by two artists, David Lilburn and Jim Savage. According to its website, Occasional Press publishes “art-related projects” [. . .] as and when it has the means to do so.”  I learned of the book launch from Aidan Dunne, the visual arts critic for The Irish Times, who was going to talk about the Occasional Press’ latest project – the monograph, Into The Mountains: Images from the Twelve Bens by Joe Wilson.

When Dunne and I first met, a few days earlier, he had praised Wilson’s use of line, yet I knew nothing of the work and figured the only way to start learning about Wilson was to buy a copy of the monograph (which I did).

Joe Wilson, “Towards Glencollaghduff” (nd), oil, 60 x 60 cm

Another incentive to go was that Colm Tóibín was the author of the introduction to Into The Mountains. Tóibín and I had both contributed to the monograph accompanying the exhibition, Maria Simonds-Gooding:  A Retrospective, which was opening soon at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin (September 5, 2014 –October 26, 2014). That Tóibín had written about Wilson made me all the more curious to learn about him.

I arrived at Ballynahinch Castle in time to hear Dunne from the back of a large room crowded with Wilson fans. One phrase that stuck in my mind was Dunne’s observation that Wilson wanted to take viewer with him as he “walked in the mountains.” Dunne also noted that the artist had done nothing to promote his career.

Into The Mountains: Images from the Twelve Bens by Joe Wilson is a beautifully printed book that comes in an oblong format. There are two editions. The hardcover edition of 150 contains an original print signed and numbered by the artist. There is also a paperback edition of 150. Everything about the production, design and size of the book feels right to me.

Joe Wilson, "Panorama from Ben Lettery  stage II" (nd),  oil,  22 x 110 cm
Joe Wilson, “Panorama from Ben Lettery stage II” (nd), oil, 22 x 110 cm

Years ago, I remember the poet Robert Kelly talking about Cid Corman and his legendary magazine, Origin, which he started in 1951, publishing it with breaks until the mid-80s. Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Larry Eigner, Lorine Neidecker and Denis Levertov were some of the poets he featured. Origin was published in an edition of 300, which Corman believed was the number of people who read and cared about poetry.

It seems to me that, in America, publishers such as Ugly Duckling Presse, Song Cave and Octopus Books are continuing Corman’s legacy. And just as poets have long known that it is important to take control of the means of production, and to wean themselves from commercial publishing houses and public events, which are often about received taste and conformity, I was understandably sympathetic to David Lilburn and Jim Savage and their Occasional Press. It is a press I am going looking into deeper, even as I wish there were more like them in America, promoting artists who might not be all stars in the market place.

Despite the predictable announcements regarding the death of painting, landscape painting, which has been seemingly superseded by land artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, is still vital in the British Isles. It is also hard – if not impossible – to believe that David Hockney is the only artist doing landscape painting worth paying attention to, especially if – like me – you happen to be a fan of William Tillyer, who has been criminally ignored by Nicholas Serota and others of his ilk in high places in the English art scene. This is probably another reason I went to Ballynahinch Castle. I don’t believe the press and I don’t take my cues from museums. Who in their right mind would?

JOE WILSON From Ben Lettery. monoprint  12 panels 180 x 225 cm
Joe Wilson, “From Ben Lettery” (nd), monoprint, 12 panels, 180 x 225 cm

After buying a copy of Wilson’s monograph, I managed to have a short conversation with him, where I learned that he was born in Manchester, England, in 1947, which makes him around ten years younger than Hockney and Tillyer, who were born in 1937 and ’38 respectively. He had taught at the Slade School of Art, London; Chelsea College of Art, London; and Falmouth School of Art, before moving to Ireland, where he taught in a number of schools, including the National College of Art and Design, from which he is retired.  He doesn’t currently have a gallery, but in 2010 he had a show, High Landscapes, at Linnehall Arts Centre, Castlebar, County Mayo.

In his Introduction, “Joe Wilson: Into the Mountains,” Colm Tóibín writes:

What is essential and hard to notice is how much has been left out in Joe Wilson’s art, how essentially tactful it is. These works depend as much on silence as on statement. It would be easy to let the weather take over, to let the pictorial space attempt to have the final say on the subject of whirl and swirl, unstable colours, lines that move ceaselessly in the Atlantic wind. But, oddly enough, there is stillness here, and structure, inscape, a holding back to let the lines and colours have their deep-throated say.

Read this passage carefully and it is clear that Tóibín’s description of Wilson’s art could not be applied to Hockney, a far more charming and voluble artist.  Without spelling it out, Tóibín suggests that there are at least two kinds of landscape artist: the ones who underscore the solidity and permanence of the landscape, and the ones, like Wilson, whose approach is entirely different. In order to be true to the rugged, constantly changing landscape he depicts, the artist eschews the picturesque. Rather, as Tóibín writes elsewhere in the Introduction, his images “are imbued with the urgent textures and tones of now”:

A game is being played between control and chaos, or between the illusion of what the world is like in its great wilderness and the controlling and fragile hand and eye, the fixed space of the paper.

The images in Joe Wilson’s monograph underscore that he isn’t trying to make amiable work. It is impossible to look at the illustrations contained within these pages and not want to see the real thing, from sketchbooks to paintings.

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