By Maggie Armstrong.
One of the wallflowers in Woody Allen’s ‘Bullets Over Broadway’ notes the danger that we “fall in love with the artist, not the man”. With the artist Guggi, the opposite seems to be the problem.
Nearly everyone, most lastingly Bono, falls for him, the man that is. Europe fell for him back in his shrieking post-punk youth, New York fell for him when he did a somersault in a SoHo gallery; Louis le Brocquy cherished him. This is despite Guggi having the oiliest hair in showbiz, a reptile collection and an oeuvre of little else but pretty vessels and obscure Cyrillic writing.
Who then, is Guggi, who is the artist behind this man?
If you know anything about Guggi you will know, almost as much as you know he is a friend of Bono, what he looks like – the waist-long wispy hair, the effete snakeskin boots, the ironically rose-tinted glasses. Google throws Guggi up as an “avant-garde” artist, an old-fashioned word showing he is such an anomaly that somebody couldn’t think of what to say about him (the source, it turns out, is Village magazine in 2005).
Guggi.com shows a photograph of a severely contemplative elf, while YouTube yields a number of clips of a mannerly, idle interviewee whose voice is corroded by rollie cigarettes.
He is a Christian with, he says, a “simple faith”. His wife and sons Moses, Noah, Eliah, Caleb and Gidean grew their hair as long as his (though some have since rebelled and cut it). “I love that we look more like a tribe than a family”, he has said, confirming that his family have been shaped into extensions of his brand.
In the gossip columns where he is so often to be found, he is described as “the artist Guggi”, as if he is the only artist. In a way he is. Guggi stands alone, outside the art establishment, grazing on tobacco and Champagne-party chats with the celebrities. It is not because he chooses to stand outside it, but because maybe his is just a less stringent world.
Born in 1959, he was christened boring old Derek Rowan. His father was a severe man who was part of a Christian Brethren sect, and who cut his ten children’s hair using a pudding bowl, something which was to haunt the artist’s infinite paintings of empty crockery for life.
He grew up on north Dublin’s Cedarwood road beside Paul Hewson (Bono) and Fionan Harvey (Gavin Friday). The cover of U2’s ‘Boy’ features Guggi’s little brother. In their teens they were part of a boyish cult called Lypton Village. They amused themselves by coining words to describe how people looked. “Bono” “Gavin Friday” and “Guggi” were thus born, more figments than people, with names designed to repulse, to alienate, to clear rooms. And look what happened instead.
Guggi’s life has been an exercise in living up to, and in hiding behind, his weird name (Solomon Guggenheim’s mistress Hella used to nickname him Guggi, but it didn’t catch). In 1976 Guggi and Gavin formed ‘The Virgin Prunes’, an obscene musical act in the end responsible for Marilyn Manson. The Prunes wore drag and did gothic mimes and horrid stunts with dolls and pigs’ heads. Guggi excelled himself. The movements! The vocals! They were stark and splenetic, jerking beyond the macabre into something elegiac and often beautiful.
Though he doesn’t like this, Guggi will always be known as a former post-punk minor rock star. The band parted in 1984 and Guggi began to paint. Bob Dylan paints but nobody really cares. Guggi is defiant though. “I was told I was crap at everything in school except I had a basic understanding of mathematics…I really deep down believed that I had an incredibly special gift”, he has said.
In 1988 he did a group show with Bono at the Kerlin Gallery. That got them a bit of coverage. His paintings of bowl-like (yes bowls, again) faces were snapped up by the actor Richard Harris who set the standard for his clients from then on. That year he moved into a studio with a rising painter, Sybille Ungers from Cologne. She was beautiful, and she became his wife.
Success, mediated by celebrity, has led him gently by the hand. In 2001 Tony Shafrazi brought him to his glittering New York gallery. Guggi has globe-trotted and conquered corporate, private and state collections, one being IMMA. He has lately accomplished a bowl sculpture the size of a small nightclub, for Château la Coste, the exclusive French vineyard space.
Bono uncritically and unashamedly talks up and peddles his best friend’s work. From the current exhibition in the Kerlin he assured Irish Independent readers that Guggi is “just getting better and better every time, we’re all [all?] so proud of him. He’s extraordinary”. Blah blah blah. However, discomfitingly, it is not in fact axiomatic that Guggi is famous only for what he did and for who his friends are. Like it or not, he has mastered the motif. Some of his bowls are disarmingly lovely, using exploratory shades, of cream, ash, speckled blue or coppery gold. Guggi can at least give uninteresting things aura, over and over again. The repetition hinges between Andy Warhol’s cynical pop-art panels and Orla Kiely’s shrewdly innocuous leaf prints, with something of the romantic innocence of William Scott.
Still, they are just empty bowls. Each one is a forgery of the last. Guggi says he got his vessel obsession from the jugs that used to sit in his grandmother’s “dingy, dark little basement”. He says he used to “hate” the jugs. Who hates jugs? These emblems of poverty and functionality have become his commercial triumph. “I have left series that I could have sold like hotcakes”, he told the Sunday Independent in 2009, saying he went from “broke” to “loaded” during the boom years. Not surprisingly, given the circles where he now hangs, money seems to be a factor.
After 25 years his work has not received significant critical scrutiny in art journals or school curricula. This could be good reason to accuse the academy of snobbery towards an artist who has not had the luxury of going to NCAD. Or because he is simply not good enough. On RTé’s Arena, Declan Long talked objectively about his work and reluctantly praised him as someone who’s “done well, he’s forged a career, made a bit of money”. The Irish Times’ Aidan Dunne, who has been keeping tabs on Guggi for years, sees in his work a “hesitance”. Yet Dunne himself has hesitated to answer this: is he rich and famous because he is Bono’s best friend, or because of a “talismanic” (Dunne’s term) quality in his bowls?
The reason, we all know, is because of Bono. But Guggi the man, is also the secret to Bono. They made each other. The artist Seán Scully, also a respected art critic, wrote in the forward to Guggi’s book that the work is like “Jane Austen’s Kiss. In her world, the kiss is held back”. He concluded “that he was interesting… a fragile soul inside the charming extrovert”. The artist that is, not the man.
Kerlin Gallery, Anne’s Lane, Dublin 2. Exhibition runs until 23 February, 2013.