Contemporary art is alive, well in Ireland; Contemporary Irish Art, by Roderic Knowles. New York: St. Martin's Press. 231 pp. $39.95.

This book is like a present from a far-away relative you didn't know you had. The gift itself is a surprise, but you can't imaginem what's in it. Mention "Irish art," and most of us think first of Irish music, literature, and theater. When pressed to think of visual art, we might bring up such antiquities as the Book of Kells and the 12th-century Cross of Cong.

But contemporarym Irish art?

At a conference of art critics held in Dublin in 1980, not one of the critics (those who would admit it) could name a single contemporary Irish artist.

Roderic Knowles, an artist, critic, and business consultant from County Kerry who was one of the organizers of the conference, began to ask why.

Were there no Irish artists worthy of recognition? Were the Irish indeed high on the audio sense, but lacking in visual consciousness?

There are books on Irish art through the 15th century, which remind us in particular of Ireland's vital role in keeping European culture -- as well as Christianity itself -- alive during the Dark Ages.

But what happened from 1500 on?

Part of the answer, of course, is the extreme poverty most of the population endured over the next four centuries -- storytelling and music were free; paintbrushes and clay were not. True, there were some Irish artists in that period, but, as Knowles says, "The arts in Ireland have tended to be an elitist preserve, and their enjoyment a class prerogative." Artists, he points out in this book, needed patrons in the old days, and the only patronage to be found was in England.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a few Irish artists who left their country for Paris or America did gain international recognition.

Among these were Roderic O'Connor, who shared a studio with Gauguin; Jack and John Yeats, father and brother of the poet; and Louis Le Broquy and Patrick Scott, who have works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Modern Art Museum in Paris. There were also painters and printmakers who put Connemara landscapes on canvas, and portrait painters who concentrated on painting the posterity of Ireland's wealthy.

But for centuries, Ireland's visual art rarely touched the common man. There was a king of visual alienation among the people at large, caused, says Knowles, by deprivation rather than anything innate. The result, however, was that even in the early years of the republic, art was not taught in school or considered important.

The rising affluence of the Irish middle class over the last 20 years has finally brought with it a flowering of the visual arts. Yet despite this growth , few Irish artists are known outside Ireland, as the 1980 conference proved.

The problem, says Knowles, is a lack of documentation, rather than a lack of merit.

This handsome book is the result of Knowles's efforts to fill that void, and it does credit to the artists. I opened it with a great sense of anticipation, as well as curiosity, and closed it after several trips through with a delightful sense of discovery of a new-old world -- fresh and imaginative, yet already shaped and full blown.

The author refrains from putting a quality judgment on the works, for the most part. He includes living artists only, and all styles except the new Bad Art (although that style does have followers in Ireland). Nearly 100 artists are spotlighted in black and white and color photos, with a brief commentary by Knowles, another art critic, or the artist himself. Part 2 is a listing of short biographies of 234 artists, either born or working in Ireland.

While none of the painters seem on the leading edge of trends in abstract or color work, and while the environmental projects are perhaps a little behind the times, this book makes quite clear that some wonderful work is going on.

I don't think anyone would mistake this for a book on French art, or American , for that matter. An Irishness comes through in the qualities of imagination, humor, and whimsy, as well as in the implied relationships between artist and land and a sensitivity to that special quality of Irish light. Trevor Geoghegan's haystacks, for instance, could only be in Ireland.

As might be expected, the tragedy of Ireland's history and the horrors of the present-day strife in Belfast brood over much of the art, yet without heaviness. There's still a wit and even humor, albeit of a black kind, in F. E. McWilliam's "Women of Belfast" and Jack Pakenham's renderings of dolls as "victims and terrorists."

While some of the "living art" pieces in the book are a bit too grotesque for my taste, Nigel Rolfe is so bizarre I can't help liking him. Generally, the works tend more toward realism than pure abstract art. This is not surprising in view of the Irish tradition and love of storytelling.

But, as with Ireland itself, perhaps, there's is more than one level to many of the works. Whether it's Dermot McCarthy's swirling landscapes -- in which geese, fish, or even feet become cottages, islands, and trees -- or F. E. McWilliam's bronze, "Women of Belfast," there's more than one story being told.

The paintings of Martin Gale, in particular, have a Joycean quality. Like James Joyce's characters in "Dubliners," Gale's are endlessly waiting, going in circles, getting nowhere. On the surface the paintings seem to represent just a slice of life, but there's always something a little disconcerting going on underneath.

In bringing us this collection, Roderic Knowles has done justice to his fellow artists in Ireland, and presented a welcome gift to the international art world as well.

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