Once in a while as an art dealer you get lucky - you find an artist of outstanding talent who is not currently represented. In the summer of 2017 we got lucky.
We had first met Olga's husband, Simon, more than 20 years ago at a friend's wedding. The same friend reintroduced us last year, and we visited the home of Olga and Simon Geoghegan in North London, where they have lived for two decades. We found it full of wonderful canvases, and as we looked through them, we could scarcely believe they were in her studio and not on walls in museums or other people's homes. Like many female artists, Olga had effectively taken a career break from showing her work to raise her two boys, who are the inspiration for the children in many of her paintings.
This is Olga's first show for some years, and we are absolutely thrilled to be hosting it. Her work is, to coin a phrase from the late Martin Regan, "proper". This exhibition showcases more than 30 paintings, spanning nearly 20 years, and we hope it will be the first of many with us. In an art scene in the North seemingly inescapably trapped in a time-loop of flat caps, dogs and chimneys, Olga's work is the real deal.
We chose the exhibition title, Out of Place, for many reasons. It reflects the story of Olga's life, the narrative of her paintings, but perhaps most of all because her outstanding technical mastery of paint, the effects it creates and her classical style seem somehow out of place compared with most art at the moment, particularly in the North. But, to understand the nature of Olga's work, one needs to understand her background.
She was born in 1965 in the city of Ukhta in the far North of Russia - Ukhta was founded in the 1930's as the administrative centre for Stalin’s Northern prison camps, but paradoxically, this was a fortuitous place for a budding artist to be born. Whole cultural institutions had been deported from the political centres of Moscow and Leningrad to these prison towns, and in Ukhta's case the entire Maly Opera and Ballet Theatre was exiled to the city. As a result, Ukhta was home to a thriving art scene and Olga was taught from the age of six by graduates of the Leningrad (now St Petersburg) Academy of Arts.
At the age of ten she was accepted into the Special Secondary Artistic boarding school in Leningrad attached to the Academy. And thus from being taught by those who were Out of Place, she became so herself, moving - as a ten year old child - more than 1,000 miles from home. Olga studied at this school until she was eighteen was subsequently offered a place at the Leningrad Academy, probably Russia's most prestigious art institution, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and situated across the River Neva from the world famous Hermitage museum.
Art is one of the few areas where the label "self-taught" is worn with pride - this has always surprised us. You would look questioningly on a self-taught surgeon or a self-taught pilot, but somehow being self taught as an artist confers a sort of status. Olga could not be further away from this - the Leningrad Academy of Arts takes an unashamedly academic approach to the business of mastering the skills and acquiring the knowledge and discipline necessary to become an artist. Students learn to master all media in an enormously rigorous course that puts UK institutions to shame - learning how to be an artist was a serious business, with ten hour days of tuition being the norm.
It is no surprise then that her pedigree is impeccable. In the early 90s, soon after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, she was one of the first Russian painters to be invited to exhibit in Western Europe with successful exhibitions taking place in London and Vienna. She has subsequently exhibited on more than ten further occasions in London (including at the Royal Drawing School and Messums) as well as in Scotland, Spain, USA and, of course, Russia. Some of her work is included in one of the standard drawing textbooks for art students in Russia and her work is found in collections all over the world.
Olga is, however, surprisingly reluctant to talk about the stories behind her paintings - one of her favourite expressions is: “you want literature? Go and read a book. Paintings aren’t about anything, they’re just paintings”.
Elizabeth Simoneau of the International Association of Art Critics wrote of Olga's work in 2010: "On one level, she's right. Olga’s paintings are about painting; about its very substance, about the process, and even about paint itself. The four walls of the canvas enclose a world sustained by its own integrity, with its unique language and reference points; her complex overlaying of rich colours and textures draw one into a sensual world of abstract beauty where the activities of the figures seem to matter little. Here one feels the hand and eye of an artist for whom, schooled by masters since she was a child, composition and the manipulation of colour have become close to pure instinct."
It is hard to see Olga's figures in context, because they are not placed in context in the painting itself - the lack of background, other than the rich texture and colour of the paint, masterfully applied, give the paintings a haunting and ethereal feel, perhaps a sense of being Out of Place, and they invite you to engage emotionally with the picture, rather than spoon-feeding you the content. Simoneau wrote further: " there emerge on her canvases myriad characters. They scramble through the layers of paint like ghosts until they find a means to be seen. The Russian maidens meet the howling infants. Misshaped goddesses mingle among the shamanic sorcerers. The wild musicians try to catch the ear of the pensive fisher boys. Michelangelo said that what he did was to cut away the unnecessary to find the form waiting inside the stone. Perhaps this is what the creative process is for Olga Geoghegan, She manipulates the paint on her canvases to reveal the subject trapped within"
But if you spend more time with Olga and dig a little deeper, it is clear that her paintings are infused with rich stories. They are united by the sense of dislocation and exile, and by their effects.
For example, My Father Back from the Front , is directly biographical and portrays Olga's father, who survived being shot in the head by a sniper during WWII. Conscripted at just 17, she says he spoke very little of his wartime experiences in the Caucasus, but did describe how outgunned, literally, his unit was in comparison to the crack Austrian alpine regiment they faced.
"My father said they had one gun for three soldiers and so they had to take turns to shoot it. The other two had crude wooden paddles and were told to slap them together to make shooting noises. Small boys playing soldiers. They didn't stand a chance. My father was very lucky to survive," she says.
A series of paintings called The Small Business Cycle introduces us to a community of street traders. Amongst their number are The Baguette Seller and The Chicken Seller, two hard-working women flanked by their respective wares. No indication is given of the time or place they have set up their stalls, but we are aware of their steely determination to earn a living.
"I paint collective feelings and emotions," she says. "I don't share many first-hand stories with my audience - that wouldn't feel right - but I do bare how I have felt about the things that have happened to me.
"People have very different life experiences," she says, "but their humanity is constant, wherever they are from and whatever era they have lived through."
The best Northern art is characterised by people remaining stoic and going about their business against a backdrop of harsh conditions in a declining post-industrial region. Olga's work shows that these themes are not confined to the North of England, they are universal. Although Olga's own story inspired the title of the exhibition, Out of Place, her work most definitely finds its place as some of the best to be seen in the Gallery, and we would go as far as to say it is some of the best to have been seen in the region for a long time.