Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Reflections on my recent solo exhibition in In-Spire Galerie, Dublin

When I walked into the gallery and saw how Dino had put the exhibition together, something inside my head went ping! I hadn't seen them all up together in such a long time, especially this particular combination of works. Before seeing the pieces together like this, I would talk about the process of making them, and why I like to sketch people and paint them bigger. But however Dino chose the works, and put them together, I found I was thinking about them from newer, fresher angles, and below are some of those thoughts.

Life meets are meets life meets art 

Past and process
I sit and watch and sketch. After my intensive study of anatomy in the Kunstencentrum Groningen's Life Drawing and Portraiture classes on Friday nights, I was able to capture the basics of the human form very quickly in pencil. I had wanted to do it because to me it's a basic skill that artists should have, and I loved the challenge of it. So I took it out of the studio and, instead of working with a (nude) model, I went to sketch people sitting at tables in cafés in conversation, friends, lovers and families, co-workers, people travelling, people waiting, reading, talking on the phone, walking along, listening to music, eating .... the list goes on. If they were still for 10 seconds, I would start drawing them. I used a hardback sketchbook, and still have many of those drawings.

During my final year in college I also discovered photography, specifically candid photography. I had already seen photographs taken by Dolf Patijn (my life partner who himself is a great photographer) and Pat Barry (a friend from way back when we were in UCD) of people in city streets, random people out and about, getting through their days. I learned about New York photographer Nan Goldin and her visual documentation of her life and loves in 1980s New York, and I saw a television documentary of British photographer Martin Parr, whose candid photography is amazing. I was struck by the power of the snapshot, and how his particular medium - photography - is so amazing for capturing details that the photographer doesn't notice until afterwards: a stain on a dress, a fly in a drink, or a dynamic between figures in the shot, which is what I am drawn to when drawing and painting: cropping, compiling, inserting text sometimes, removing or playing down certain details, highlighting others.

I've been drawing and painting impressions of people for much of my life, even before I went to art college and my tutor Mark O'Kelly zoned in on my interest in people-watching. After I finished at LSAD I continued to make big paintings of people, and it's been over 10 years, and it's only now I am starting to understand what it is I have been painting - and not consciously striving to capture. So this exhibition in In-Spire was a retrospective and finally I'm beginning to understand what I'm seeing and why I like people as subjects in this manner.

The Big Three

What's the story?
I present a tableau of figures - people I have observed in public - and they are doing ordinary, everyday things: having coffee, sitting staring in the distance, rummaging in rucksacks, admiring a view, reading maps, eating pizza, enjoying the evening breezes coming in off the sea, checking messages on their phones, reading. There's no start of the story presented, and no finish.  Yet I have found that the viewer, the spectator, someone I might never have met before who is viewing the works for the very first time, they pick one of the scenes, and say 'this one looks like ...' or 'this reminds me of ...' and then they finish the narrative based on what they see in my work, and their own experience and memory. I want them to speculate on what they see, I like that memories are triggered, and that there is a natural reaction to whatever they perceive is suggested in the works. I had one man who was convinced I had met his daughter and painted her at some point in the past. Another very visceral reaction from someone else was 'I don't ever want to see that thing again' - a true and honest reaction (the painting in question has been very well received by many others). And there was one piece that had a quote in it that was highly suggestive of domestic violence, and it was hanging in an arts centre in Northern Ireland and I was asked to remove it because it triggered some very upsetting memories for one of the women working there, which taught be to be careful with some of the texts I added to the pieces. I want people to think, and be reminded of whatever, but dredging up memories of being assaulted in all kinds of horrible ways and calling it art, that doesn't sit well with me. That particular painting has undergone some change.

The tableaux of figures in the paintings are relatable, is my point. These aren't people posing for a camera or to be drawn, they are on the street, in cafés, in the train, watching films, eating ice cream. It's not the traditional artist-human subject relationship, it's purely observational. The scenes are not 'staged' like in so many painting compositions, they are things you don't normally really see in paintings, they are merely 'snapshots'. That said, it often happens when I'm sketching people that a child in the group notices me and comes over and asks what I'm doing. Of course I show them, and often they get Mum and/or Dad to come over and look, and it's usually fine because I'm not doing lifelike representations, just sketches, and if they are hanging around a little longer, I offer the child some paper and a pencil to make his or her own drawings if he/she wants.

I've heard so many different stories in the reactions from my paintings and drawings. So many. Many of my paintings are quite large, so in a way I'm wondering if I'm playing into a sense of fiction, triggering imagination with that too? The only way to explore that option is to see how smaller works are interpreted, so I will be transferring the idea, but not reducing it - I prefer the word 'condense'.

German I do believe? Portugal vs Brazil (World Cup Soccer) Not included in exhibition.

My gaze
I am interested in watching people and their interactions, capturing their dynamic with each other, expressed by their gestures, or lack thereof. They're not passive subjects in the sense that they don't even know they are subjects most of the time - they're not models I've hired, for example, to do my bidding. I see them, sketch and/or snap them, and I'm done. Most of the time they don't even notice me and if they do, they ignore me.

When studying cultural history as part of the art college package, I remember learning about the 'male gaze', a term first coined in 1975 by film critic Laura Mulvey, which could also be applied to quite a lot of painters from well before then. Basically the theory goes that the male gaze emphasises a woman by her body and as an object of sexual desire and male pleasure, the hot heroine, and it's hard to deny the existence of such a thing when there is so much pornography available in which the woman is the key to sexual stimulation. The male gaze is based on an agreement between the artist - the man/male - and the subject - the woman, and the man is the one in control, focusing on the woman's body to make the art.

My gaze is merely curious and interested in people, that's all. I'm an observer who likes to draw, enjoys the challenge of turning pencil or pen marks into something else on paper, and there's no agreement of any kind with my subjects beforehand, so I'm not controlling their actions or gestures at all. It's all random. I'm just recording a moment.

Diversity emphasised through the common denominator
I have made so many sketches in other countries: Italy, Turkey, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain ... and while the people/subject varied in colour and in customs, so many of the gestures are the same. A mother holds her baby in her arms in Venice, a father sits with his toddler on his lap in Siena, a few metres away from him a girl checks messages on her phone, an old lady wilts in the shade on a hot day in Pisa, two well-dressed young men talk business in an Istanbul tea house, an office worker takes an extended lunch break to watch a rugby match in a Tralee café, a young woman and man in a village pub in the west of Ireland eye each other with interest as their families look on approvingly. When I made those sketches, I noted where I made them, and used these in the titles of the paintings I made - and without meaning to, started to catalogue what I saw, and where I saw it. Really, I only intended to keep the locations as titles, but the group of people in the background of Campo Dei Miracoli IV could be a group of tourists in any city on a warm day, with rucksacks, cameras, bottles of water. A handsome young man clearly enjoying the attentions of an interested young woman could be anywhere, not just on the steps of the Duomo in Florence. A pregnant woman sitting chatting with her friend while their husbands and their friends are watching the World Cup in football could be in Turkey, in Italy, in Portugal - the sketch I took was in Lisbon, as it happens. And as I look at the hundreds of drawings I have made on watercolour paper, I realise that there are some I did not label .... and can only try to remember where I made them!

Viewing platform, Alfama, Lisbon,, 20 June 2010 (windy!) Not included in exhibition

And back to the story ....
That diverse people are in so many ways incredibly similar to people from thousands of miles away kind of brought me up short. I suppose it's easy to forget that a parent's connection to their child is a strong bond everywhere you go, that such connections are what forge great stories, and by extension, the 'what ifs' and 'if onlys' that create poignant side stories that lead to fiction. And that's a huge industry in its own right, several industries if you think about it - there's the basic journalism aspect, simply reporting facts; there are editorials that involve speculation and projection based on facts as well as theories; there are novels with plots that may or may not be based on factual events; short stories that are not nearly as involved but often more memorable nevertheless; stories done in print, and in recent years as blogs, e-books, and for over a hundred years now stories have been presented in film. Stories are everywhere, they are so ubiquitous we don't even stop to consider the very concept of 'story', it is impossible to separate them from us, they ARE us. Even if they are only barely based on actual facts, they are still the incorporeal body of society, as well as the soul and spirit.

Forget money. What is money only bits of metal and paper with a value allocated to it, that is arbitrary anyway because it constantly fluctuates in value? Stories are so much more important, they are our reason for existing, they give us something to talk about, how boring would the world be otherwise? Communicating ourselves through our stories is our reason for being, and this action has a reaction and a counter-reaction ... and it goes on. Even something as mundane as gathering ingredients for a meal can be a story that people will stop and listen to, or pay to read or watch as a film. Stories are the true currency, as well as the connection between human beings. Six degrees of separation? There you go. Another story right there.

Seating male figure with his knee up, reading

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