Essay from La Dolce Vita


The underlying theme within my work is both the predilection within society to stereotype and the subsequent bigotry, which results. This has been my main concern since the early eighties. While this remains constant I take the opportunity to deal with domestic, political and social issues, which affect me on an everyday basis. As an example of how I work a recent series of paintings evolved from a visit to Belgium. I had an exhibition with the Brussels based gallery De Queeste. While visiting the gallery to see the space and discuss the show I took the opportunity to explore Flanders. I had never visited Belgium before and hence had not visited the First World War battlefields. I had knowledge of the war from history lessons at school, general reading and movies. I did not expect to be so moved by the experience. I stayed in Ypres and visited military cemeteries, some original trenches, which have been preserved, and the cells in the town hall at Poperinge. The cells were used to hold soldiers the night before they were shot by firing squad for cowardice. These soldiers were the unlucky ones who were picked out to be examples to the rest. On the walls of the cells there was graffiti written by the soldiers who were kept there. One poignant phrase I used as a title for a painting, ëI long for your embraceí. The effect on me was that I wanted to make paintings about the experience. I realised that I could not make First World War history paintings but I did want to make work about my unexpected response to these reminders of mans inhumanity to man. The first painting I made was Dulce et Decorum est (taken from Wilfred Owen's poem). I started by deciding upon a structure to the work and in this case I decided to make a series of canvases 180 x 90 cms. I then started to make paintings of figures on each of them with the intention of arranging them to construct a painting made up of several canvases. Dulce et Decorum est. is three panels where a single figure of a young black man is flanked by two soldiers. These soldiers were painted from downloads from the internet (something I have never done before). They were taken from the US government site and depicted ëtwo of our boys in Iraqí. My intention was to tackle the horror of war and the social implications rather than be specific to a particular conflict. It seemed to me that we live in a society where our freedom is continually being challenged through continual surveillance. It also occurred to me that despite worries about the erosion of civil liberties we still have choice. We do not have conscription and can make up our own minds and demonstrate against the government about issues such as Iraq. We are continually bombarded by media propaganda but again we do have freedom of thought. In the First World War there was no conscription until 1916. Until that point there was a national desire to fight for King and country. There was also social pressure on young men of fighting age (and sometimes not) to join up. The second painting I produced was called Anthem to an embittered youth (page 17), which was again taken from a poem by Wilfred Owen. This is a diptych and has a single figure in the left panel and a horse in the right hand panel. I have used the horse as a symbol for wealth and class on several previous occasions and that is still a part of the reason for its inclusion in this painting. It is however included because of an image fresh in my mind of a life size reconstruction of a battle scene in the museum at Ypres. There is a horse covered in mud and pulling a gun. The horse brings home the reality of the conflict. The use of an animal to fulfill a task in such circumstances instead of a machine hammers home the horror.

Another painting, which is concerned with this theme, is called Esprit de Corps (page 13). This is a good example of how I construct paintings. It is an oil painting, which has been made from a variety of sources. My most common way of working is to start by making a painting of something I have been attracted to without it necessarily being part of a plan to make a finished painting.  On this occasion I started by painting a large coastal landscape from the West Coast of Donegal. This followed time spent there over Christmas and New Year. Over the past thirty years or so I have spent a great deal of time there and made many drawings and several paintings about the area. I would never consider myself a landscape painter but I fully understand the need to respond to something as dramatic as that part of the world. I think the approach to the painting was influenced by the theme I have been working on recently. The painting started as a means for me to introduce a greater physical space in my work although this changed as I was painting and I closed the horizon down with a large bank of rock. These paintings are done from memory or simple drawings made while there.  I then let the painting sit for a while why I continued on other work. I then made a small painting of a figure against a neutral plain colour. Which was intended to destroy the illusion created, by representational painting. This painting was quite successful and I really liked the figure in it. I decided that this figure should be added to my landscape despite the usual dithering about being brave enough to leave a painting without a figure in it. The result is a painting, which shows a walking figure moving towards the picture plain and towards the viewer while looking away at somebody outside of the composition. The title, Esprit de Corps is important, as it is a clue about how we should consider the painting. The literal translation is spirit of the body, which is relevant, but it is also intended to be taken in its military context as we then consider this single figure in the context of a larger group of people.

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