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You have remarked that ‘as a child I was fascinated by the fact that I couldn’t see myself’, and that this was the cause of your becoming an artist. Can you explain this, and surely a mirror enables you to see yourself?

It seems obvious to me that we cannot possibly see ourselves. We’ve devised mirrors to reflect partial illusions (which are fascinating to study) of ourselves but that doesn’t mean that we can then see ourselves. In fact the mirror is the perfect symbol of solipsism. What’s of greater interest to me is that there are always seeing ourselves haptically, so I’ve always loved reflexivity in art – an awareness of its tautologies, and how very limited we poor creatures are.

At art school it was all about learning the techniques and ideas (abstractions necessarily of course) but when I saw a Cezanne and a Rothko at Art Now USA (The Johnson Wax Collection) at the Municipal Gallery, I saw desires.

Maurice McGonigal was a clever man. He saw that I was attending anatomy classes with Sean Keating and said ‘The important thing about anatomy Ciarán is that you have to forget it’. We live in a world of appearances, not knowledge. I loved, in class, every time he mixed paint: it came out as if by magic as one of his special bluey-greys.

McGonigal understood that we lived in a post scientific revolution world and our feelings are private things, still important, even more so now, by not having any authority beyond themselves and their expressions in art and culture generally. He was the first counter-intuitive adult I’d met.

You work on a range of different supports and often with an unusual range of sizes. What is the relationship for you between the support and the paint, over the range of your work?

Recently I had a great breakthrough in precisely this aspect of the paintings… having returned to paint on/in canvas for a while and not being very happy with them. I made new grounds with aluminium and made the paint behave, and replace, the stretched canvas. It was terrific. The light filters through the painting revealing itself, the colour and the ground, and at once I felt liberated by this new celebration of the viewer in the light of the painting and in the colour and in the drawing of the complex-shaped aluminium, itself appearing to reflect the viewer and the space in front of its surface while also appearing to have an elusive space just behind its surface.

You went to NCAD between 1962 and 1967, graduating as a teacher. Who were your contemporaries and tutors, and why the interest in teaching?

I didn’t want to be a teacher! Talk about being deformed… that authority changed me for life. I’m not against good teaching, of course not, but I felt it was all wrong for me. I had to teach to earn money. I was married with a child when I was twenty years old.

My contemporaries were a terrific group of people who made my time at art school such a joy: Donal Lunny the musician, Vincent Brown the sculptor, Anna Buckley the singer, Terry Corcoran the sculptor and the funniest clown ever. Donal O’Sullivan (draughtsman), Coilin Murray (painter and printer) who introduced me to Sartre, Musil, Kafka and many others like Zola, Maupassant and Balzac, the latter current favourites again. Carey Clarke was a terrific help. During this time I saw the Art USA Now (Johnson’s Wax Collection) show… but deep down I felt very unsettled since I discovered the Holocaust and the strange denial of it in the adult world around me. It gave me an instant understanding of Giacometti when I saw his work in a catalogue from a London exhibition that was being passed around.

I remember the first time I entered the hall of the Kildare Street College of Art. A jolly little man, the porter, greeted me warmly. I was struck dumb by the beauty of that hall with it’s great arms of a staircase sweeping down to greet me, and the steps between them leading down left and right into dark mysterious spaces below. On top of the staircase, on the balcony overlooking the hall, was the sculpture of Laocoon and his sons, depicting the Trojan priest and his sons being strangled by serpents. What I saw was two young men fighting for the centre where the big man was. I felt right at home there, and the bursar, a more formal character than the porter, also gentle, she told me that with the drawings I’d brought with me she felt I would be suitable for the special place open to students of exceptional talent and I got it; the only stipulation was that since I was only sixteen years old and not the required seventeen necessary for the day school, I would have to spend a year doing night classes with Mr Terry Gayer. As it turned out that year was terrific and with my knowledge of carpentry and mechanical draughtsmanship learnt from the Bulfin Road Vocational School, I was eminently qualified for what lay ahead in the painting school, and later on in the teachers course.

Apart from part-time teaching you worked as a graphic artist for RTÉ between 1968 and 1976. How strongly did this impact upon your later career as an artist?

While working full-time in RTÉ it was not possible to commit myself to painting and during my time there I arranged a series of installations from 1979 into the 1980s. I liked my installation at the ICA ‘Off the Wall’ show that was part of the ‘Sense of Ireland Festival of the Arts’ but I didnt find that that form of art suited to independent thought and experience, so I returned to a constrained relationship to painting. Modigliani had a favourite saying that seems apt here ‘Rien ne tarde pas avec lavante garde’.

You were born in Dublin in 1947. Can you tell us something of your circumstances as you were growing up? What did your parents do? Did you see yourself as a townee or were you aware of the country? What experiences were formative for you?

I was sent to school too early for my liking, when I was four and a half in fact, by which time my mother had two children older than me and three babies younger than me. After a very shocking and brutal first year with Sister Jarleth, Miss Scalley,a young and lovely woman, became my teacher in the second year. It was a great bit of good fortune for me and a relief for the class in general. She rode a scooter with panniers that I admired and wished I could stow away in.

One day she stopped the class and said ‘Children, we have an artist in the class’, and she asked me to take a stick of chalk and to go to the side blackboard and draw something. I got a chair and stood on it and immediately saw the problem on hand. Up to then I had only ever drawn with a dark line on a light ground. Straightaway I took advantage of the chalky whiteness and with the broad side of the stick filled in the profile of a man’s head in white… so far so good. Then I used the blackness of the board to represent the pupil of the eye and by pressing hard on the chalk achieved a whiter-than-the-skin white for the eyeball. The drawing was left on the blackboard for the whole year I was with her. Remembering it now I realise what it was that may have caught her attention. She saw a five year old child drawing directly from observation. This woman said I was an artist and gave me my first one man show at the age of five and an installation at that!

Later at home I attempted, with a rock and a six inch nail, to carve into the road in front of the house, the same profile of a mans head, beginning at the base of the neck and up to the occipital bone. This took many weeks, working only now and then. It looked like a question mark. The next and last time I was etching out the line at the back of the skull I received a smack in the exact same spot of my own head and heard my mother saying ‘Leave that road alone!’ That was the end of that unfinished masterpiece.

My mother was a tailor who made furs for Cecil Vard. She had these big cardboard shapes. She could knock out a dress in an afternoon. There was an apartheid in the home. There was Womens World, Mens World and Boy’s World. All of the creativity was with the women. What I couldnt figure out, and it completely threw me, was knitting. To see those patterns emerging amazed me and still does do when done by hand. The sewing machine, knitting, and her love of cooking and baking made a big impression on me.

I was born in a little valley called ‘The Puck’. It had goats. On the terrace each knocker had a goats head on it. It was a magical place. There was a very fast weir on that part of the Camac that ran behind our houses. The fact that it was only a few inches deep always disappointed me. There were the convent grounds, the paper mills, the canal, and magically a stream of clear water, along by the canal. I loved that. From the Blackhorse Inn down to Golden Bridge there were Japanese wooden bridges across the stream. They were important. I would go out of my way to avoid a breezeblock wall. I wanted to see things that were lovely like those little bridges.

My father was a remarkable man who started work as a bus driver. His father was a blacksmith in the British Army. He was a super salesman who ended up area sales manager for the South West of Ireland. He had a great sense of community and formed the first non-sectarian Gaelic football team, Inichicore Hibernians, and he also founded a Fianna Fáil Cumann to clean the polluted Camac river.

I like to look at art alone. Its never a social occasion for me. Last December I was at the Met in New York in the Cezanne room, looking with one of his paintings. I say with because his are not normal static pictures, and engage one in a movement, a physical time-seeing meandering life-like seeing, not at all like static pictures. What from a distance or in a photograph of those paintings may appear distorted is in fact quite realistic in the act of seeing. Then, this experience, familiar as I thought I was with Cezannes work, reinvigorated me and encouraged me to make these new Aluminiums you see around you. One is never too old to see afresh. From Cezanne onwards all the art I admire honours the uniqueness of experience and is in itself an embodiment of that love, is in fact proof of a kind. Proof of the depths of experience that are available to us every moment of our lives.

In 1972 at the Project you were showing folds of painted canvas stacked on the floor, the top fold of which was pulled up and pinned to the wall. Its very Arte Povera and one might think, as the recent exhibition at the Tate indicated, of the Welsh sculptor Barry Flanagan. What was your impetus?

Blurring distinctions suits the guilty, Brian. Ive seen Barrys folded dyed material in photographs but mine is a good example of things seeming to be alike (perhaps in photographs) but which aren’t. I was thinking at the time of Frank Stella, coming out of Morris Louis, freeing colour up and making it one with the canvas. Frank Stella and Morris Louis also gave me an introduction to Eric Saties music. Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried were pushing the idea that paintings were essentially flat. But what I saw was that it only appeared flat; I saw the bumps and scratches that located where the surface is. This is a good example of the ‘tyranny of the idea’… in experience, things are often contradictory. I like the separateness of things: canvas, floor, supports, etc. I wanted to express with visual metaphor the state of Irish painting, it’s collapse and potential, here in Dublin. The situation of collapse and potential rang true to me. I saw the Germano Celante Arte Povera exhibition at the ICA but before that I was aware of the French group Surface and Support. I was very interested in them. I didn’t see them, just heard about them in Art Review and Studio International (the photos were very bad!). I loved that!


My desire with Folded/Unfolded was to see how the paint and the canvas acted on one another appearing, disappearing, resisting, relenting. I just saw that they were beautiful and fascinating and all made from a straight, formal technique, obvious immediately to the mind and endlessly interesting to look at. (All the thinking done beforehand and the work just carried out in a straightforward way).

Nine years after graduating as a teacher you again graduated from NCAD but this time from the painting school. Why did you go back?

I was working the AP shift (three days on, four off). It was an opportunity to avail of studio space and subsidised materials but most of all to be able to work on an idea I had that involved making circular painting to appear from a distance as holes, and then as an object with inflections and details – an anti-flat idea that Greenberg and Fried were writing about which just didnt tally with my experience of flatness which is that its contradictory in that its only when you see the bumps and irregularities of a surface that it appears flat, so its only flat when you see that it isn’t. My tutors and teachers were William Scott and Charles Brady.

Scott brought my attention to the work of the New York School, and that of turn-of-the-century Paris, but the big one was Egyptian art: the importance of formal art which underpins the rule of law. Scott encouraged me to create forms for my feelings. Brady’s New York was mostly anecdotal but Scott’s was painting, all about ideas and traditions of painting and art: modern, right back to Egypt. He loved Japanese art and he loved Modigliani. When I knew him that was what he spoke to me about, and I’ve been very enriched by those conversations. When he was with me and looking at my circular paintings it seemed tacitly understood that they were OK and that he approved of them. He gave me a First, with a commendation and honours for my thesis on Jasper Johns.

Dorothy Walker saw your development as moving away from the small folded pencil drawings of the mid eighties, leading into the folded lithographs, then the folded canvases (which she found too bulky) and then the folding of the planes of paint leading to the shaped canvases. You’ve no high opinion of the art establishment, so how do you see your development?

Dorothy was looking for such an artist, an old a priori model, all in a straight line, eh! ABCD! A developer artist? Not for me. The way I see it, i.e. from within, is as a constant struggle over the years to believe in myself. And I have discovered that art making, at its best, is about making art and your life from where you are, and from what’s available to you at any given time, and the only form of self belief which is believable is found within yourself when you feel every one else has abandoned you.

The only place this/my art could have been made is here, in Ireland, in Dublin and by me. Between America and Europe, and in opposition to the cultural traits and ideas, there is a sentimental culture which denies the scientific revolution and the Holocaust. I stayed there/here, believing it to be a frontline for the struggle to straighten myself out and hope that I could make a new appearance in the world of art from the experience of an individual living here. I see it as having been the making of me.

In 1990 you worked in Spain for six months. In terms of this and other sojourns abroad, how far does residence in a given country permeate the art produced?

It was like turning up the light to 500 watts. I had a show coming up. However, I saw the wonderful Zurbarans and Velazquezs in Seville; now they’ve become part of my visual vocabulary. When I was down in Granada in the Alhambra, in the forest of arches, the grill designs on the windows, all anonymous, revealing itself through the movement of the sun and the bodies movement – terrific! I really liked that. But as I turned around and saw on the wall that the Moorish low relief designs had been gouged out and a Murillo type painting hung there – it was disgusting. An especially vile graffiti which spoke volumes about Spanish history.

You are generally regarded as an abstract painter of the minimalist persuasion. What attracts you to this specific area, and do you regard the works as having any content in the normal sense of the term?

Hegel said that art contributed to the synthesis we required between the personal and the external worlds reality. My personal world could not allow me to make representational art which purports to represent the external world knowing that the visual world is subjective and subjectively experienced and that the Holocaust was a result of a culture that politically upheld this view; that the subjectivity of experiences must have objective authority it seemed to me high time to change since the facts revealed to us about our view of the world being so unobjective by Galileo in the mid sixteenth century (a long time ago!) that we go around the sun even though the sun appears to go round us, to come up in the morning and go down at night.

By making my paintings a synthesis, a new content has appeared. I hope it has moral power, confining itself not only to issues of the heart and desires only but with powerful forms independent of any authority other than that being seen and felt by the viewer – the unknown, unknowable viewer – to be visually experienced before interpretation and without commentary. Its the reverse of what you call ‘normal’ content where the visual art is an illustration of the text, an adjunct to epistemology.

Culturally here in Ireland we have just been through a period when the values most esteemed and celebrated were those of the property developer and the political establishment – the installation art of the Galway tent and the brand image developer art have reigned. And in music the equally cynical commercial proliferation of the boy bands and the awful examples of artistic idolatry in our museums.

A danger in all art, but especially in abstract varieties, is that it can become purely decorative: elegant calligraphy, sumptuous colour. How do you try to avoid this?

One of the ways, an integral part of my method now, is to keep my own taste out of it as much as I can. Francis Bacon called Pollock a lacemaker but Ive seen stale decorative Francis Bacon paintings and never cease to find Pollocks remarkable paintings fresh and as far away from objective authority as you can get. With my Colour Collections I like to just collect colours over a long period of time, in paint qualities as varied as I can get. It’s a good strategy and I’m getting the wildness without the chaos and the directness without order or geometry showing. Also I have a personal commitment to make a unique appearance come about from my life, and have since I saw as a young man that we had no equivalent to the non-objective new ideals made for the Russian Revolution by Tatlin, Malevich, Popova and especially Olga Rosanova. The limits and the problems are simply grist to my mill, to make my art from what’s around me and, just as Miss Scally affirmed me as an artist, she also gave me wonderful problems to solve with my eyes connected directly into and coming out of my brain. I solved it then and made something appear that wasnt bad and later without anything other than a brush and a pot of water and a wall I was able to get my mother’s approval, if only momentarily, while the wall stayed wet! It looked great to me when it shone in the sunlight just like my new paintings on aluminium, and I experience now the same psychodrama going on – only now I know my mother can’t ever see it, but I like to think she once did.

Can you take us through the process of making a work, from inception say from one of the works in your recent RHA exhibition?

Those works called Arbitrary Colour Collections employ a method of mixing paints one at a time over a long period of time and avoiding in as much as possible my own taste. They are in a sense landscape paintings in that we scan them to see them, picking and choosing what we desire to see… as in life.