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16 May, 2007

Interviewed by Dr. Emily Mark Fitzgerald, School of Art History & Cultural Policy, UCD

CIARÁN LENNON: There’s a reason why artists should have nothing to do with authority: because feelings have no outer authority.  The only power art has is a moral/ethical power.  The vocation is to express that feeling… that passing desire.  They are, in my case, tragic things, aren’t they?  We are born, we live, we die… the metronome moving along underneath, all the way through.  The more keenly you feel pleasure, the more the terror of losing it.  Life is inherently tragic.  That’s for everybody.  So even the ‘authority’ of painting, I have to break that up, which is why I’m doing them on these industrial materials.  I have to get away from the authority of the single painting, the assumption that it’s already art.  I am really constantly horrified at the way artists do that, have themselves pictured with rock stars or politicians.  It’s a problem, you just shouldn’t do it.  You’re aligning yourself with power, the wrong power.  The central authority of our time is science.  We still, of course, believe that what we see is the world, because it appears to us to be that way – as Galileo’s poor mother said, ‘that’s all very well but the sun still looks like it went down, and will come up in the morning’.  That’s the position of our feelings, we’re askew, off-centre.  I admire Paul Cézanne, Jackson Pollock – that distance from everything.  Apparent wildness.  But if you look closely at Pollock – he’s an important model for my work – it’s between order and chaos.  There’s no order.  You wouldn’t believe it, but my work is actually making its way.  It makes its way out there.


Well, money! People are investing in it.

Does that have meaning or value for you?

There’s nowhere else for art to be judged.  If I were a physicist or a scientist, my peers would test it out amongst them, to see if it was true or false.   With art it has to go through the filthy business of being fashionable.  There’s no other way. And when you do it the way I am doing it, it takes a long time-because I can’t bear the nonsense involved in that.

Surely it’s not purely down to the economics of the thing.

The only protection the artwork has is its price.  It’s the only tiling that protects it from being discarded ultimately.

Is it simply a matter of others assigning external applications of value?  Or is that something you have a sense of yourself?

The system of money, it’s not accurate.  It’s fairly inaccurate, because the artists who make the most money always are the revisionist artists.  Do you know what I mean by that?  They copy or they take a model, usually of a really great artist like Francis Bacon or Frank Stella, and put back in the old values that the originals eschewed.  They ignore the content of the work and put back in the old values.  That’s a revisionist art – it means not necessarily that you’re a bad artist, but a minor one.  When told that others were painting like him, Willem de Kooning said, ‘They only get to do the good ones…’  An artist who really affected me, showed me how to make and think formally – or helped me anyway – was Frank Stella and his early work.  It was the content of it – actually taking a stand with your work, that it would formally embody what you believed.  There was an ethics involved.  He was beating out the old compositions with this rhythm across the canvas, a force field.  Ridding the canvas of hierarchies of composition, and all that meant.  So that was a model that helped me, because Francis Bacon and Giacometti ended figuration for me, representation.  That was tough on me, because that was my ‘talent’; I had a gift for it – drawing.  So I would see that painting there, as I’m talking to you, I see a big debt both to Frank Stella and Francis Bacon.  The fact that it doesn’t look like either Bacon or Stella is even better.

What affinity is it that you feel with Francis Bacon?

The ultimate importance of the experience of the viewer.  There is no higher authority than the lone viewer.  He painted his friends, people around him and he attacked the authority of portraiture, the depiction of ‘important’ people, by using chance or accident, the visceral experience of the painting.

At the same time he’s quoting, he’s taking from Spanish painting and other sorts of things – he’s trading on tradition.

A Francis Bacon is a painting, yes?  That’s what great art is: a renewal.  All expressions up to now are inadequate for today.  A new appearance for the new day.

How do you distinguish between what’s a renewal and what’s revisionist?

Revisionism is easy to see.  I mean, you just see it, if you are an experienced viewer – after all, we’re talking about appearances.  When you see it, that’s it.  It’s amazing how people can be talked out of what they see.  I don’t know.  I can only talk for myself.  From the point of view of my work, a lot of things appear.  When I created the Arbitrary Colour Collection, I knew then that was the sentient part; and with Folded/Unfolded, that ‘unexpressed’ part of my work, I knew that was then about sleep.

Explain to me what you mean by the ‘Folded/Unfolded’?

Well, my early work, my first ‘important’ work was Folded/Unfolded in 1970. Potential and experience.  Now in my innocence – we don’t have that point of view.  We’re either awake or asleep.  All pictures assume a point of view that we don’t have.  It’s just not like that.  There are lots of sophisticated ways around that, of making figurative art, but that’s not my way.  This was my metaphor; it was very misunderstood at the time as being about Morris Louis, because it involved staining and so on.  But as time has gone on it still remains useful as an early model.  It’s a collapsed painting, or it’s a painting.  That was my first one-man show in the Project in 1972.  This part, the outfolded, became these colour collections, and the infolded oddly enough didn’t change much at all, the folded bales of canvas.  I did an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library, in the bookcases of Books, Boxes and Bronze.  They were metaphors for sleep states, deep sleep dreaming and so on.  From the point of view of waking and sleep, throughout the history of painting it’s been a popular theme; the illusion itself puts you into a dream-like state, reflexive of the experience of the viewer.  We don’t see ourselves during sleep; we’re asleep.

Is there one aspect of that dialectic you’re more drawn towards?

Awake!  Absolutely.  Awake.

The work you did with Stoney Road, in terms of the book, would you consider that asleep?  Books have that dormant quality, as with the Chester Beatty exhibition.

When they’re closed, yes.  The idea that a dream is dealing with the experiences of the day, undirected-like the painting it is heaped, saturated.  That photo over there – it’s an image about an experience I had when I was painting, about something I used to do as a child.  [Shows photo].  It’s a storm drain.  Upriver there was a paper mill where they threw the dyes in, and one day it would be red, the next yellow, pink, blue, black…  I used to just sit there, to look through this little opening. 
There’s a poignancy in printing that’s life-like, I think; it just goes away from you.  It’s never direct, it’s like another person. There’s an otherness about it, and at the same time, an absence.

Is that because of the collaborative process that’s necessary?

No, I think it’s prints themselves, because you can print them yourself, with potatoes or anything.  You don’t have to do it with other people.  Actually knowing you were corning got me interested in prints again, how I could use them.  Ralph Richardson considered his performances as ‘printing’.  He said as an actor he was a printer.

When we were talking about this book, one of the ideas we rolled around was this concept of the multiple, and of value.

It’s identity made by difference and sameness.  They don’t look the same, do they?  At one stage they were different sides and different materials, but that was pre-empting the effects of colour to appear to expand and contract.  They don’t look the same size, but you know they are.  I’m working all the time against my own taste, which would be another kind of authority, another thing in the way of the viewer’s experience.

And is that successful for you?

I’m amazed, yes.  Whether it’s successful or not is not up to me, because I’m malting it.  It’s up to others to do that.  For me, I’m only scratching the surface of this new art.  Which is amazing because this numinous thing that I’ve touched on comes from Cézanne.  Art as metaphor for living, for our feelings, because no book or painting or anything ever has a feeling, it’s the viewer.  Do you like it?


Colour! To short-circuit the rational part of the mind’s search for reason, to get rid of any logic which would interfere with the emotional response.  I’m interested in doing these large ones, because there’s less escape.  I like the idea that you can turn your head and get away from the painting, but I also like a situation where once you engage in it (if you’re in a situation like an art gallery) you should take that seriously.  I think the art should make you take it seriously, or else get out.  Once you see it you’re engaged, selecting, and responsible for what you see.  It’s full of problems, making larger paintings.  There’s a lot more detail.  A friend of mine, he was crying – he often mourns his mother and father – he was looking at these, and it was the drips at the bottom he was focusing on.  That’s why the champer is there, to show you, so you know.  Your intelligence says that’s where the brush should stop.  If it didn’t, if you couldn’t see that, it would appear to go on infinitely, you’d get mysticism creeping into it, illusionism.  That social tiling that’s in the Colour Collections, looking together-it caused me to focus on the single paintings, what I call ‘lenses’.   Liquid, solid, liquid acrylic, solid acrylic, reflective, transparent, etc.  They reflect the room-not like the traditional lens into another world.  I like the way the metal makes the paint react-like the bone, the fleshiness of the paint on it.  My work acknowledges location but not specifically.  A curious thing happens. I’ve always felt that looking at paintings, all your senses are in the front, and you know that when you decide to stop, you’re going to go backwards into the future.  It’s an early Greek idea.  Although they had of course mathematics, but they still didn’t have our teleological way of seeing, the future as being ahead of us.  A Greek person would say a wise person saw the past in front of him, knew where he was, and had a sense of the future behind him. We walk blindly into the future.  That’s like actual experience, and painting has that edginess.

How do you know when you’re putting these together when to stop?

Usually when I see an exciting new colour situation – it’s quite wonderful.  And it mustn’t fit logically it has to be different.  I’m interested in finding limits.  It’s the only way art can possibly deal with things, to have limits.  If art starts unfolding you end up with vaudeville.  It reminds me of an early experience I had at the Theatre Royal.  I was nine or ten years old and there was a stage show.  I remember a skinny little man came out from right of stage with a huge drum – much bigger than himself.  He was beating the drum – boom! boom! boom! – with one hand.  He wrapped himself around the drum like a tyre, boom! boom! boom!… and came back up… boom!  He continued across the stage, took his hat off… boom!… and ate it. Boom!, took his shirt off… boom! boom!… and ate it. Boom!, took his vest off… boom!  All the time beating this funereal rhythm, down to his braces… boom! boom! went off-stage, having all this time ignored the audience, completely. Boom!  Of course art is art, it’s not life.  Artworks are descriptions; they’re never going to be anything other than that. You get into real nonsense if you think there’s no difference between art and life, you end up appropriating other art and doing really daft and disrespectful things.  I sense a terrible loss of respect and sincerity in that kind of work.

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of the superficial with your work, but surely that’s part of life as well.  Or is it just not interesting?

You can make anything trivial or superficial.  You can dismiss anything.  You can scoff at anything.  Football is just these fellows kicking a ball around, that’s to bliss the whole point, isn’t it? A ctors are just showing off.  There’s all sorts of ways of dismissing things.  It’s risky when you’re an artist… now I sound like Rothko!  lt is risky, yes.  It’s even risky, you know, when people like it.


I’ve just found that to be the case.  People buying it have done awful things with these, put them standing up the wrong way, framing paintings that shouldn’t be framed!  Once they own it there’s a certain power they believe they have.

You were just speaking about the viewer being paramount in terms of what they want to see in the work.  Why would the rearrangements matter?

In private the collector can do what they want, but in public the artist’s arrangement is the only valid one, of course.

Do you think that everything that you’ve done, that’s gone out of your control, out of your reach, does it have an autonomy of it’s own?

It’s just too late for me to do anything about it.  It’s a worry.  I’m usually a little bit relieved when I see an old work that has come back, things I did when I was 18 or 19.  I was surprised that I liked them.  I thought I wouldn’t, I thought I would be embarrassed.  It’s the way people should relate as well.  We should listen to one another, not project assumptions all the time.  I reallocate conceptual art, the way it trick-acts like chimpanzees.  You know in tests they did on chimps with mirrors, they’re like human beings-they make faces.  Gorillas don’t. Gorillas look at the back to see what it is.  I’m a gorilla!

Do you do these on the floor?

Yes, that’s what gives them this hanging-on look. If you get too involved in the process, it becomes minor.  I don’t want any one aspect to predominate, that’s what minor art is: an aspect of things.

Maybe you could explain to me more what you mean by the viewer.

I dedicate my art to the unknown and unknowable viewer.  I’m the only person I experience the world as.  I suppose I used to hear this all the time, from my teachers – that painting is an old man’s art, an old person’s art.  And it’s true, because you need a bit of experience; you need some notion of time and the effect it has on experience and your relationships.  So really it’s all about me and overcoming myself.  The more I’m out of it, the more you can get into it.  lt really isn’t any fixed notion of who a viewer is, so much as what it’s a product of, which is my point of view: the only one available to me.  That’s the only way around it that I can think of, the only honest way.  I’ve no one else’s taste to go on.  I could use and experiment with your taste to make up a piece, and that would be one way of avoiding mine.  You see Francis Bacon – he was that way inclined anyway – taking drugs and using accident and violence to get that freshness.  He tried all these things.  I’ve found a way of doing it where I don’t have to do that, quite the opposite.  But he’s still a model.  I would like to show that piece [pointing to a five-part colour collection] with a Francis Bacon.

Alongside a screaming pope, or another of his works?

I think a portrait of one of his friends, something a little less art historical than the screaming pope.  Really that does pull in a lot of kudos from the Velásquez, doesn’t it?  I could easily bullshit about painting, I actually did with someone – it was genuine as well.  I said, ‘doesn’t that look like the molten metal in Titian’s painting of Mars?’  You can relate to great art, but it’s much more interesting to say ‘doesn’t that look like a cold ear in the winter’s sunlight?’  Just things you see in the street.  It’s better to talk like that, than to talk the other way.

In an ordinary way?

Yes, the so-called ordinary.  Real.  That’s the only thing that’s interesting… ordinary life, so- called.  Nothing ordinary about it.  I must do a print, because that loss in printing is something I haven’t really used properly.

What loss do you mean?

It’s not there, that’s what I mean.  It’s a print, it’s gone through a process in a way that you can’t see.  It goes away with something and comes back with something turned around something else.

It’s a real loss of authority…

Yes!  Yes!  That’s something I like about it.  That’s why I don’t like carborundum, trying to look like paint.  I’ve never done one of those for that reason.  It’s the ethics of aesthetics that interest me.  The only power art has is its ethical power, especially since Beckett after the war.  And it was always my interest anyway.

In what sense ethical?

I find it unethical, for example, to impose my taste on you.  That’s not an ethical thing to do.  Being a formalist artist, as I am, is all about creating limits and obeying rules, and creating what’s an honest exchange between us.  Because you project yourself onto others you wind up a fascist.  Fascism is that-it’s a violent projection of what one sees and feels.

This is what my work is about.  Only formal art can underpin the rule of law and democracy.  Telling my story informally, in narrative art, can’t do that.  It’s about your story, or identity.  So-called political art is the worst, because it’s never good politics nor art.  It’s usually just rhetorical.  All great art is political: our very humanness is created by it.  The thing I hope this work refreshes is colour – the decolonisation of colour.  Get it away frown flags, etc., and notions that red is hot or blue is cool; they’re not. If you froze in a red room believe me, every time you saw red you wouldn’t think it was hot!  These are descendant things; they’re not transcendent.  These are not coloured.  The works I was doing before these were coloured, with the diagonals, the weaving paintings, the drawing in them.  And I couldn’t get out of that space.  And then these gouaches ended that; they were the beginning of the end of that.  Then the colour came pouring in.  It felt like being stoned on colour for about two years.  It was fantastic.  Still is.

Once or twice I’ve stopped those guides leading children’s tours in the National Gallery and asked them, ‘are you talking to them before they see the work?  Go and look at the paintings first, and then come back, and talk about what you saw.’  What they do, believe it or not, they lecture them before they go around, and tell them what to look for.  You only have one chance to make a first impression.  It’s so precious, that. Y ou can never get that back.  That’s some-thing that time and experience teaches you about the human heart.  Not to be too frivolous with it, to be more careful.  My education was very good at the National College of Art & Design, Kildare Street. They gave one a touch of everything: etching, screen printing, low relief casting, high relief modeling, life drawing, still-life painting and drawing, nature and design, art history.  In my day, what you did in art school had nothing to do with personal expression, that was your own business.  And that’s pretty good, that.  It meant that the art school stood for something.  If you didn’t agree with it, there was nothing else.  There is no reason for art schools anymore.  They’re all desperately looking for some kind of respectability, handing out MAs, BAs, honorary degrees.  You can’t measure art – there’s no canon.  There’s no measurable way of quantifying it; it’s subjective.

You can’t have a history of art, because it’s experience.  I suppose art schools give kids a chance to experiment and get some money and subsidies.

It gives people a space to work and develop. Nowadays it is very difficult…

Yes, a place to work.  A place to do your work, that’s about it. They’re trying to turn students into pseudo-sociologists.  Art now pretends to be some branch of that – a science.

Theory is so important in art college now, people see affinities between kinds of theory and are making, and begin to equate the two, as if one can stand for the other, and I don’t think they can.

I don’t know, I just had an ethical stand to take: I had something to do.  I’m really not interested if a work isn’t about something, if it doesn’t have a concern about something.  There’s lots of things that aren’t interesting to me.

Is there anyone whose work you look at now that challenges you?

I was always fuelled a lot by anger, you know?  My unexpressed feelings!  What I hated.  What qualities I loved that were absent.  I’d just go back and be determined to make my paintings more direct, more themselves.  So it was really in opposition; but it was never about the opposition.  It’s about what you love.  The truth is that it’s still under attack.  We’re always under attack.  We’re always being coerced by advertising.  Advertising is the enemy, in all its forms.  When I see work that doesn’t have any sex, or sensuality, any material… when it’s all virtual…

I thought this rang a bell with something Frank Delaney pointed out about James Joyce’s Ulysses, about Bloom when posting a letter.  He went across Ha’penny bridge, turned to the right, went up, turned left and down into Andrews’ Street to post the letter, in the shape of a question mark.  Poincaré, the 19th century French philosopher of science, posited that space could only be known by experience: we had no other mechanism, no other way of knowing it.  We make buildings by measuring and planning, but in experience you get it wrong.  Memory is always wrong; you have to go back.

So I thought surely in Joyce, you could see the characters behaving like words, or letters, simulating the space of the city.  So I was wondering, did he acknowledge Poincaré anywhere?  I spoke to a Joycean scholar about that, and a few days later she rang me up and said, ‘Ciarán, I found it – page 243 of Finnegan’s Wake, there it is: “Thanks eversore much, Pointcarried”.’

All of that which l’ve just described, that whole idea, just one line in Finnegan’s Wake.  The rest of the page is really quite beautiful, the colour of space, the space of colour.  I wrote a little joke to Royden about it: ‘Double breasted bloom turns a corner on his bicycle, and twice waves goodbye, goodbye.’  Do you see it?