This is Covid Eyes, a temporary art project for the period of the pandemic. In this strange period of isolation, social distancing and face masks, I have decided to concentrate on Eyes as a theme. My plan is to post a new image every Tuesday for the next while. This special project will be in addition to my regular Thursday blog post and it is grant aided by the Arts Council of Ireland.
So why the eyes? The eyes can tell so much about us – our compassion, our frustration, our fears – the eyes also show that we are not that different from each other and, they remind us too, that we are all in this together.
Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.
09/ 06/ 2020 – What I’ve Seen…
I could not get the awful, awful murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA out of my mind as I prepared this post for my online project Covid Eyes.
The ‘eye painting’ above is from a series of small paintings entitled: “What I’ve Seen”. It was a series based on an unknown soldier, returned from war, that I painted again and again. Each piece was 20 x 20 cm, some darker, some lighter and some, like the one above, almost fading to black.
Art critic with The Irish Times, Aidan Dunne, wrote about them on the occasion of my solo exhibition Caoineadh/Elegies at Droichead Arts Centre in Drogheda. The heading of the review was: “The eyes have it” (10/04/2009).
A number of the paintings from this series can be seen at the Olivier Cornet Gallery.
16/ 06/ 2020 – Waiting
Today’s eye painting is taken from a large oil painting entitled: “Waiting” that I created some years ago. It was inspired by the character Babette in Gabriel Axel’s film “Babette’s Feast” – which itself was based on a story by Karen Blixen.
The film is about the inate impulse of the artist to create. A wonderful film. In this scene, is she waiting to hear or… waiting in fear maybe? What do you think?
Maybe too much analysis inhibits the painter but I thought that it would be interesting to take a still from the film (by photographing the television screen) and using it as a starting-off point for a painting.
That original painting is currently hanging in the Olivier Cornet Gallery (visit by appointment only, for the present).
23/ 06/ 2020 – Who is essential?
These are the eyes of a person who was homeless.
Over the years I’ve made several large paintings of homeless people for a body of work entitled: Dídean/Home. Mostly I found images on the internet and in newspapers to use as references for these paintings, images that one might see on Sunday and have forgotten by Monday.
But by taking a small photo of someone and making a large painting of it, it adds significance to that person’s story.
Significance? Why is it mostly portraits of Lords and Ladies we see? Who is more important – the businessman, the bus driver or the community volunteer? During this pandemic, maybe we’ve begun to realise the essentials.
And as for the guy who is homeless – well, who knows what goes on in another person’s life, what circumstances, what trauma led to his present situation?
30/ 06/ 2020 – Uaigneas
Masks protect others from the virus but masks also hide a lot. It can be more difficult to ascertain age, social standing or emotions even, when you wear them. In a similar way I find that when I crop an image to only show the eyes (as I’m doing with the Covid Eyes online art project), some of the emotion or the human expression is lost from the painting.
Today’s eye painting was first presented in an exhibition entitled: Caoineadh/ Elegies at the Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar, Co. Mayo. The exhibition was opened by Irish sean-nós singer and activist Treasa Ní Cheannabháin.
If I could, I would like my paintings to exude the same depth of emotion, the uaigneas, the beauty and the sadness of those timeless sean-nós songs.
07/ 07/ 2020 – Razan
These are the eyes of Razan al-Najjar, a 21 year old nurse/paramedic, the eldest of six children born to Ashraf al-Najjar.
A frontline worker, brave and dedicated, she lost her life as she tried to save others.
According to witness testimony, she was shot by a sniper when she and some other medics, walking with their hands up and wearing white vests, approached a wounded protester.
In a subsequent investigation, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found that she was clearly marked as a paramedic and that she “did not pose an imminent threat” when she was shot. The report concluded that there was “reasonable grounds” to believe that the snipers intentionally shot health workers, despite seeing that they were clearly marked as such.
Something is rotten in a society that allows this barbarism to continue unsanctioned.
14/ 07/ 2020 – Battered Heads
I wasn’t always a figurative painter. When I left college, I was painting abstract paintings with a particular emphasis on the emotive qualities of colour. I loved it!
But I was involved in the anti-war movement and as time went on, I increasingly felt that there was a disconnect between my activism and my explorations of colour so I reluctantly began to introduce figuration into the work.
I began a series of paintings of faces in response to the then US Secretary of Defence’s notorious Deck of Cards, his 52 “most wanted men” in Iraq. Because I couldn’t believe that the world would be a safer place if all these men were “eliminated”, I decided that I would paint 52 battered heads in protest.
Today’s painting is entitled: “Head no. 20” and it’s from a body of work entitled: Caoineadh/Elegies which toured to various art centres around the country.
Sometimes though… I think that those heads were sort of self-portraits. Not that I’ve ever experienced war or any hardship like that but – don’t we sometimes just feel a bit battered by life? And then, I think that there’s always something else going on when one is painting. There always seems to be stuff happening beyond our control… and maybe, what we’re at is reaching for some form of peace or resolution.
23/ 06/ 2020 – Ecocide
I remember in my grandma’s cupboards, there were mysterious parcels wrapped up in yellowing newspaper and tied up with string made from old stockings…
And her fireplace had the smallest fire I’d ever seen. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – that’s what she was at, and she had the right idea all those years ago.
The earth has had a short reprieve during this pandemic – the air is clearer, the grass is greener – but that could all be forgotten in this mad rush to “get back to normal”.
That “normal” was disastrous for the planet.
Last week, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg said that the world needed an economic overhaul to have a chance of beating the Climate Crisis. Along with other activists she sent an open letter to Global Leaders urging them to take emergency action.
It made many strong points but interestingly, the letter urged the leaders to back calls for the International Criminal Court to adopt a new crime of “ecocide” – to prosecute those responsible for large-scale destruction of the natural world.
(It didn’t mention stockings but – we can all do our bit!)
28/ 07/ 2020 – Anxiety
I thought this older painting of mine reflected the fear experienced by some of my more vulnerable neighbours during the pandemic.
I’ve been exploring the sense of loneliness and isolation that persists in these strange times when it seems like half the population is oblivious to the danger and the other half is living in fear.
“Solastalgia”, a term coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, refers to the distress caused by environmental change, when your home environment is changing beyond your control. There’s no doubt that the pandemic has exacerbated this distress but it may also be a catalyst for environmental restoration.
We need to build communities that respect and co-operate with nature and artists have a crucial role in this endeavour. To quote a friend of mine, Dr. Cathy Fitzgerald: “Compassionate creativity will be critical to help us reflect and inspire communities to imagine the better world that we know is possible”.
04/ 08/ 2020 – at the RHA
It is sometimes said that when photography was invented, that it was the end of painting but then, others might say that when photography was invented, that it set painting free!
I was thinking about that when I was working on the painting above, back in 2010. Those days, I liked to create works that, from a distance, looked purely figurative but, on closer inspection, they revealed the true nature of the work, ie: that it was a “continuous struggle with the materiality of paint and surface”.
Ah yes, mark-making and all that, it’s true of course – the tension between trying to get a likeness and also being aware of the various brushstrokes you’re making – but it could also do your head in, if you weren’t in the whole of your health.
But I was an “invited artist” at the RHA annual exhibition that year and – didn’t I win the ESB Keating McLaughlin Medal for the painting above!