Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Artlines Interview 2009 (Archive)

In 2009 Artlines - an online arts outlet, (Now defunct) did an interview with me - here it is in full -

Artlines Monthly Featured Artist                            

Cormac O'Leary, a Cork born artist, lives with his family in rural County Leitrim.
He has been exhibiting his award winning paintings in Ireland, the UK, America and europe for the last twenty years, gradually building up a loyal following and a reputation for textural, vibrant paintings that capture the atmosphere of the Irish Northwest, its wild coastlines, rugged fields, mountains, and valleys. He has had nearly twenty solo exhibitions, many of which have completely sold out. He talks to Artlines about his methods of working, his influences and ongoing creative concerns.

Night Garden 2008  Oil on paper  16 x 28 cm

ARTLINES (AL) : You grew up in an artistic home, your father John O'Leary was a painter and art teacher, this must have been very helpful...

Cormac O'Leary (C O'L): Yes, we were very fortunate - my sister Caitriona became an artist as well. My father's abstract paintings
were all over our family home, as we grew up there was always artists visiting. It was very natural to discuss art and see it as something to enjoy, to debate and figure out. My father was from the generation who embraced the school of Paris abstraction, Matisse and co. , jazz music, Samuel Beckett, the existentialists! So it was in at the deep end! My father abhored 'slick' or commercial art, he was a purist. I never painted as a kid. I just drew, like all children do. I kept at it, however, mainly cartoons, stuff from TV and the movies. I used pens and pencils.

Halloween Drawing, 2003, Charcoal, 6 x 8 ins

My mother kept the drawings in box loads. I still draw habitually on napkins and envelopes, I often tack together scraps of paper into handmade sketchbooks. I draw everyday and it is drawing that is the source of all my ideas. I cant understand artists who dont draw. I rarely exhibit them, they are studies, flights of fancy, doodles and finished artworks in their own right. Again, that was from Dad, the idea that drawing is fundamental to everthing else. So I still draw everyday, its like breathing for me, I get worried if I dont have a biro nearby, I start to panic, you can draw anywhere, even when stuck in traffic!                       

Montjuic Summer, 2004, Pastel, 8 x 11 ins

AL : Your own work has always been figurative, did you ever experiment with abstraction?

CO'L : Yes, I have made some abstract works. I wasnt very happy with the results. It has to happen naturally. My father was very methodical in his work. He came to abstraction after years of gradual study and experiment. He was'nt doctrinare. It suited his maturing style and philosophy. He called painting the 'old man's trade', meaning you served a long apprenticeship before finding your own feet. I feel I'm still  discovering my own way - I felt abstraction for me was closing off possibilities too early on, there were places I wanted to still explore in my work.

AL: So - the beginnings - what sort of student work did you do ?

CO'L: I was very introverted - some people love art college - its their first exposure to art and hanging out with artists. I kept my head down and tried to figure out what I was at - alot of time was wasted questioning everything - which sort of kills your spirit - I can only work in an inspirational, natural instinctive way - drawing, mucking about with oils - if I start to ask questions it all falls apart. I did alot of grim realist figurative stuff. I was very into Egon Schiele's distorted figures- Munch, the german expressionists - I remember trying out lino block printing and doing these black and white figures - the woodblocks of Kate Kollowitz were a big influence- again dark, full of angst, poverty, strife, peasant uprisings!

AL: Did you natuarlly pick up painting ?

Studio doorway, Leitrim
CO'L: No, I struggled with oils, I found drawing and print easier - I did endless life drawings. Print actually helped to train me visually - you broke down the image into a series of shapes, blank areas of colour, it was a form of abstraction actually.

AL; So your early paintings, what were they like?

CO'L; I totally avoided the landscape, for a while I was only interested in the figure. I looked at Edward Hopper's isolated figures in these lit up areas. The idea that a story was implied, that it was poetic and lonely, like a Tom Wait's song. Gradually landscape seeped in. It is an unavoidable fact of life in Ireland. We are overwhelmed by the weather and the way it shapes our enviornment.

AL; So after art college you still wanted to paint?
View from a Spanish train, 1999, oil on paper, 9 x 12 ins

CO'L ; Well, I did a bit of drifting - I went to Barcelona for a while. It was a culture shock. From rural Ireland still in recession, to a vibrant cultural meditteranean city, full of art galleries and artists. I still remember my first sightings of Picasso works, they were electrifying, like he painted them yesterday, still fresh. There was an extraordinary Tapies exhibition, the Joan Miro Foundation, the Gaudi buildings. It was a feast. But it was really the city itself, to walk down the Ramblas was like being in a surreal film. Everywhere you met some eccentric, or saw something colourfull. I worked on a building site and travelled about the hinterland, doing some street painting for the spare change!
Spanish Window 2004, Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 ins

AL: Did you do much Spanish influenced artwork?

CO'L; The place got into my imagination. The light and shadow, the whole black moon surrealism of Lorca, the dust brown landscape, the old battered walls. I painted a lot of views from windows, appartments and hotels with terraces and shutters, the contrast between cool interiors and blazing views under blue skies. There was always a sense of hidden drama about my Spanish windows - something of the stage set about them. I must have spent a few years developing them, there was this geometric arcehtectural framework to play within, the frame framing another view. I liked the implied mystique of the passing window, the unknown lives hidden there.

 In Andalucia there were the secretive walled gardens, the ornate courtyards of the Allhambra, an oasis of fountains in the deadly noon heat. It had the theatrical Lorca touch that attracted me. The burnt out whites of the cubist towns. A glaring white with violet under it, edged in burnt ochre. I wanted to wander those backlanes forever, you felt history was recent there, the arab voices merged with spanish, as if the moors had not left. To walk out under a purple dusk, on streets still warm from the daytime sun was a thrill. The Spanish had thrown off the shackles of church and state and seemed to be having a sort of extended fiesta when I first got there. Wealth was being siphoned into the arts as a form of cultural pride. In Barcelona there was so much public art, it was rarely vandalised. In Ireland we had a few dodgy portraits of Joyce and Yeats in pubs, our impoverished cultural education might be to blame. There was always more writers than readers!

 Duskland, Andalucia 1999, Oil on board, 28 x 32 ins.


AL: You came back to Ireland in the 1990's?

CO'L; I was broke in Spain, there was only so many street paintings I could do before I went hungry! So I reluctantly came back to Sligo and joined other artists, we set up group studios in grotty old buildings. I had a fire in the belly after Spain, anything seemed possible. We organised group shows, applied for grants and talked alot over endless coffees about what we were trying to do, hoped to do, dreamt of doing. I learned alot from those years. Sligo always had a floating populace of artists and writers, potters, poets, sculptors etc, so there was always an arts festival or some DIY exhibition happening. It was rare to sell anything, so you had time to develope your ideas. I still have alot of that work, which is interesting to look back on. There was a searching and an openess to possibility in it, a haphazard dipping into various styles or images. I did some Famine based images which were fitting for the era, the death of things in the flow of nature, the unatural loss in the midst of plenty. It seemed to be the Irish condition, this ongoing poverty in the middle of rich europe, rich America nearby, our tribal war up the road, while the UK prospered. I did alot of figures that echoed the abuse stories pouring out of the radio at the time, it was unavoidable, the whole country was gripped by a near hysteria of confession, it had a terrible, suicidal undertone to it, all those destroyed innocents. I never exhibited those works, destroyed alot of them.
 The art infrastructure back then was underdeveloped, outside Dublin there was very little going on. Yet there were things opening up gradually. The regional Arts centres became a focus for activity, readings, music, cinema clubs, you could feel a dormant nation begining to wake up to its cultural wealth, before the boom obliterated all good taste!
Friday Still-life 2000, Oil on paper, 12 x 16 ins

AL: What kind of work was influencing you then?

CO'L; I remember seeing an amazing William Crozier retrospective at the RHA. It was an eye opener. That was around 1991/ 92. big lushous generous spirited paintings, very colourfull, vivid. There was also a show of English artist Anthony Whisaw's giant earthy canvases, brooding, very textural paintwork. The sheer scale impressed me, the depiction of landscape through a sort of interiorised cubist window. I was very affected by Irish artists too, Charles Tyrrell's abstract Borderland series from the 1990's, the layers of paintwork, the scratchings and the gougings of the surface, the archaelogy of the painting made visible and Donald Teskey's atmospheric urban paintings, which really inspired me.

AL: When did you first exhibit your work?

CO'L; I had my first solo show in the Sligo Art Gallery, run by Ronan McEvilly - it was a lively space, always innovative, the only local place showing contemporary artwork, and also exhibiting local artists. I worked there in the 1990's, helping hang shows, invigilating, meeting visiting artists, learning all the time. One week you'd have a sculpture show, then there'd be an installation, then it would be a group show, mixed media or what ever, annually for a few weeks  amateurs and professionals showed together, which was always interesting. You learned the subtle art of placing, how one painting can dominate a room, or how installations can make a small space seem bigger. Some shows worked while others fell flat -you began to see why. The general public where often the cruellest critics, yet they always sensed if an artists was sincere - they knew if there was something interesting to discover - there was always the usual anti-art cranks - but you will always have them.
I also got to experience the very practical side to the art business, the nuts and bolts of presenting art to the public, and the donkey work that goes into running a gallery, keeping to deadlines, trying to get everything to fall into place with limited funding. At one stage Ronan got the monumental prints by the great Catalan artist Antoni Tapies into the local town hall. We had to hang them by chains from the roof of a former ballroom, they were 12 foot long, it was an engineering miracle. One print cost more than the entire annual budget of the gallery!
There was a great show of veteran Irish painter Tony O'Malley's work - he was in his late 80's then - he came to see the work and started touching the surface of the oil paintings like he was reading them by braille - alot of the works were from the 1960's but he remembered every one of them, I think he remembered every mark he had made.
Then the Model Arts Centre was developed, which attracted bigger international exhibits. Barrie Cooke and Sean McSweeney had some major shows there. Sligo was no longer off the beaten track.

AL: Your first solo show in Sligo was a sell out on the opening night and caused a stir - it launched you.

CO'L; I was lowered gently into the commercial artworld! I had been showing my work around for a while and had built up a small following, local collectors where very supportive, like the late great Vincent Ferguson, who collected several wharehouses of Irish art, beginners and big names, he never discriminated - I remember him arriving at my near derelict studio in Sligo town sometime in the 1990's, He handed me a cheque for a canvas. There was snow falling through the ceiling and we had candles in saucers. I was afraid he would fall throught the floorboards! The oil was a green 'abstract' which turned up years later after he died, at auction in Christies in London - I was in London at the time and went to see the auction - it was so odd to see my little DIY canvas there amongst all the other great and good of Irish art- Vincent was always helpfull with advice and connecting you to gallery's, he really was a rarity, a serious business head with a genuine love of Irish art. He kept the artist Patrick Collins going for years, some say he kept him alive by buying the artist's work when few where bothered.
So, yes,  the first solo show was a success, in that I felt at last vindicated, I had'nt totally wasted my time, the years in the wilderness. I was just back from another stint travelling about Spain. The paintings were colourfull, bright, lively and cheap! I had no idea what to do when I went back to my studio and realised it was empty - I had no work left to inspire me- you always should keep a few pieces around to help you procede to the next step! I had not expected to have an empty studioso quickly. I started back into it as soon as possible.

                                        Small works in the studio

AL: What direction did your work take as you began to exhibit more?

CO'L; I started showing reguarly with the Hallward in Dublin and around the country, then in the UK and beyond. I just continued exploring many ideas, everything from figurative studies to still-life and interiors. I felt I had been waiting so long to get going I was at last unleashed. I was impatient, wanting to avoid getting pigeon holed, I suppose, there was urban and rural images reflected my life at the time - alot of travel and unsettled views from passing landscapes, alot of views from trains and hotel windows. I liked the idea that the 'glimpse' could contain whole worlds, or whole lives - again that went back to early work I had loved, the interiors of Matisse, even the way Van Gogh got his flower studies to contain so much poetry, that poignant edge to even the most innocent everyday thing.
The more I 'settled' in one place, the more I eventually gravitated towards the idea of the landscape taking on all the emotional range; Joy, loss, despair, longing, not just a nice arrangement of trees and flowers. It could contain all the turmoil of history and nature. When I saw Hughie O'Donoghues monumental oils I realised you could approach the epic of mythology in a natural landscape using figurative imagery - if that's not a contradiction - Picasso's riddle about painting the cat that the apple implies!                                                                              

AL; Your painting style - you seem to use palette knives rather than brushes, working in layers, letting impastoed paint build up on the surface.....

CO'L; Yes, I love the texture of oils, I have used acrylics before, mainly for quick studies, but nothing matches the rich depth of oils, the possibility of a textured, tactile surface. Its why I loved De Stael's work, or DeKooning's figurative works, that sensual feel for the oil paint, letting the layers build up a strata of overpainting, the scratchings and reworking still visible on the finished surface. The buried colours still hinted at. I never liked the slick academic neatness of some oil painting, you get all caught up with finicky details and levels of technique - many artists like that kind of sheen or 'finisse'. I find the deliberate 'roughness' inherint in using the knife much more pleasing. You see it in the primitive style, that wonderfull irreverance towards getting things too right, like using srappage to make sculpture - I really think that sort of thing is healthy - the 'arte povera' movement did that - its back to Picasso destroying the beauty to make something new - a refreshing outlook - it renews beauty, challenges the preconception.
Someone told me once that one of my paintings looked edible - that was a real compliment. I think the French understand that oil paint is a sensual substance, someting to be used generously. William Scott talked about the 'beauty of the thing done badly'. I find the need to create a nice clean 'finish' with oils depressing, everything can look dead and stuffed; like General Franco's paintings of game. It suits some artists and they are good at that kind of meticulous brushwork, Martin Mooney is one, his work has a depth however, a real sensitivity. Technique is meaningless if the spirit is missing- look at the awkwardness of Van Gogh- but such intensity of vision, such integrity. I have to throw the paint about, the studio has to be a mess - a sort of organised mess. It is costly, there are probably hundreds of potential images buried under the final composition - but that is the way I do it, self editing all the way until I feel it has 'worked', or as DeKooning said, 'abandoned rather than finished!'.

The Artist's palette

AL; Did you always paint this way?

CO'L; Yes - I remember starting in college, getting this tacky likeness with the brush. Then I just threw it way and started moulding shapes with the knife, it has a sculptural feel. It was how my father had painted. I essentially borrowed his style! I used to see him paint with a knife and it seemed so pleasing - that final layer going over all the others.
 It is methodical, a slow build up, yet it always looks fresh and expressive, I dont like 'applique' - just pasting it on - I like the paint to be well worked, to show a struggle and abrasion. The knives vary, from broad to thin. There were brief outbreaks of using brushes, but even then they had to be big house painter's brushes, I could'nt try a sable brush - it would all get too mathematical. There has to be a remove between me and that image, a blurring of the image. I have a few 'realist' works from the life class - but they could be anyones. You strike out, in earnest, trying to make some mark that is individual, trying to find your own footing. I was advised by my art tutors to stop using the knife, bad idea!

AL; Place seems important to you - Spain / Ireland, urban / rural - are you effected by your environment, or influenced ?

CO'L ; I suppose we all are - Spain was a shock to the system - the new colour, the textures - but you are also suddenly aware of the riches back home - the unique layers in the Irish landscape, the subtle lighting. I have lived in rural and urban enviornments and found both to be equally informative. You absorb imagery as it comes to hand. For me it has to have an aoura, some kind of mystery, or evasiveness, I dont do direct topography, there is too much detail to record. A place will feed into your work - in many ways, some unconscious. But again, I am a studio based artist, it is all from memory, imagination, a sort of vague looking back ino the mists,  and not a photographic documentary - It goes back to making a painting become 'something else' that is not a photo or a poem or a diary entry - but may contain elements of all of these. Actually while I found urban living very atmospheric -there was a claustrophobic element, spaces are limited, the view can be closed off - something in my work yearns for open space, the sense of distance. It goes back to a largely rural childhood spent near the sea and running in fields!

Sligo Headland, 2008-09, Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 ins

AL; Did this yearning make you eventually move to a rural location?

CO'L; Well I was actually living in a small terraced house in Cork city for several of my most prolific years. (The boom passed me by!) I had a little studio in an upstairs room. It was perfect, there were two windows facing onto the street, old creaky floorboards. I painted hundreds of oils in that snug little alcove. There was no easel, just a few nails on a streatch of wall, a three legged table for the pallete, a few shelves for the paints and a high stool. I had my stack of sketchbooks, my 'image bank', often stamp sized doodles and a few art books, boxes of pastels and chalks - that was all I needed. You can be anywhere and paint the landscape. I would do field trips, accumulating sketchbooks, doodles and studies. I never painted in the landscape. Sean mcSweeney always said you paint what a place feels like, not necesessairly what it looks like. I tried to capture the atmosphere of places, using memory. The experience of a shoreline or a valley. I painted them with siren wails and traffic rumbles in the background. I did feel the pull of the rural enviornment eventually. I had a young family and wanted a safe, healthy environment, open fields, new ground. The northwest was as good as anywhere - it offered me the chance to paint full time, to focus my life around painting and family. A simple routine of working and living. You begin to loose the distractions, a clarity comes to your outlook with the new sense of belonging. Place has a new resonance, a locality is not just a backdrop, but an enviornment to exist within, to become part of, your not just a tourist passing through, your putting down roots, your a 'native'!
Being a parent puts art in perspective as well, you realise there are more important things going on than art!

AL:While you lived in Cork city, did you paint urban themes?

City at Night, 2002, Oil on card, 8 x 12 ins

CO'L; Yes, I did alot of works based on Cork city, the terraced hills, the side streets. I found the city very atmospheric, particuarly the marina area, the old harbour, which I remembered from my own childhood. Ships are moored in amongst housing, in a surreal light show -  I also did alot of interiors from the old house I lived in., it was my late Grannies house, full of friendly ghosts, as I used to say! Still-life became a motif, an excuse to explore flat areas of paint, limited colours. It's interesting to explore the lower tonal range, there's a note of elegy inherint, someone told me they were like short poems. You start to do the Morandi thing, a few old bottles signify couples or families. The cups and bowls become female  and  male, fruit and bottles can take on alternate meanings like in Williaim Scott's work.

AL: Since your moved to rural Leitrim, how has your work developed?

CO'L; I found it difficult to absorb at first. The silence at night was absolute, there's a subtle light. People say there's no colour, but its intense and below the surface, more subdued. I take photographs, do alot of sketches. I eventually built a proper studio, after years of temporary spaces, it has made all the difference. You can explore and experiment with alot of ideas, new spaces have opened  up in the work. I remember seeing a photo of Braque's studio, he had about ten or twelve big oils on the go at the same time. I like that idea. Everything is so seasonal here, your palette adjusts to the changes. I like the dull, ochre of the trees, the hidden glens, the clear winter light. We get snow, bringing a white minimmal zen quality to everyting. Then the sea isnt too far away, so I explore the coast, that stormy meeting of forces, it fuels the imagery, expands the vision.

''Serpent's Rock, 2009,
Oil on canvas, 16 x 16 ins

Cormac O'Leary's latest artwork is currently on show at The Barbara Stanley Gallery, London and The Paul McKenna Gallery, Omagh.

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