The beginnings of my current work came from my MA studies. At the time I was trying to find an art history to engage with that was in some way meaningful for me personally. I was quite envious of artists from Germany, Belgium, Holland etc., who had visual cultures available to them that they could use like a visual library. In Ireland of course, our history of colonisation has had a major negative impact on our art history. There are gaps of centuries on end where there is no record of any visual art being made here. And when a visual culture does re-emerge in the 18th century, it’s quite a complicated and contested history. For example, James Barry is considered a Cork city artist here, but in the UK he is considered a London artist, as a large part of his training and career took place there.
So, engaging with Irish art history involves a leap of the imagination. Irish peasants did not have access to art materials in the 17th century in the way that some people from similar backgrounds in Spain or Holland did. For me, it was always fascinating to imagine what might have occurred if they had… How different their art might have been from mainstream European art histories, but also potentially how connected to it.
Had it developed in a linear fashion, I think it likely that strands of Irish art would have been informed by indigenous folk art forms, mythology, and storytelling traditions. There are traditions such as the “Wren boys”, and “the strawing”, with ancient, unknown origins which survive to this day in some parts of Ireland.
I also think this “ghost” art history would have been informed by the history of migration of Irish people. Research into historical links between Ireland and the Caribbean was important to the development of my practice. This is quite an under-explored but fascinating period in Irish history. Possibly under-explored because of the ambiguous relationship that many 17th and 18th century Irish immigrants would have had to the forces of colonialism. Many indentured servants were directly involved in, or profited from, the slave trade upon buying their freedom, for example.
The work which came out of this research was a reimagining of Irish culture in collision with African and indigenous cultures in the Caribbean- imagining the art and artefacts which may have resulted from this collision.
Another major influence on the work is being part of perhaps the last generation to experience a living oral tradition. As a child, I would have been told ghost stories by grandparents, aunts and uncles. All of whom believed in ghosts themselves, and indeed reported having supernatural experiences. The paintings I am making now are informed by exposure to this rich world of the imagination (now vanished) at a young age.
The works are part of an ongoing investigation into what an Irish art history might look like, or how it might relate to the contemporary world. Derrida’s ideas about “hauntology”, particularly as articulated and opened out by Mark Fisher, have been very helpful in developing recent work. In order to locate my practice in a historical context, I felt I had to imagine a lost future where such an art history exists. Ireland’s history of emigration is intimately connected with this loss. In a way, our visual culture vanished along with the waves of migrating people. However, I think this migration is the key to its retrieval also. It can be re-imagined in the connections made when Irish culture came into contact with other cultures on its migrational journeys.
There are also very interesting threads which go across cultures, which seem to pre-date any modern point of contact. For example, traditions of “Strawboys”, “Wrenboys” and folk tales of crossroads have correspondences and parallels in ancient Nigerian traditions.
“Apparition” can be read as a head, in a landscape, which is on the edge of appearance and disappearance, of coming into being and passing away. It remains open to multiple readings- one of which is its allusions to folk tales and the supernatural. The materials of the recent paintings, rough canvas, jute, and varnish suggest an “Old Master” tradition, but co-existing alongside other temporalities and languages of paint. Most work assembled here are informed by earlier work I made for an exhibition in Ormston House in 2016, “Twilight Head Cult”. That show drew on early Celtic traditions where the head is considered the site of knowledge, consciousness and spiritual power. To the point that the decapitated head of one’s enemy was considered a prized possession. To possess it meant also possessing everything they saw or knew as well as their spirit and energy. The work in that exhibition was something of an archive of heads related to this idea.
Several works here are portraits where the gaze is returned to the viewer. Many portraits share this of course, but exposing the eyeballs turns it up a notch in terms of confrontation and also in terms of playfulness.
“Orbs” can suggest hypnosis, telekinesis or magical visions. However, it also references John Hinde postcards of cliches of Ireland. There is a quite well known JH postcard of flame haired children and a donkey in the west of Ireland. I have painted several versions of the girl in this photo over the years, but this piece references her again complete with her red jumper, disguised and transformed into something other.
“Peasant” also references this “ghost” art history in a different way. Social mobility at various points in history in other European countries allowed art making among people from all kinds of backgrounds. When visual culture did finally reappear in Ireland in modern times, voices from the working class have largely been absent. There is also a personal reference here to my own working class roots and family background of emigrating and returning.
Kevin Mooney, 2020