The beginnings of my current work would have come from my MA studies in 2010. At the time I was trying to find an art history to engage with that was meaningful for me personally. In a way, I was quite envious of artists from other countries who had rich visual cultures available to them that they could use like a resource or 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. One example of this is James Barry. He is considered an artist from Cork in Ireland, 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. Unlike artists from similar backgrounds in Spain or the Netherlands, 17th century Irish peasants did not have access to art materials. For me, it is interesting to speculate on what might have occurred if they had. Their art may have been very different from mainstream European art histories, but there may have been interesting connections. Indigenous folk art forms, mythology, and storytelling traditions may have had an important influence . I would also speculate that materials such as straw which are part of folk culture in Ireland, would have appeared in a fine art context . Traditions such as the “Wren boys”, and the “Straw boys”, have ancient, unknown origins and 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 (also around the time of my MA) 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 gaining 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 (now vanished) rich world of the imagination 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, the traditions of “Strawboys” and “Wrenboys”, alluded to earlier, and folk tales of crossroads have correspondences and parallels in ancient Nigerian traditions.
The materials of the recent paintings, oil paint, size, pigment, rough canvas, jute, and varnish suggest a European tradition, but co-exist alongside other temporalities and languages of paint. Most works 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 misshapen, mutated heads related to this idea.
While not exactly portraits, several works represent heads where the gaze is returned to the viewer. Many portraits share this of course, but exposing the eyeballs adds a level of confrontation and also of playfulness.
“Orbs” can suggest hypnosis, telekinesis or magical visions. However, it also references John Hinde postcards of cliches of Ireland. There is a well known Hinde postcard of flame haired children and a donkey in the west of Ireland. This piece references one of them, 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 often been absent or ignored. There is also a personal reference here to my own working class roots and family background of emigrating and returning.
Kevin Mooney 2020