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Modern Master

Monday, April 12, 2015
John P. O'Sullivan

Initially almost unknown in his native land, the daring painter owes his rise to a Hollywood actor and a Los Angeles show

Patrick Graham

Paddy Graham recounts with amusement a story about his early reputation in Dublin art circles. Confronted by one of his more fraught canvases in the Hugh Lane gallery, a viewer confided to his companion: "Poor Paddy, he's obviously very ill."

This anecdote captures the common view of the time that Graham's often alarming and visceral paintings must be the incontinent spewings of a tortured psyche. In fact, the art had evolved from his extensive reading in philosophy, especially Martin Buber, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. These influences led Graham towards the great romantic subjects: sexuality, death and religion. He believes that art "is part of an older ­history made by those who saw in the dark". His paintings are essays about being and nothingness; about the ­religious and sexual antics of his stricken subjects as they flail about against a bleak grey background that suggests the midlands skies of his youth.

In his current show at John P Quinlan's gallery at the Triskel in Cork, ­Graham continues his broadcasts from the brink of the abyss. There are Sacred Hearts, agonised self-portraits, a poignant sketch of the family rosary, blood-red nudes, and recurring references to mysteries. The Lamb of God contends with the sins of the world.

Far from the myth of it being blighted by his alcoholism and occasional ­incarceration, Graham's career has been a triumph. A hard-working, successful painter with an international reputation, he's living in domestic harmony in Dun Laoghaire.

He has a keen interest in sport, ­especially rugby. When we meet he recounts, with the relish of a true fan, a recent encounter with Ciaran Fitzgerald, the former Irish captain. He hasn't had a drink for nearly 40 years and paints every weekday. He's a member of Aosdana ("a peripheral one") and is represented in the permanent collections of both Imma and the Hugh Lane gallery.

Graham is an outsider in his healthy scepticism about all art clubs, academies and associations. He refused to show at the Exhibition of Living Art and even became sceptical of the Independent Artists group, with whom he showed for a period. He maintains that "the new academy is the old academy, but just a little more clever in the way it dresses and uses its voice in the very politicised world of contemporary art".

Born in Mullingar in 1943, his early childhood was marred by a series of family disasters. His father went to ­England when he was four and the ­family saw little of him thereafter. "Your father had a glint in his eye and was a rogue in his britches," Graham was told years later by an old woman who stopped him in the street. For a while his mother "scraped a living" for her young family but then contracted TB and spent some time in a sanatorium. The young Graham was sent to live with his grandparents. He subsequently ­contracted rheumatic fever and was confined to bed for nearly a year. During that time he became a voracious reader and started to draw. Both hobbies were encouraged by his aunt, a local librarian. "When I was about 10, I discovered Modigliani," he recalls.

At the local technical college, his talent for drawing was spotted by a sympathetic teacher, Dermot Larkin, with whom he worked every evening after class. ­"Larkin taught me to be a watcher, a mixer, a colourist, a cartoon-maker and a scene painter," he says. "I remember copying Manet at 13." Larkin was also influential in getting him a scholarship to the National College of Art and Design. Blessed with painting skills and fluency of line, his prodigious natural talent meant he could already turn out a polished academic study. Money was tight due to his family circumstances, but Graham stuck it out and acknowledges the sympathetic support he received at the NCAD from tutors John Kelly and Maurice MacGonigal.

On his first visit to the life-drawing class, the young country boy ran from the room in fright: "I hadn't seen a naked woman in my life." He soon adjusted to his new environment and his path in life seemed set fair. "I was told by John Kelly that I'd be in the [Royal Hibernian] academy by 21." Instead came a fall. He recounts how an Emil Nolde exhibition in Dublin showed him that art could be a vehicle for personal expression and that academic painting was not real art at all. "That exhibition absolutely destroyed me as a performer. I now knew I could no longer make art as a conscious aesthetic act," he said.

This revelation led to a cessation of painting and a general ­questioning of art. It also led to the pub. With a wealthy American woman, he revelled in the drunken bohemian life of Dublin in the 1960s. "It was a great time for failed geniuses," he recalls ruefully.

He did little painting in the lost years after leaving art college in 1963, "going in and out of mental hospitals" every six months or so.

Graham once described alcoholism as "being trapped in your own history, the only escape is delusion and madness and the terrible relief for an hour, of being bombed out, and not having to live with yourself". His breakthrough came in 1974 when a young psychiatrist suggested that he deal with his life as art and "make some drawings about your experiences here". Graham embarked on a series of studies of a patient named Joe, and the resultant work formed his first solo show at the Emmett Gallery, entitled Notes from a Mental Hospital and Other Love Stories. He gave up drink in 1978 and went from being one of the first patients at the Rutland Centre to becoming one of its mentors for alcoholics. It was there he met his wife, a psychologist. "She's been a great source of balance­ and evenness," he says.

His next tentative steps back into the art world came with the help of Trevor Scott who offered him some teaching hours at the Dun Laoghaire College of Art. He moved into a small studio in Royal Terrace West where a neighbour was the artist Brian Maguire. With Maguire's support he got into the Lincoln Gallery and began to show with the Independent Artists. A sympathetic review by Michael Kane helped, and soon he was a regular part of the Dublin art scene. His work being difficult and not exactly designed for suburban walls, sales were not great. He remained dependent on his teaching hours in Dun Laoghaire and later at DIT.

A chance occurrence in the early 1980s changed the trajectory of Graham's career. Vincent Price, an American actor and influential art collector, had sailed to Dublin and was waiting outside the ­Lincoln Gallery one day when Leon de Sachy arrived to open it. Price proceeded to buy three large Graham paintings, removing their frames before he returned to his boat in the Alexandra Basin. ­Subsequently Price wrote to the artist and encouraged him to show at the first Los Angeles International Art Fair, saying that "this stuff is essential for LA". Graham scraped together enough money for the trip, and found himself at "the very far end of this huge arena" among the elite of the international art world. His modest space was ostentatiously favoured by Price and an extensive entourage, including his third wife, actress Coral Browne. The attention of such a prominent collector did not go unnoticed. Graham was signed up by the Jack Rutberg gallery in LA and soon acquired a substantial following. This was a rich seam of patronage that he continues to mine to this day.

For a man who comes across initially as mild-mannered, even diffident, ­Graham has some acerbic views on the Irish art scene. The provincialism of our artists is a particular bête noire. "They still retain the idea that if we imitate international art we become international," he says. "No. If you're from Mullingar, you're international." Echoes there of another Patrick. And like Kavanagh, Graham continues to draw on youthful experiences in rural Ireland to create art of universal import.

Away is at Triskel Christchurch until May 2, 2015