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Patrick Graham: Primal Scream

Monday, April 6, 2015
Mark Ewart

Patrick Graham’s new exhibition in Cork shows how his muted palette comes from a silent but visceral process of creation, writes Mark Ewart

Patrick Graham's exhibition opens at Triskel in Cork on Thursday; inset, a detail from one of the pieces in the exhibition.

One of Ireland’s most celebrated artists Patrick Graham, is the next contributor to the special curatorial programme ‘Calling up the Vangard’, at Triskel Christchurch, Cork. The exhibition, simply entitled ‘Away’, consists of uncompromising mixed media drawings, executed in the artist’s trademark expressive style and muted palette.

This style was not always a staple of Grahams artwork however, as his considerable facility for accurate draftmanship - which brought early success and accolades – was gradually eradicated from his practice as it did not match his vision and internal aesthetic.

It was in the mid 1980s that Graham secured international recognition, when his gutsy and powerful paintings came to the attention of important critics and art dealers in the United States. A surprising early admirer was the iconic horror-genre actor Vincent Price – a serious art collector in his own right – who purchased and championed Graham’s work at that time.

From his earliest artistic experiences growing up in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, right to the present day, both the art and the man himself speak candidly about the importance of remaining true to principles and personal ideals. “My own art is still a mystery” he states, “It’s a great gift, but it would be facile if I just did what contemporary art does; where everything is ‘art’ and everything is self-consciously public.

“We have turned it into a f**king great big… what would you call it... Sotheby’s for crap. Row upon row of mediocre small minds being very clever with what art is. Playing with what they got given to them by history. Being told in art colleges to go out and be clever.”

And what then in Graham’s view is the alternative to this? “Art to me is a very private thing; it comes out of an engagement with solitude itself and deep, deep, deep meditative silence”

This faithfulness to “truth and silence” underpins Graham’s artwork which he explains during our telephone conversation, remains for him “this raw, vital, primal, visceral, sexual, physical…” he pauses momentarily and continues with a laugh, “…emotional, skin tearing kind of notion, rising all the time, raising you up like great music”.


This intensity and unequivocal self-belief in his art means that the Dublin-based artist, now 72, is still at ease with his intolerance for stylistic trends in art and political or religious dogma. In particular, the male and female figures he delicately balances within his compositions remain battered and torn – while still maintaining vestiges of beauty and humanity.

I wonder has his approach to the figure ever reconciled the conflict between universal concerns and the imprint of his own history and identity? “People do get wounded and battered. A lot of the drawing in this show looks to identify in a sense, with the religious upbringing one is given, the rosary around the kitchen table became a huge cultural weight. Intellectually you thought you were above it, but you carried a kind of emotional weight of it around as a kind of dark presence.”

“I say dark presence advisedly” he qualifies further, “as I didn’t understand religion; I only understood religion as power. But later on I was to identify the whole thing as an essential state of being…part of the reason for making art. It’s not just a mental, physical and emotional thing, but it was also a religious thing”

Graham’s intense portrayal of the human figure is in ways an unconventional form of religious iconography, conveying as it a does a secular spirituality. Contrastingly, the caustic and disintegrated human forms may for some people, preclude fuller appreciation of the artistry that is often masked behind raw line and expressive mark-making.

But while the human figure is a stalwart for the artist, landscape also has its place in Graham’s art. “I find the truth for myself out along the north west of Ireland in the north of Mayo, in solitude, where you look out and within yourself for this call. It comes whether you like it or not.”

There is often an inherent difficulty in trying to explain or define any such awe inspiring experience or emotion, and for Graham this can stir other doubts and feelings also. “What is the evocative notion of silence and space and how do you reach that in a solid pigment with three dimensional paint and brushes?” he questions. “And how do you produce that delicate balance between being there and not there. I’m beginning to sound like a daft git at the minute”, he chuckles.

Far from it in fact, as the insight into the artist’s mediation between his senses and intellect, is fascinating and surely grist to the mill for any young or emerging artist who may be striving to find their own voice. “That kind of stuff fascinates me. But you have to have immense patience and tolerance with the process that evolves every day. And the long loneliness of waiting for it to work.”

The fact that ‘Away’ is showing at Triskel Christchurch takes on extra poignancy for a few reasons. The beautiful interior must have once been an inspiring place of worship, and therefore perhaps the quasi-religious intensity of Graham's work, seems to fit all the better. Also, the Christchurch building in Cork ceased to be consecrated ground in 1978 and in that very year, the last of three consecutive game-changing exhibitions by Graham concluded at the Emmet Gallery, nearby at that time, to Dublin’s own Christchurch.

Graham admits that after all these years painting and drawing, that he finds it less important now to have to explain his work, and certainly he never felt compelled to justify it to anyone. “I trust, if you like, the brush or the pencil to do it for me more than intellectually analysing things anymore. What comes from the end of the pencil, I leave be and then stand back and look at it as an artist. In that sense, I obliterate art from the whole process until something is made. And what is usually made is a figure… but behind it is thinking, is emotion, is spirit.”

For Graham - like all other truly important artists - thinking and responding to the world and what happens in it, are as important as looking at the places and people that shape it. Does he ever get angry when listening to the news for instance? “Yes, absolutely”, he boldly affirms, “I’m absolutely political, even though I have always insisted my art is non-political.” And indeed, acts of war carried out by aggressive governments in the name of some dubious cause, are for him “outrageous” and “an insult to humanity”.

The exhibition at Triskel is dedicated and inspired in part by the writings of the recently deceased poet, Dermot Healy. There is a harmonious symmetry to this as text - be bold type or cursive script - has always been incised into Graham’s paintings and drawings.

Does Graham, like the poet, see text then as a direct route to an emotion or idea and therefore, perhaps more immediate and powerful than an actual image? “I did write a lot when I was younger. And the clarity of it was kind of sublime in a sense…when I’m painting there is just a flow of words, in a way I throw them onto the canvas as a way of trying to organise my thinking, organise the painting. There is so much going on in my head I have to stop things and it’s the word that stops it.”

He continues, “I’ve never seen words as different to painting. I worked in advertising one time and type was beautiful. I used to look at the shapes outside of all that. That’s not what I’m talking about here, I’m talking about words. They are a bit like threads holding a painting together when it’s simply falling apart.”

Making sense of art is of course a philosophical question and no single artist can truly speak for all. Graham admits that at times he must acquiesce and admit defeat to the cruel muse; “I learnt to love all this confusion and that it’s a failure and it’s unfinished. … because nothing works. You’re leaving this process for your children.”

Graham becomes thoughtful and pensive about the legacy of his art. “You don’t paint for now or the present, you paint for, if you like, for what a human being is, for your son or your son’s grandchildren.” He concludes, “If you paint for now, you are lost in this mediocre style and short-termism and huge auction prices and market commodities.”

Away runs at Triskel in Cork from April 9 until May 2. Deep End of The Ford perform music from their album An Táin at 8pm at Triskel on Thursday, after the opening of the exhibition.