Artists

Conor McGrady

NY Arts Magazine interview with Leah Oates

Leah Oates:When did you know you where an artist? What do you think an artist is now that you have been one for many years?

Conor McGrady:A definitive moment was when I started primary school and the class was asked to produce self-portraits. The sense of achievement and accomplishment that I felt upon completing mine stayed with me. During primary school I drew constantly and was asked to produce a painted frieze for the school hallway. This early encouragement instilled in me a desire to continue on this path. As I come from a working class background there was no prior tradition of artists in my extended family—musicians yes—but not visual artists. My family were very supportive and encouraging, but were concerned about the lack of career opportunities for a somewhat unorthodox path being taken in an already highly depressed economic environment. By the time I was a teenager I was committed to the path of developing my skills in painting and drawing and to go to art school. As a teenager I had a romanticized idea of what an artist was—a freethinking painter, filmmaker or poet, dedicated to exploring new ideas and articulating highly personalized visions of the world as a core form of self-expression. At high school I was very influenced by Surrealism, which gradually gave way to an obsession with German Expressionism and the Neue Sachlekeit period in inter-war Germany. The focus on social criticism in the work of many of the inter-war German artists was key in expanding my concept of what an artist could be.

These days I don’t believe that there is one simple definition of what an artist is, but I subscribe to the idea that an artist is someone who makes something happen—who, through working with the material of what is around them—ideas, observations, experiences, history, politics—transforms them into a language to produce a response in the mind of the viewer. The root of the word comes from the Latin ars meaning strategy, and the work I respond to the most seems to be built around a strategy for inciting thought, reflection and questions from the viewer. Ultimately art is a glorified form of entertainment, but through its presentation in the public realm successful works reveal something about how we live, seduce us into the world of the artist and immerse us in their vision. It remains up to the viewer as to what they do with this information.

LO:Your work deals with images and locations that relate to oppression and
human rights violations. Please explain what you are trying to communicate
with your work about human rights?

CM:For a number of years my principal concern has been an exploration of the psychology of power and how it manifests itself in the self-conception of individuals and nation states. A key factor in this work is how the concept of power also imprints itself on the urban and rural landscapes in states that are in situations of war or which contain contested space. Despite some shifts in the political climate we are still in a situation of global instability. Vast differences in access to wealth and the means to improve the living conditions of many people exist—from Africa and Latin America to Asia and the Middle East. Class polarization remains prevalent in Europe and the United States and racism and religious and political reaction remain endemic. This is nothing new and my role as an artist cannot hope to address the scope of this situation in any substantative and meaningful way. What I am aiming to do is to raise questions on the concept of authority in contemporary society and how it translates not only into abusive actions against populations or individuals who resist it, but also how it permeates the banal day to day fabric of our social experience and manifests in symbols, iconography, actions and a sense of self and place. The root of authority lies in a sense of instability, social or otherwise, and at present my work is more concerned with exploring this aspect of individual and collective selfhood as it relates to the control of space, personal, and national boundaries. While state violence and human rights abuses are the product of a states desire to maintain its imagined sense of order and cohesion from erosion or attack, the newer work deals less with the form of these abuses per se, and concentrates more on the banality and absurdness of power.

LO:How did growing up in Northern Ireland affect you as a person and artist?
Did you participate in any demonstrations and were you active politically?

CM:I grew up in Northern Ireland during the height of the conflict in the nineteen seventies and eighties. As an artist, my response to growing up and living in a situation of civil unrest and state repression initially found it’s voice in paintings and drawings exploring violence, fear, claustaphobia and the impact of living in a police state. These works, which were largely a gut level resonse to the situation around me, contained the seeds of what was to become my later work. I grew up in the mainly Nationalist town of Castlewellan, near Belfast, and came from a community that was largely opposed to the British presence in the northern six counties. As an adolescent and teenager I was deeply affected by the constant threat of and actual violence around me and in particular the ubiqitous presence of a highly miliartized state appartus. This usually took the form of constant military patrols and heavily armoured vehicles and helicopters never far from view. As I did not recognize the authority of state in any way I was initially drawn to anarchism and later, socialism. At this time I did not consider myself a political activst and was not optimistic about the potential for any form of social change. Later, as I felt the need to democratically express my opposition to a litany of injustices (both local and global), I particpated in many protest marches and demonstrations in England, Ireland, and the United States. As a student in Newcastle Upon Tyne, in the northeast of England, I was also witness to the economic devastation that the policies of conservative government rule visited on working class communites once dependent on mining and ship-building for a livelihood. I came to see that the violence of the state did not just manifest itself in armed troops and the machinary of repression, but also in social and economic policies that resulted in the removal of the dignity and self-worth of ordinary people. It was as a student in Newcastle that I became convinced of the need for an art that challenged and questioned the psychology of power and its all too prevalent manifestations.

LO: How has your work evolved over the years from when you where beginning?
How has NYC affected your work if at all?

CO: As I mentioned, I was highly influenced by surrealism as a teenager, and I think most teenagers are. What continued to interest me about this movement was it’s challenging of social complacency and its overturning of traditional values. This interest dovetailed with my interest in the Neue Sachlekiet and German arts such as Dix, Beckmann and Kollowitz. Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, and their exploration of the rawness of the human condition also informed my early work, which as a student consisted of large-scale realist depictions of ritualized violence, fear, despair and the rise of neo-fascism in Europe since the collapse of the eastern bloc. The works of Beckett, Kafka and Brecht also served to inspire these works, as did the films of Tarkovsky, Bergman and Pasolini. In Ireland there were a few painters dealing with the political situation, also inspired by German art from between the wars. Looking to Germany was a natural inclination, as the visual culture in Ireland had not, for the large part, dealt with the country’s turbulent and violent history. British art also did not address the broad range of social and political subject matter dealt with by early twentieth century German artists, thus the work of these artists resonated strongly as a visual language to build upon. The influence of this group of artists was also felt in Scotland, which was undergoing a renaissance in painting at the time. In particular the work of Ken Currie with its exploration of war and social crisis and the early work of Peter Howson influenced the development of my own.

By the time I left the University of Northumbria at Newcastle to come to Chicago to pursue my MFA, I was producing triptychs and large-scale depictions of humiliation, abuse and trauma, heavily dependant on chiaroscuro and the influence of Goya, Velasquez and Rembrandt. I continued to work in this vein in Chicago, but began to strip away the theatrical elements in the work, eventually focusing on full-length portraits of single figures confronting the viewer. The large-scale paintings gave way to an extended series of portraits of soldiers, fascists and disaffected youth and stark economical drawings of urban spaces blighted by civil unrest. Living in New York City has seen the continuation of this process, with the production of an extended series of large-scale drawings on the banality of social control in urban areas. Some of the work produced in New York directly addressed the security modifications in lower Manhattan, and featured austere black and white drawings of security booths and blocked roads. Since moving here in 2002, I have also merged the drawings into the paintings—stripping out the color completely and producing large black and white paintings—which continue to explore the physical and psychological make up of individuals and collective bodies concerned with defending both their sense of selfhood and their conception of the state in which they live.

LO:How do conceptualize your images? Do you draw on memories from having grown
up in Northern Ireland,or from photographs of events, individuals and locations?

CM:Most of the drawings that I have produced over the past few years have relied heavily on memory. Memory strips out all extraneous details and leaves a distilled view of places or past activities. This distillation process is important to the work as it corresponds to the act of removal that is implicit in state control—namely the removal of unwanted individuals, dissidents, ideas or practices. The white space in the drawings references absence, purity and cleanliness—all processes apparent in the drive of states for a totalized sense of selfhood. I also use photos, which I collect from newspapers and magazines and often stage and take myself. Many of the paintings and drawings that use the figure are dependant on photographic source materials. I rarely use photos of events or specific individuals, though maintain an inventory should the need arise in the future. The images themselves can roughly be grouped into three categories: urban spaces and architecture; rural landscapes; and individuals/collectives. The legacy of official historical portraiture in art history remains a valuable well of source material, as does fascist and socialist realist art from the 20th century.

LO:You are originally from Northern Ireland and have lived in the United States and New York City for quite some time. How do the arts communities in each country differ? What do you think of the artist community in NYC?

CM: The art community in Northern Ireland is much smaller and less diverse. As New York dominates the art world, along with London and Berlin to a lesser extent, artistic production in N. Ireland is heavily influenced by movements and shifts in these areas, as is the usual situation in art communities located on the periphery of larger centers. There is not a sustained art market nor commercial gallery system in the north but there is a lot more state funding for artists. On the one hand the lack of competitive commercial pressure allows for more freedom to explore alternatives to the gallery system, but on the other the globalization of the art market has resulted in a more homogenized sense of artistic production, meaning that art produced in N. Ireland is not dissimilar to that produced in London or New York. While some artists continue to address local social and political concerns they tend to be in the minority these days. Personally I like the energy and diversity of New York. I think that there are many art communities in the city, not one in particular. You have the commercial gallery orientated community and communities of artists who eschew the commercial gallery system in favor of practices that are not reliant on traditional spaces. What is clear is that no other city shares the devotion to contemporary art that New York does, be it in terms of the vast museum-like spaces of the bigger galleries, the museums themselves, or the alternative venues around the city. In a city this size and with so many artists working here it is imperative that there will be diversity in practice, which is healthy. While there is a lot of work being produced that follows current trends and is obviously market driven, this diversity in practice ensures that the city and its various art communities always remain stimulating on some level.

LO: What is your family background? Were there any artists or creative types in the family?

CM: I come from a working class background. My father was a carpenter, my mother a part-time typist for much of my youth. My grandparents were factory workers in the now long closed linen mills in the area. Both my Grandfathers had been active militarily in the Irish Republican movement. When I was a child my father moved from carpentry to teach at a local high school for a number of years before returning to carpentry and stonework. There was no tradition of the family producing artists though both my parents have exceptional skills in draughtmanship. There were, and are, a number of musicians in the family and some of my siblings work in theater, with my youngest sister an aspiring actress. While there is no prior tradition of the family producing artists, I was surrounded by music and literature growing up and encouraged in my obsession with drawing.

[LO:You are married to a wonderful performance artist named Karen Sorensen. I’m also married to an artist and he understands my need to work and be obsessive about my work because he is exactly the same way. What are your thoughts on this?

CM:I completely agree. One of the great things about being married to an artist is that the both of you understand the need to spend time focusing on your work and can support each other though the ups and downs of producing and showing your work. As artists are obsessive it helps to be with someone who understands and tolerates obsessive behavior over and above the norm. We also talk about each others work and provide feedback on the direction of a certain piece or project. Marriage itself is a long-term creative process not unlike maintaining an artistic practice.

LO: What advice would you give emerging artist in NYC who wants to show and be part of the scene?

CM: The main advice that I would give to any artist who is not showing as yet would be to stick to building up a solid and fully realized body of work. To focus on developing and honing your voice as an artist while ignoring the fickleness and superficiality of many of the trends that are always prevalent in one form or another. Getting exhibited in New York is always a challenge, one that I also find even though I’m still considered an emerging artist. I’m uncomfortable with the need to hustle and prefer to be in the studio working as opposed to attending all the openings and events and getting round the galleries but it still very important to do that. If you are in New York you should try and take advantage of the potential that the city offers. You do need to get around the galleries, see what is going on, and establish whether a commercial or alternative space is the right one to approach. The alternative and younger spaces are always a good place to start, as are the borough arts councils such as the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which provides temporary exhibit and installation spaces in non-art venues downtown.

LO: What upcoming series, projects, shows etc do you have coming up?

CM: I have a one person show at M.Y. Art Prospects at 547 West 27th Street in Chelsea, which opens Thursday October 18 and runs through November 21. www.myartprospects.com

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