I am Not a Painter


*First published in the September – October 2017 'Painting' issue of The Visual Artists’ News Sheet. Edited by Joanne Laws and Lily Power.*

Production still from  All or Nothing ; Sheila Rennick: courtesy of Saskia Vermeulen & Gareth Nolan.

Production still from All or Nothing; Sheila Rennick: courtesy of Saskia Vermeulen & Gareth Nolan.

I am in blood, stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth: Act 3


THIS year’s National College of Art & Design (NCAD) undergraduate degree show had too much painting in it. There was nothing to offset the excess. This criticism is not really rational. It’s based on an expectation that I have formed over the last seven years reviewing the Dublin degree shows as an art critic. Until this year, I had become accustomed to seeing a lack of painting offset by an abundance of ‘everything else’. But whether dead or denied, painting’s rubber duck buoyancy keeps it forever bobbing on the horizon, waiting for the storm of commerce and technology to release its hold on the fickle art scene. Two years ago, a painter friend and I noticed a plastic duck cresting a new wave.

In May 2015, Damien Flood and I headed to Belfast for two reasons: to see Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie’s solo exhibition at The MAC and (between you and me) to have a last social hurrah in anticipation of my second child, who arrived on 20 July 2015. After Ghenie, we headed to a Belfast pub, early. We drank. We talked. We drank some more – our ambitions and opinions glowing amber through the craft beer, the price of which we unfortunately forgot to ask until much later.

But in 2015, things were looking up. The financial storm was calming and craft beer and flat whites were the froth and bubble of an emerging commercial optimism that would signal, like never before, the gradual gentrification of artist-run spaces and artist studios. The previous five years of recession, of squatter art (of good art!) was giving way to a new art environment where the plywood of institutional critique and social engagement was OUT and the capitalist excess of the art object was IN. I admit to drooling a little bit over those million-dollar ‘Ghenies’ in The MAC. So, if objects were back in, then painting was back in. And painting was back in, especially on the glossy covers of international art magazines and on Instagram.

With objects on our minds and alcohol in our cheeks, our conversation turned to film, painting and then back to film again. See, film was in the air too, especially documentary film, due in part to the rising popularity of platforms like Netflix. So, in that Belfast bar in 2015, Damien and I positively speculated (for the first time since jointly graduating from NCAD in 2008, just before the Lehman Brothers financial hurricane blew in): “what about a documentary on Irish painting?” We proceeded to test that speculation through the doubly speculative process of a funding proposal that didn’t pan out (one of many during this two-year period). But by that stage, we were already committed to the idea.

One good thing about failed funding proposals is that you critically evaluate your idea through the lens of financial pragmatism. Furthermore, through the process of writing down something with a specific readership in mind, the vagaries of art making become more grounded, for better or worse. We discovered that we needed to hand over the idea to filmmakers who had the necessary skills and an objective vision of painting, something Damien and I clearly didn’t possess, as we slid around in our own drool at The MAC.

Luckily for us, the filmmakers Saskia Vermeulen and Gareth Nolan were interested in the idea. Saskia had an art background and Gareth originally came from journalism, so they approached the idea from cinematic and narrative perspectives. In our first meeting, I divulged that I was a lapsed painter, giving up on my love of painting during my MFA at NCAD in 2007, followed by giving up on art making altogether in anticipation of the birth of my first child in 2012. For Saskia and Gareth, my personal story became the narrative hook for the film, which would be offset by the critical reflections of Irish painters who, unlike me, stayed the course.

Here's filmmakers Saskia Vermeulen and Gareth Nolan and art critic James Merrigan reflecting on two years of making and unmaking a film on painting at Gorey School of Art as part Peripheries 2017 : SOUL—BEATING: PAINTING TOLD THROUGH THE LENS OF FILM. Filmed by Michael Byrne on the 4 August 2017.

Saskia and Gareth’s first task was to interview me on camera for three hours against a black backdrop – a choice that became significant later. During the interview, a lot of biographical detail was shared – hard stuff I hadn’t thought about for years, like the death of my mother when I was 13 and my father 10 years later, and how painting played a part in expelling those traumas. But what I learned most from the interview was that reading about the lives of artists, especially painters, was a natural obsession of mine from very early on, forming a belief that life was inextricable from art, no matter how much art was theorised, politicised and professionalised.

The film project was now moving away from a hierarchical overview of ‘painting now’ (a ‘zombie narrative’ on painting’s perennial death and resurrection), to a critical reflection on the ‘nature and nurture’ of painting. The main script-driver became my four-year old son Noah. Watching his own playful development with crayon and paint brush, I began to examine the expressive qualities of painting when removed from education, careers and the gallery space.

Over the course of the next year, one filmed interview followed another; one redacted script replaced another, until we were shortlisted for the very competitive Reel Art Film Award in December 2016, which meant potentially big funding. Although we failed to secure this funding, the panel feedback shored up valuable criticism that influenced our decision to scale down the project, revealing the essence of what this film was really about. This meant reevaluating a year’s worth of filming, of scriptwriting and of life. The rolling title of the film, All or Nothing, became an ironic ultimatum.

We set two dates in the Spring of 2017 to interview six Irish painters – Diana Copperwhite, Damien Flood, Mark Joyce, Mark Swords, Shelia Rennick and Emma Roche – in a dark, prop free film studio in Dublin. Gone were the beautiful location shots of the previous interviews; we had returned to the black backdrop of the first interview from a year earlier, when I had spilled my own guts on camera. Likewise, we wanted our six painters to spill their guts too. And they did. Not wishing to divulge too much – as the film is still in production and decisions still have to made regarding which footage will make the final cut during those two days in Dublin, the artists revealed rich lives bound up in an addiction to painting. They discussed doubt as a painter, the emotional aftermath of exhibiting and the uppers, downers, pleasures and frustrations of the addiction. I posited Francis Bacon’s ‘all or nothing’ notion of ‘emptying out’ on the canvas. They shared details of their childhoods and first memories, discussing how validation from parents, teachers and friends was enough to ‘wade on’ and to make a life out of painting. We argued about how being a painter can only tolerate monogamy – that the responsibilities of life will inevitably get in the way of the pursuit of painting.

Sitting face-to-face with six artists over a 48-hour period in a blacked-out film studio, projecting opinions and feelings about the lifelong motivations behind becoming a painter, was testing but invigorating. It really felt like we were doing something different, tackling human creativity at its kernel. During these interviews, I was accused of being too personal and psychological in my questioning; occasionally I felt I was poking at things that were strictly out of bounds. But we achieved what we set out to capture: the nature and nurture of painting, relayed through the critical reflections of six Irish painters in response to the biographically-intimate self-questioning of a lapsed painter (yours truly).

All or Nothing is presently in the edit room. Saskia and Gareth presented raw interview footage, offering a work-in-progress presentation of the film as part of a painting exhibition I curated entitled ‘Peripheries 2017: Soul-beating’, which ran from 28 July to 5 August at Gorey School of Art.

*On Wed 4 October 2017 (19.00 - 20.00) at Fenderesky Gallery, Belfast, I will be reflecting on painting's primacy within my curated, textual and film projects*


1. Other artists that were interviewed on camera or along the way include: Robert Armstrong, Susan Connolly, Colin Crotty, Ramon Kassam, Mairead O’hEocha, Mark O’Kelly, Eoin Mc Hugh, Kevin Mooney, Aileen Murphy, Ciaran Murphy, Alison Pilkington and Kathy Tynan.

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