The Irish painter on leaving Dublin and working towards his first solo show in the UK
Hey man, how’s it going? How are you finding London since you moved here?
I like it, it’s nice! I moved here last October . It’s flown by. I moved to Stoke Newington straight away, and then Dalston, but everything’s so fast, it’s crazy. Which is nice because Dublin’s so slow.
Is that why you moved over? A change of pace?
Well… yeah. I was prepping for a show in Dublin – my first solo show – but I was thinking I wanna move to London but I could never afford it. I was like what should I do? Anyway I met my girlfriend for dinner and I was like, ‘I’m moving to London’. She was like ‘what?’ I said ‘you can come with me if you want…’, so we came together. But I dunno, I came over because the art stuff was going alright, it was selling a bit here. I was with a gallery over in Mayfair when I first got here, (but they were really commercial so I left them). But I like it, yeah. I’m glad I came. I then went back to Dublin for my show and luckily sold stuff.
Are you working towards a show at the moment here in London?
Yeah, I’ve got a show at Cobb Gallery on March 5th. I’m going to Cuba for two weeks to make some drawings and those drawings will be in the show.
You mentioned earlier that before you moved here you were coming back and forth, people were buying your work; how did you get that rolling from Dublin?
I think the thing with Dublin is that it’s so small that you can make an impact quite quickly. And I was just around town, in the pubs, working in restaurants, or whatever. So people kind of knew me. I wanted to paint, I couldn’t find a studio in Dublin, but a mate ended up giving me this storage unit in return for a painting… anyway it kind of just grew from there.
And from there, how did you get a foot in the London market?
It just kind of progressed. I had an Instagram, some guys came over and met me and said they liked my stuff and would I like them to sell some for me. But I think it was just from coming over here, going back and forth, chatting to people, it just came together. There was one woman who was the first to buy something expensive, and that was kind of when I thought I could do it over here. I just wanted to keep going. It just worked out, I guess. Word of mouth. I’m not really one of those artists who goes around saying 'check out my Instagram' and so forth…
I was thinking that before. You only really post when there’s a piece of work to show, which kind of just shows how much work you’re actually making. All killer no filler!
Yeah. I didn’t want to oversaturate it or go for attention online. I see other artists who are now huge, but I’m more excited trying to find something than always seeing it. If I work on something maybe I’ll share it, or put up a little drawing, but I don’t want to show too much.
You don’t really share work in progress.
No, never. Cos they change, I paint over each painting about five times.
Is that part of the process of the finished painting, or is it more cos you say 'fuck it, I’ll start again'?
I think to begin with it was because I couldn’t afford canvases. So if I painted on a big one and then thought I could do it better I’d just paint over it on the same canvas. There’s a funny story actually, I sent a photo of a painting to my agents in Mayfair, and they were like, ‘we’ve got a guy who wants to buy it’. I was thinking oh shit, I’ve painted over it! So I had to repaint that exact painting again.
But I dunno, if I have a change of mood I’ll just paint over things. I like the idea of learning too. I like the idea that you can see a little thing behind something else. Like I’ll always put the titles on the back of the painting.
I like that you approach work with a kind of disposable attitude.
I just don’t think you should be that precious. I’m not trying to change the world, I’m just trying to paint. Who gives a fuck. I enjoy doing it.
Speaking of process, you’re doing figures and still life, for the most part. Do you paint from live scenes?
I paint from photographs a lot. And I paint people sitting in the studio. But I also do a lot of stuff that’s fantasy.
What’s the narrative of that painting over there, with the sword?
It’s about a dad and a son fighting, and the son stabs the dad. And then there’s this snake down the bottom. It’s just a story from an old Playboy.
Over there I painted Shergar, the famous horse that the IRA killed.
They killed a horse?
Yeah man this real famous horse.
I have to say I get a kind of literary vibe from your work. It might sound weird but it’s almost pastoral, in an American way - like a Walt Whitman world. Or Hemingway. Men in boots, matadors, and jugs of wine.
Yeah, I just love reading books. Reading old shit. Most of the stuff though, it’s painting from photographs, or old stories from the pubs in Dublin. It’s about trying to get a little narrative from something like that, trying to get it across. What I always try to do is paint subtle things into it from a story – if it’s someone I know I’ll always try and paint something into the foreground that only they would know. For my show in Dublin I made nine paintings, all of my sisters and my parents. And people were asking, what’s this, what’s that? And it would be, like, 'it's a storm from when I was five…'. I try and keep it personal.
It’s like folk tradition. Stories of family and friends.
Exactly, I love that whole idea. Although I like stuff that’s purely fictitious I also like real stories. I guess growing up in Dublin was a blessing, in a certain sense, because you just learn so much from the old lads.
How much do you think Dublin, or Ireland in general, has influenced your artwork?
It's probably everything, to be honest. I love Dublin. I also slam it a lot – I think it’s very narrow-minded, very closed. But I think when I first started coming across here it was like, ‘tell people you’re doing this, tell people you’re doing that’, but in Ireland it’s the opposite; you could be the biggest person in the whole world and you’d still be like, ‘it’s no big deal’. We’re not show offs. So when I started painting I just wanted to show my mates, I didn’t want some grand scale. You can’t have an ego in Ireland, they won’t let you. My approach just comes from doing the work and letting it speak for itself.
My dad played a big role. He was just like, ‘if you like doing it, just fucking do it. Don’t look at things too literally’. So my first paintings are really out there, like peoples’ skin is green, you know. But in general I just try and approach it with respect. I just love to paint.
"Growing up in Dublin was a blessing, in a certain sense. You learn so much from the old lads."
Why do the people in your paintings only wear one shoe?
Um, I dunno. I’ve kind of made that a thing, you’ll see that in my other paintings too. Cos I’m not very good at drawing feet. I also like the shape of the shoe. Like a naff, half circle cartoon shoe.
How about the animals? Why are there so many of them?
I just love animals. I love the shape of them, I love the silhouette. I used to paint a lot of horses because where I lived there were a lot around. Animals are cool.
It’s become really popular for people to draw animals.
Yeah I know. But then animals are also quite an ancient thing to draw. And I guess there’s also a level of paying homage to all the painters I love, I suppose.
Scorpions, snakes, horses, birds…
I love parrots. I’ve done a whole series on them. But I just love the colours and I’m trying to put my spin on what I see.
Which artists are you into at the moment?
At the minute I’m looking at a lot of older painters, like Matisse and Renoir. But then I’m into a lot of my mates who are painting. There’s a lad, George Rouy, who’s amazing and doing well, and my mate Andy Dixon over in LA who’s doing great stuff. There’s so many that I like, but they’re the ones that stick out. You have to look at other peoples’ stuff to be inspired.
Something else I wanted to ask you was about art school. You didn’t go, right?
I didn’t get in. I applied to NCAD, the National College of Art and Design, in Dublin. It’s a famous school. I think these schools can discourage young people to be honest. I have friends who went to that college who are amazing painters, but they’re not gonna get further than Dublin.
Are you glad you didn’t go through that academic system?
I think if you want to go to college, cool. Go. But I just thought, like, why am I listening to this guy? I’d go hang out there, cos my girlfriend or my friends were there, but it was just a weird vibe. There was this regimented thought process. Everyone was so down about it. Maybe college here is different from college in Ireland. I just couldn’t get onboard with it.
My parents would always say you don’t have to worry about college and that. Honestly, I didn’t like the idea of prepping to get into college. But that was when I was 19, and I didn’t really start painting properly till I was about 24. I always loved painting but I was just discouraged.
But yeah I just did it, man... I made sure people knew who I was. I’d walk up to people in the room and shake their hand, and tell them I was a painter. People probably thought I was annoying, but at least they would keep an eye out for me. And I met gallery people in Dublin who would say, ‘you’re not there yet, but you’ll get there’.
I had a really funny meeting at a gallery called IMMA [The Irish Museum of Modern Art]. I went along not knowing much about anything. And it was me, Rachel Thomas who’s a big curator, and Nan Goldin. I had been painting for a few months and I was telling Nan Goldin that I wanted to be a painter. So she asked if she could see some of my stuff. I was like, yeah sure. She looked at it for ages, then she was like, ‘I love bad stuff, bad is a good thing. And yours is terrible’. Haha, I just started laughing! But she was like, 'no I’m not being mean, I really love bad things'.
I’ve had a lot of positivity, I guess. I’m very grateful for everyone that’s really nice about what they say about my stuff. I still have a lot to learn. I’m really thankful for how it’s all going. Even Cob Gallery, the one gallery I really love – the fact that I’m doing my first London solo show there – it’s really great.
How did the Cob connection come about?
I was in the Blue Posts one night in Soho. I was chatting to this guy, Nick Mason, and he’s friends with this guy called Tom, and Tom’s girlfriend, Cassie Beadle, is the curator of Cob. And we were hammered and Nick was like, ‘I’m gonna email her right now’, and he did but she never replied, but I followed up months later. And then she came over to my flat, like another five months later, and she liked my stuff. Nothing came of that, but I met her again and told her about Cuba, and she was like, cool, that can be the show. So they came around the next week and took a photo of all my paintings.
So the show is going to be based on the trip to Cuba.
Yeah, I haven’t done the paintings yet. Cob is quite big so I want to make sure it’s not too oversaturated. But the paintings will be really personal, it’ll be a good little show. I can’t wait.
Between now and the show in March, what have you got going on?
I’m working on a few other things, stuff with Cob. I’m gonna make a couple of series of paintings, with some stuff from back home. One of my uncles has been telling me mad stories which I want to paint. But I want to spend a few months on the show to be honest. So from now until then just travel, paint, work on cool shit and meet some people. Keep busy and don’t slow down. I’m enjoying myself, I guess!