Poles of difference

Interview with Brian McAvera.
Irish Arts Review, Vol.25, No.2, Summer 2008

McAvera: You moved to the Beara Peninsula in County Cork in 1984, on the side of a 'spectacular rocky mountain, overlooking the sea'. Living close to Strangford Lough myself, I imagine that the ever-changing colour combinations of the sea, the way in which one can actually observe the weather coming towards one are all elements which feed into your work. So how would you assess the impact of this particular locale upon your work?

Tyrrell: I believe my particular environment around Allihies at the end of the Beara Peninsula finds a way into my painting. I often find myself drawn to colours and tones that the landscape throws up in its ever changing manifestations, but it is never too conscious a decision. 

I am very aware of the seductive power of the landscape and am on my guard but would like to think that what might sometimes happen is that the painting seduces the landscape. Another way I like to think I might connect with the landscape is through a sort of replication of natural phenomena, maybe geological or maybe tidal forces and the likes, replicated in my painting process and paint handling.

A couple of years ago I worked in Ballycastle in Mayo on a residency at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation. I locked myself in the studio and worked on drawings – building images of blocks of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines – cross hatching, which I then proceeded to break down with an eraser. I approached this as straightforward formal self-contained activity, which it was, but then found visitors to my studio, fellow artists, assumed I was referencing the great cliffs of the area with their powerful horizontal strata exposed to the eroding effects of the elements. I imagine if I had gone out to work directly with that subject I could not have come up with more succinct images. That was very interesting for me. I would say I'm more comfortable being influenced by the man-made world. I understand it more, I feel part of it. The natural world, the extraordinary landscape that surrounds me can be too challenging, too awesome. I get uneasy with the notion of natural beauty … don't know quite what it is ... nobody gave me a measure! I prefer to be working within the measured walls of formal painting. I like the entirely man-made construct that art is and want to dig in. There is a paradox in what I do and where I live. In a way, looking at my work, it looks as if I'd be better suited to living in Berlin or New York, but I would say that living in this extreme environment gives me a yardstick as to what my relationship with abstraction is… it sharpens my game.

McAvera: You are an abstract painter in the sense that you have said that you 'do not directly respond to things or situations' but build on 'pure simple formal notions', then build 'to an image which parks itself somewhere in the shadow of a reality'. Can you take us through this process in relation to the development of a specific painting?

Tyrrell: Well, I'd say I'm process driven in my painting. I like to start with givens, both in structure and process, whereby I choose elements that I believe have potential to bring me somewhere. Maybe like a miner using his knowledge and instinct to predict a rich ore vein and then going about building the structure to get to it. While I greatly admire Sol LeWitt I would not be that rigorously attached to the proscribed process – I rely also on improvisation and deviation.

But to try to focus on this in relation to a specific painting – I have worked recently on diptychs. Each panel has the same basic subdivisions creating narrow bands at the edge of the panel. The paint process involves the laying down of an all-over layer of paint. Then using a jig I made, which fits on the side of the panel, I cut a line through the paint on opposite sides of the panel and then scrape off the paint from within these bands. This process is repeated many times on both panels, alternating the position of the bands. The process continues until a potent dialogue takes place between the two panels. What's important to say, is that each step of the process has to be a complete one, having its own integrity. I don't tweak after the event. The laying down of the paint is open to lots of variation of approach. I lay down the paint with flexible metal plates.
In this process I try to combine attachment with detachment. While on one level my hand is all over the work, by working within a framework I can achieve the degree of detachment that is important to me. This detachment somehow frees me up, takes decisions away from me and makes me a more equal partner in the internal dialogue of the painting which I hope in turn can intensify the final outcome.
I need my paintings to go far beyond me and this strategy helps. I don't want painting to be subjective speculative rummaging. I don't want to be a sitting tenant in my own work.

McAvera: You were born in Trim, in the Midlands, in 1950. By the late 1970s you were 'in a very derelict inner city Dublin' where you worked 'in a beautiful second-floor Georgian studio'. These are two, quite distinct landscapes, both mentally and physically. How did they affect your work? Did the Midlands generate the artist, or was the city the mainspring?

Tyrrell: I would think that the city made the artist in so far as it was in the city that I really discovered art and its possibilities, and the possibility of being an artist – but that is not to ignore an upbringing that nurtured my interest or inclination or aptitude. But it was really on coming to art college that the wheel was set in motion, although my assumption at the time was that I would pursue some design course. It seemed to me then that, that was what one did with one's talents. The idea of a career as a painter hadn't entered my head. It didn't take long though before I was being seduced by the smell of the oil paint wafting from the painting area, like in the Bisto ad!
That was the seedbed I suppose and then the extreme inner city urban environment I found myself in after college seemed conducive to consolidating what I was about at college, that is, an embracing of abstract painting. But yes, I grew up in Trim, a remarkable town from the point of view of the physical
manifestation of its history. It has the largest Norman castle in Ireland which was right on my doorstep and hugely a part of my arena, along with other medieval abbeys, churches and castles. This was an inspiring environment and I imagine it played a part in shaping my vision. The physical imprint of the buildings often crops up in a peripheral way as with Trim Castle and its Keep. Its footprint is a square with four square wings (one on each side). I'm very aware of that geometric simplicity. It's a form well etched in my image bank.
After that, I would focus on my upbringing in a quiet, careful household where my art interest was acknowledged and encouraged. I had a constant interest in drawing and painting. It was a safe place where I could go and have a degree of authority. My parents wouldn't have been particularly exposed to art but they were sensitive to my inclination.
In my work I like structure and systems and I'm a bit wary of overt expression. I don't think art should be a primal scream. It's a slow well-built thing and I suppose that would have resonance with fortifications, like the castle. I did a print some years ago, an etching called Island (Fig 7) which was an irregular circular floating form with random semi-circular forms coming off it. All the time I was working on the image I was thinking of that outer wall of Trim Castle, a series of straight walls connecting to circular towers loosely circling the castle. This worked into another notion of what the artist should do, brought on by the image of another castle I heard of that occupies a small island and is built to its very edge, to the shore. That total occupation to the very limit seemed a good metaphor for the artist's duty to occupy his arena totally, build to the edge, precarious as that may be, and lock it all together as an absolute occupation of the arena and its potential.
Is that a very convoluted answer to a simple question!

McAvera: You were in Dublin at NCAD in the 1970s, a period which means markedly different things to different people. International styling was in overdrive, driven in part by ROSC, and abstraction had shifted well away from William Scott, giving us artists like Patrick Scott. What are your memories of this period, and how important was it for you?

Tyrrell: My main memories centre on my art college experience. I arrived there just at a time when change was in the air. I'd arrived from a small town having only realised about a year previously that there was such a thing as an art college and was almost immediately caught up in the move to change it utterly. It was a move to overthrow the old academic system championed by the R H A who were the core tutors in the painting school, in favour of an education system like that being developed across the water. A broad education system which would have had more focus on the individual's potential to express ideas.

This was happening against a backdrop of change with the annual Irish Exhibition of Living Art and the big Rosc shows introducing first-hand experience of contemporary international art. In art college I found myself caught between the old and the aspiring new and like a lot of my contemporaries I found myself operating in a sort of void, an interesting void. It was an exciting and intense time being largely left to our own devices. Working alongside people like Michael Cullen, Martin Gale, Brian Maguire and Gene Lambert, each pursuing very different agendas, but feeding off a collective creative atmosphere. Something good happened there.
Had we stuck with the old system we would have graduated with copies from the National Gallery Collection, a bunch of nudes and a burning ambition to be commissioned to paint bishops, Garda Commissioners and heads of state! Interesting you refer to Patrick Scott and William Scott in your question – as it happens both men were my external assessors in my final year without whose presence my offerings would not have gone down well. As a matter of principal I withheld any figurative work I had and put forward an entirely non-representational body of work which I'm sure was a first in the college.

McAvera: Morris Louis' stain paintings, and perhaps those of Helen Frankenthaler and company, would seem to have been a model for your early work. Did you see any in real life, like the Ulster Museum paintings for example, and would you regard Louis' sumptuous, almost luxuriant, and markedly expressive colour combinations as resurfacing in your work to some extent from the late 1980s onwards?

Tyrrell: I had seen the Morris Louis work in Belfast as a student but more importantly I was visiting the US during the summer months for three consecutive years to finance college, and so there I came into contact with the greats of the American Abstract movement. I took to the spirit of the work – the scale, the absoluteness, the powerful distinct notes. One could throw away the easel for starters, and possibly the brushes.

Each time I came back to Dublin the Life room was getting further and further away. Morris Louis was of course part of all this. The notion of pouring paint was so liberating, it was an absolute break from the academic tradition and just what I needed at that early stage and I jumped straight in. However from the outset, unlike Morris Louis, I was compelled to hard-edge also, so I was using masking tape and pouring and working with paint seeping under. This use of definite edges, divisions and boundaries became a constant of my visual language over the years.
But here we're delving into the mind of a precocious twenty-two-year-old who was cherry picking – Mark Rothko meets Kenneth Nolan via Morris Louis! It was an exciting and compelling time for me. As regards Morris Louis resurfacing in later work, I don't think so. I don't think his big colour notes are in me. But I have been pouring a bit lately, so maybe he's still lurking.

McAvera: In 1987 you had an exhibition in the Douglas Hyde with Theo McNab called 'Surface and Structure'. Much much later, Donald Kuspit characterised your work as 'geometrical structure and sensuous surface'. Is this a fair assessment of your work?

Tyrrell: I would like to think that there was sensuousness within the rigid structures. I aim for detachment in so many aspects of my painting but hope I won't always achieve it. The sensuousness I don't actively try to include, but I hope it's there to the appropriate degree. In the Douglas Hyde paintings, I was attempting an active involvement with the landscape as in Winter Pull . There was a storyline going on about boundaries and order in a natural environment. I actively picked up on many interventions in the landscape – the huge boundaries built up the side of a mountain for example. One farmer would have a beautiful strip of green. In another, the mountain was winning and creeping back down. I was dealing with borders and boundaries and the degrees to which borders and boundaries held. I was also thinking of social and political borders and boundaries. The painting used a landscape language but I saw them having broader resonances in relation to people and structures and society. The division of Northern Ireland was there too. I would like to think my work can still carry those resonances.

McAvera: How do you see yourself in relation to other Irish abstract painters?

Tyrrell: I am an Irish artist, I work here, I live here, I breath Irish air. If what I believe about the way I work is true, that is that I allow my experiences, perceptions, and environment to make their way into my work, then my work is very rooted in the Irish dimension. But having said that, my work is not about that Irish dimension, nor about me and my environment, but these are ingredients that fuel images that have a more universal resonance. I'm not dealing with the particular and anecdotal. But in terms of language I would say the language I use comes from an international pool which I suppose points me towards an Irish version of international abstraction. But I do find this difficult, giving myself a category, being objective and seeing myself in the scheme of things. It becomes a bit academic.
As time goes on I see myself less and less in relation to other artists. This comes from knowing that every artist is utterly individual even if there are superficial similarities. Also, less and less do I look to contemporary art for guidance or inspiration as I see myself as some minute part of a very long art story… Ars Longis. Lately I've been excited by Assyrian relief sculpture… talking directly to me over a three-thousand- year time span. Tomorrow it could be Mantegna or African ceremonial fabrics that inspire.

McAvera: More recently you have been using aluminium for a surface, which is a medium that a lot of the younger artists like, especially those whose practice is photo-based. What is the attraction for you?

Tyrrell: I like it for its change of pace. My main work is on canvas or canvas over timber panels. Since I started using aluminium I find that it has a faster pace. The paintings work faster and I'm more experimental. I often use it as a testing ground and often it points directions for me. It's allowed me to be more playful. I grind the aluminium so that it has a very fine texture to give it bite, and then I actively work with the metal throughout the painting. The metal comes through in various degrees and sometimes is left in its pure state. Working it is very immediate, I can slide across it. It hasn't got the slow grittiness of canvas. I'm allowing the metal to play a part, so I don't have a huge build-up. I wipe on and wipe off a lot until the right moment arrives.

McAvera: Thinking of the 'Dreamfield' paintings in particular, I wondered how far your work is about memory. Passages of paint often suggest the rich surfaces of marble paving, caught momentarily in the afternoon sun or, as with the 'Borderland' paintings, glimpses of terrain or sea in different atmospheric conditions.

Tyrrell: My work is not about memory but certainly engages with memory. It's interestingyou should focus on the 'Dreamfield' paintings in relation to memory because they seem to me to carry a lot of memories or associations. They were a compelling and mysterious few paintings that seem to float there, independent of what else was going on in my work at the time.

McAvera: Critics often refer to your work as resisting explanation or resisting articulation. To take a parallel from literarture, Joyce's Dubliners, is written in a language accessible to most people, whereas Finnegan's Wake is accessible only to a limited number of specialists. From the point of view of the non-specialist in art, why do you work in the abstract arena?

Tyrrell: Firstly I would say that I don't resist explanation but neither do I want to make paintings that need or rely on explanation. I believe in the possibility of a completeness and autonomy of a visual language. I would like to think I use a language that reveals itself readily and allows the viewer in. It's my job to make that language complete so the viewer can trust it. But this language is not resisting anything nor is there any hidden agenda.

As to why I work in the abstract arena, when I embraced abstraction back in my college years it simply seemed the most potent visual language for me. I had no doubt then and this still is the case. I'm not saying it's superior, it's just my natural home.