Interview with Kevin Mooney

Kevin Mooney is an artist based in Sample-studios, Cork. His current exhibition, “Mutators”, curated by Sarah Kelleher, is now open at St Luke’s crypt, Cork until May 28th. “Revenants”, a new publication on his work, with texts by Sean Kissane and Sarah Kelleher, and design by Pony Ltd. is now available from kevin@kevinmooney.org and St Luke’s crypt for the duration of the exhibition. It will also be available from The Library Project, Dublin and other outlets next week.

Blighters, oil and mixed-media on canvas, 220cmx160cm, 2021 (Image courtesy of the artist)

Can you talk us through your process? Your work is inspired by a variety of different sources from mythology, to folkart and histories – real and imagined! – and I was wondering at what stage in your process you begin to visualise your compositions. Do they emerge in the act of painting or do you approach the canvas with a clear vision?

There’s a number of different processes and approaches. My work explores a speculative art history. Research has been based around the search for clues of what an Irish art history might have looked like had it existed between the middle ages and the eighteenth century. Imagining its relationship with European art history, our oral traditions, and histories of the Irish diaspora have informed my research. So text is at the beginning of everything. When you read something, you internalise it, and it goes to work on the imagination. I’m not sure if image based research necessarily works in the same way. Drawing and writing notes are the next step.

The drawings are really just a way of generating ideas, they don’t really end up as translating directly into paintings. Over the last couple of years, the process has been fairly slow, working on a large, evolving body of work at the same time. Some begin as distemper on jute, others acrylic, but they all utilise oil at the end. I have been trying to figure out various ways of combining these materials. I try to bring lots of different methods of applying paint into the work. With some works, the final painting only emerges by chance at the last minute, some others retain a lot more of their original idea and composition. But either way, accidents, mistakes and an element of surprise are important to the process.

 You mention Derrida’s ideas about ‘hauntology’ as interpreted by Mark Fisher as being a productive grounding for your practice. Can you explain what your understanding of these ideas are and how you first embraced them into your practice? 

“Hauntology” relates to lost futures, and histories that never happened. Also how capitalism and technology have disrupted our experience of time, so that even the very concept of the future is undermined. Derrida invented the idea of “hauntology” as a pun, (it sounds like ontology when French speakers say it), to talk about how European politics is haunted by Marx. However, for me he didn’t really take the idea anywhere interesting. To be honest, I actually find him almost unreadable, infuriating really.

Mark Fisher wrote a wonderful book, a series of essays called Ghosts of My Life- Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. In it he used the notion of hauntology to examine the ways that futures -that- never- happened are like spectres haunting contemporary life. How dreams of utopia born in 1970s working class solidarity and the communal euphoria of rave culture have collapsed into a damaged contemporary world. He also uses lots of fascinating pop cultural reference points (Joy Division, Burial, Tricky etc) to open out his ideas.

The notion of examining a lost future from the point of view of a past that never happened has been very useful in opening up how I thought about art history in Ireland. The ways we can speculate about how a visual culture might have developed had it existed, and its impact on the present. I think many people on this island are in some ways programmed to think about how the past impacts on the present, but hauntology is a bit like that at an imaginative remove. 

 Can you talk about your use of the eyeball as a motif? It certainly has a haunting quality!                

 I’m interested in artworks that return the viewer’s gaze, there’s a certain confrontation in that. The paintings of heads aren’t portraits, they’re more partial and fragmentary. Portraits have connotations of status and “the big house”. This incompleteness is suggested by the eyeball motif. Also, there are different methods of paint application and languages of paint. Having one element which is realist, trompe l’oeil stretches the language of it further, and gives it a literal and figurative focal point. 

I find it really interesting that on your website (kevinmooney.org) you have published a text that outlines your research and your intentions for your work very clearly. There is a tendency to only include short biographies, an excerpt from a press release from a show, or a curator’s reading of the work in these situations. I was wondering what was behind your thinking in including it on your website? I really admire how you are able to articulate yourself so clearly – it reads almost like a mission statement! 

Thanks for taking the time to engage with it, and for the feedback. I was prompted by conversations with a few people, a curator and a couple of artist friends. I’d had a long email back and forth with a curator, and he enjoyed the way I had answered his questions and suggested it might be the basis of a text for my website. Like a lot of artists I can be a bit reticent about my sources and motivations. But when I thought about it, it made sense to talk about this layer of research I have built up over a decade which informs and enriches the work.  

I love this idea that you are attempting to imagine Irish culture in the 17th century when so little evidence exists. Do you think your work is interested in what would have happened if Irish culture hadn’t been Westernised? 

Not really. I’m probably more interested in the ways that modernity and the pre-modern might come into contact with each other. I think people from rural backgrounds in Ireland probably have interesting insights into the more non-Western, “irrational”, superstitious traces in our cultural DNA. They are more likely to encounter the fading mythology of the banshee or púca or whatever. When I was growing up, I felt a real contradiction between late 20th Century influence, informed by punk, visual arts and art house cinema on the one hand, and then the constraints of working-class life in the midlands. They seemed completely irreconcilable worlds. We haven’t been particularly good at reconciling tradition with modernity in Ireland, I don’t think. 

Your most recent exhibition was The Erlish Tide at Excell Gallery in Tipperary Town at the end of 2021. Can you explain the origin of the show’s title? 

The body of work which became The Erlish Tide was commissioned by Carissa Farrell, who was then Director of The Excel. The work was commissioned to respond specifically to the theme of Samhain/ Halloween. Researching the history, mythology and folklore associated with the festival informed the work. I came across the archaic Scottish/English word “Erlish” in a version of the poem “Tamlane”, adapted by Walter Scott from a 16th century source. Tamlane, or Tam Lin is an old folk tale which uses Halloween as a setting. Erlish translates into modern English as “Unearthly”, so the title can mean “the unearthly time” or “the unearthly tide”, which I hope opens up the readings of the title as not just being about Halloween, but also a reference to contemporary events.

Your work seems to be interested in compressing time onto a canvas. The work is large scale echoing traditional European painting style. Your painting Blighters borrows its composition from Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters (1885). The painting holds within it the history of The Irish Famine, mass emigration and cultural loss. Dated between 2018 and 2021, the painting also holds the history of a long making process within its plains. Could you explain this process and the importance of including the time frame of this painting’s creation? 

Blighters was exhibited in an earlier version, and under a different title, in a solo exhibition in The Sternview Gallery in 2018. For various reasons, I was never really happy with this work- it just didn’t feel resolved. It had been in storage in my studio for a while up to the making of the work for The Erlish Tide. Of course, the Famine in Ireland had been the key event in creating Halloween as a global phenomenon, as Irish refugees brought their traditions with them to North America. So, reworking it and including it with the Erlish Tide body of work seemed appropriate. The paint application is now looser and more dynamic, and it’s a much better piece for having been reworked. Including the dates acknowledges this somewhat haphazard history.

 Can you speak a little bit about the publication ‘Revenants’ – your motivations behind this project, perhaps?

Revenants is a new hardback publication and documents a selection of my work from the last five or six years. It has two great new texts from Sean Kissane and Sarah Kelleher, which open out the ideas, research and context of the paintings. Niall Sweeney at Pony Ltd did a brilliant job on the design. Exhibitions are like documents in a way – holding information about what’s going on in your practice at a particular moment. But of course their ephemeral nature means that only people at that location for the duration of the run can see them. Books can hold ideas about your work in different ways. They also potentially have a wider reach and greater longevity, so I’m hoping that people who wouldn’t otherwise see my work might encounter the publication unexpectedly. Also, it’s now ten years since I completed my MFA, so it’s seems like a natural time to make one. 

Revenants, Publication (2022) Image courtesy of artist.

Can you also tell me about Mutators, your current exhibition? It has some sculptural and freestanding elements. These are quite a new development  in your practice aren’t they? 

It’s actually a development that came about through circumstances. St Luke’s crypt in Cork, where the show is on, is a protected structure, which means that we’re not allowed to put screws or nails or anything into the walls. Quite challenging for a painter, but myself and Sarah Kelleher, who curated the show, saw an opportunity within those constraints, to find alternative ways of displaying the work. It was also an opportunity for me to expand my palette of materials, to make sculptures, and works that were freestanding or leaning hybrid painting/ sculptural works. Some of the themes in the show relate to alternative histories of Irish art, and how that might relate to votive objects or folk art idioms, and also other visual cultures. I think that the solutions we found were successful in opening out these ideas and reinforcing the intent in the work. I’m looking forward to hearing what other people make of it. 

Finally, what do you think are the positive and negative aspects of the Cork Art Scene?

The visual arts in Cork is quite weird infrastructurally. There’s two big institutions at the top, and then the grassroots – with nothing much in between them in the centre. We could certainly do with at least one more exhibition space which could accommodate ambitious and/or experimental work from artists at all career stages. The studio crisis is not quite as acute as it is in Dublin, thanks mostly to Sample-studios and the Backwater, but like the rest of the country there is a serious lack of adequate affordable work spaces. On the plus side, I love Cork’s independent spirit and DIY ethic. Also, as there has been a little bit more funding around, recent graduates seem to be staying in the city a little bit longer than they were a few years ago. It will be interesting to see what develops from this…

Interview by Sarah Long

@_kevinmooney

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