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Painter Cian McLoughlin

Chris Samuel


Photo Credit: © Roy Hewson

Cian McLoughlin is a figurative painter whose distorting and dynamic approach to depicting the human movement and physiognomy sets him apart. We spoke to him to discuss his practice, 'tronies' and drawing to moving images.

¶ You’ve talked in the past about how important self-portraiture has been to your practice. Why is that?

I’ve always done a lot of self-portraits. I think they’re a great arena for experimentation. The reasons for this are largely practical and mundane rather than introspective, or poetic, or narcissistic (even). My working routine is erratic and the timetable of each piece, chaotic. It can be a long period of time between starting a piece and finishing it but during that time I only work directly on the painting in short bursts — between which there are longer periods of assessment and reevaluation. All this is to say that these moments of action are not predictable, so it’s always great to have the sitter in studio rather than having to arrange something and wait for a time that suits. The one person who is always at hand, for better or for worse, is me.

¶ When does the picture appear for you?

I try to work from life as much as possible but the combination of working fairly slowly and unpredictably, and the logistics of having someone come to the studio to sit can be hard to overcome. That said, my 2008 show, ‘Drawings’, was done entirely from life. I also use video, often in small repeating loops, to avoid being trapped by an existing, fixed, still image.

¶ Your 2017 solo exhibition was called ‘Tronies’ — a term associated with Flemish Baroque and ‘Golden Age’ Dutch portraiture. It literally means ‘head’, but it’s also associated with a studious and analytical approach to draftsmanship and form. Given that your work distorts and defamiliarises us from your subjects, why did this term remain important to you?

I’ve been making portraits since I was very young. My mother is a portrait painter so I’ve been surrounded by images of heads for as long as I can remember. Since 2002 I’ve been painting full-time and specialising in this field means sometimes working to commission and sometimes building more personal projects under my own initiative. For me there is no better subject than the human being. That said, over the past few years I have had a growing sense of dissatisfaction with some aspects of portraiture. Namely, achieving a photographic likeness, meditating on social status, using them as vehicles for narrative or their having a memorial function.

Like any painter of portraits, I have always had an obsessive admiration for the paintings of the Flemish Baroque and Dutch Golden Age. In light of the growing doubts I mention above, what began to catch my eye was the difference between the formal commission work of these great artists and the vitality and experimentation of their ‘head’ paintings of unnamed sitters. But there was more to it than that: in these head paintings, the artists seemed more interested in animated physiognomy, heightened emotions, a looser painting style, and working with generic connotations rather than more specific ones. They renounced forms of narration, fading out context in favour of focus on the subject. It was almost the opposite of a history painting.

These qualities had huge appeal for me. I still wanted to focus on human beings and stay somewhere close to portraiture and, in these head paintings, there was something that I could work with that I hadn’t tended to before. Something I couldn’t yet define, that I didn’t initially have a name for. This was the starting point for the ‘Tronies’ exhibition.

The first time I encountered the word ‘tronie’ was around 2007. While I was very familiar with many of the works that the term describes I had never heard this collective description before. The more I read about them and the impulses that created them, the more I knew this was a road worth travelling down.

The sitters in the ‘Tronies’ show are subjects I know well and have painted many, many portraits of. I had become worried that I might be dulled from the debilitating gaze of routine. In keeping these same subjects (family and friends) but approaching them as tronies rather than portraits I could make this world strange so I could see it afresh. Familiar and alienating. To recognise something without knowing what you’re recognising. I wanted to make informal images of people. Catch life on the hop, the daily stuff of life, something that won’t be repeated, unguarded moments, paintings that were in the present tense. Rather than have props or symbols or emblems, I had to find new metaphors or ways of saying those things. The role of colour and texture. Pushing colours and using unnatural combinations. Playing with tones and in some cases inverting them completely. Not always thinking in terms of describing but in terms of expressing.

I wanted to be free to travel down other paths during the making of a painting — experiment with form, colour, texture, improvisation for the pleasure of it, answering to a different logic, rather than having to check those instincts to serve the desires of a ‘portrait’. Un-portrait-like qualities. Un-portrait-like ways of making decisions. In a portrait the subject is the end point but in the tronie it’s more of a jumping off point.

Tronies allow in other ways to make decisions during the making of the painting. Rather than working from a single view of a single subject I was free to follow multiple sources (and not be hierarchical about them). Video, photography, paintings and sketches from life, collage and memory all came together to make the work.

I haven't turned emphatically away from the representation of things as they appear but imitation is much further down the list of priorities now. That's not to say these aren't precise paintings — they are precise to me, but the precision answers to a different order.

As with historical tronies the subjects here are presented anonymously. I use deliberately bland titles in order to promote and sustain ambiguity. When starting out, I wondered how treating subjects as tronies — when I had made portraits of them many times over many years — would affect the work. In that way the exhibition was a theoretical and practical reflection on this historical pictorial form.

¶ Do you think that developing as an artist outside of art school has given you a different approach to your contemporaries?

Architecture was a great grounding in how to make creative work and take an idea from conception, through development, to execution, so it feels very relevant to what I’m doing now even if not directly. I’m not sure how different my way of doing things is from those who went to art school though.

I’m also not sure I would have survived art college in the late 90s as a figurative painter. It wasn’t encouraged at all back then. Art degrees seem to be a broader church these days so maybe things have changed.

¶ An unknown art enthusiast has uploaded a number of your pieces citing you as an ‘Inspirational Artist’. Others have uploaded images of your works as examples of their favourite ‘abstract portrait artists’. How do broad categories like that make you feel?

I’m always happy to hear that the work has found an audience out there, whether in the flesh or online. As for categories of painting I don’t mind how people define the paintings I do. I hope the work has developed in such a way that I wouldn’t use the same terms to describe it now as I would have five, ten, or fifteen years ago.

¶ ‘Endgame’ from your 2006 exhibition ‘No Colour, No Colour’ revisits Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez's ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’. Though your work is distinctive, you share with Bacon a capacity rendering what could be described as a kind of disquieting beauty. How important is Bacon as an influence?

Bacon is a massive figure for me, of course. I used to have a studio near the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin where Bacon’s studio has been moved to with forensic accuracy and I would often visit there on a break. And the ‘Sylvester’ book of interviews with him is still one I revisit often.

¶ You’ve tackled a number of characters from Samuel Beckett. Did you take any inspiration from Beckett’s conscious denial of clarity and resolution in your more abstract pieces?

I’m not sure if this came from Beckett directly but ambiguity has always been important to me and, if anything, that importance grows with each passing year. And what defines a resolution for me is changing, too. I’m not trying to be equally attentive to everything but use an economy of perception. Accents where they’re unexpected or removal of accents where they are expected in a kind of visual syncopation. The weaker the beat you accent the bigger the effect and vice versa. To give the eye what it expects in places and subvert that in others. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a denial of clarity but maybe a denial of total clarity or absolute clarity.