Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Portraits of the Artists 3: John Shinnors

This is my profile of John Shinnors first published in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 7 October 2012.

John Shinnors 
In October 2003 the University of Limerick unveiled Sean Scully’s monumental Wall of Light at the entrance to the university.  Senior academics from the university, local government officials, and members of the upper echelons of the Irish art scene graced the splendid occasion.  The great man himself was there, closely attended by Barbara Dawson from the Hugh Lane Gallery.  After the various speeches, certain notable guests proceeded to a grand dinner in Plassey House, the president’s domain – a handsome art-bedecked building on campus.  As Limerick’s leading artist, John Shinnors was of course invited to join this select group.  But he was having none of it.  It was time for his nightly trip to the Spotted Dog – his local in Roxborough.  While Shinnors doesn’t bite the hand that feeds him, neither does he bother to give it the occasional lick of affection.  

John Shinnors is arguably one of Ireland’s most successful artists.  All the indicators are in place:  Aosdana, the RHA annual show, the Gandon profile with laudatory essays by Brian Fallon and Aidan Dunne, the IMMA permanent collection, the Crawford collection in Cork, many important private collections, and a substantial RTE documentary: Michael Garvey’s Split Image – John Shinnors in 1997.  He has had a series of sold-out shows in Taylor Galleries over the years, oneof which involved well-documented squabble between patrons jockeying for precedence as the truck carrying the work arrived from Limerick.  Even more significantly his work sells well at auction, unlike many of his contemporaries.  Yet Shinnors remains a maverick on the Irish art scene, someone who doesn’t quite belong. This may be partly to do with the resolutely unclubbable nature of the man – it’s difficulty to imagine him enjoying a bibulous dinner at the RHA for example.  Or maybe it’s something to do with his refusal to take his role as an artist too seriously.  He sees it as a job rather than a vocation and doesn’t engage in too much navel-gazing about the meaning of his work.  Although, ironically, the work itself with its provocative and ambiguous motifs is ripe for speculative analysis.
Shinnors is a popular and respected figure in his native city.  He frequently features in the Limerick Leader and is an active participant in the life of the city – as evidenced in a recent spat with local councillor Tom Shortt.  Comedian Pat Shortt’sbrother was not amused by Shinnors description of some public art as “moronic”.  You will find his work at the university, in the Hunt Museum and of course in the drawing rooms of the Ennis RoadTony Ryan of GPA and Dessie O’Malley were early supporters.  A visit to the National Self-Portrait Collection in the University of Limerick provides an opportunity to see his magnificent, moodily lit, self-portrait.  The template surely for his scarecrows’ noses.  And it’s not all one-way traffic in Limerick.  He sponsors an annual art scholarship, the ShinnorsCuratorial Scholarship, at the Limerick College of Art.  He is also a well-known figure on the streets.  On a recent trip to the Limerick City Centre Post Office to enquire about the whereabouts of his historical paintings (Sarsfield and other heroic local figures) that used to hang there, I met two customers who claimed to know him well and offered suggestions as to the whereabouts of the missing paintings.
The art itself reinforces his outsider status.  It defiescategorization.  He’s certainly not an abstract painter in the Tyrrell mould, nor is he part of our standing army of landscape artists.  He has no truck with the neat “isms” used by critics.  “I’m Shinnorist” he jokes.  You can look at his early surreal work and see the influence of Jack Donovan, or trace the lineage of his chiaroscuro to Georges de la Tour and Caravaggio, as some critics have done.  But his mature style is truly unique.  Figurative elements emerge slowly from what seem initially to be abstract compositions mainly in black and white.  (Shinnorshas famously claimed to use five different blacks.)  He’ll cheerfully talk you through the hidden elements in each piece but it’s more fun to see what you can uncover on your own.  It takes multiple viewings to fully decipher a piece.  Over the years certain tropes recur.  The ominous magpies and the free-wheeling swallows, the disturbing scarecrows, the looming lighthouses, and the looping kites.  And always the stripes: badgers and cats, railings and washing lines.  The best of his work has a dark expressive quality – haunted and mysterious.  What the critic Brian Fallon referred to as “spookiness”.  This is particularly true of his scarecrow heads with their gaping socketsThe series of these heads he completed in 2002 are one of the highlight of his career, and one of the most impressive achievements in contemporary art in this country.  Unfortunately they have disappeared into a corporate collection and have barely been viewed by the general public.  Occasionally there is a purely decorative piece, such as Cat’s Home (1999) or some of his Friesian paintings, but these are exceptions.  He’s no formulaic artist rehashing a bunch of worn-out motifs.  He is constantly breaking out in new directions, finding fresh inspiration around him.  His regular visits to DunAengus inspired a series of large paintings that captured the striking beauty of that magical place from a unique birds-eye perspective.  This was a literal work (no shadowy ambiguity),simple and powerful.
When asked about influences he paraphrases Monet: “what I see around me is my guide”.  He is inspired by those sudden visual encounters that can happen anytime and will be the catalyst for aseries of paintings.  Shinnors is keen to assert that his recurring motifs are grounded in real-life incidents – as if he is eager to dispel any fanciful interpretations of his work.  The scarecrow was first spotted in a neighbour’s haggart, the kite on a holiday in Kilkeeand the lighthouse on a day trip to Loop Head.  He encountered the migrating swallows trapped in an old keep where they were rescued, he tells us, by our brave artist and his Harris hat.  His stimulus could be a herd of Friesians, a line of black-clad waitresses, or a magpie circling St. John’s Cathedral.  Or it could be (as in his current show) a circus tent glimpsed through railings on the Roxborough Road.  
Shinnors spent 18 months at the Limerick College of Art under the loose tutelage of Jack Donovan.  He left prematurely for London – for freedom and for financial reasons.  After the London hiatus and a variety of casual jobs he returned to Limerick and began to paint.  Initially he was strongly influenced by Donovan’s style.  “That’s the way I wanted to paint”.  He submitted works to the network of small commercial galleries that proliferated in those days – Goodwin’s Gallery was a particular favourite.  These solo forays were reasonably successful and he made a modest living supplemented by some teaching hours at the alma mater he had deserted.  His big break came in 1984 when he won the GPA Emerging Artist award.  The awards ceremony was attended by John Taylor of Taylor Galleries and he was impressed enough to offer him his first Dublin show in 1987.  
His current show in Taylor Galleries (until the 27 October) is his first one-man show since 2007.  It consists of a mere seven paintings, although one of these is the enormous Hoarding and Small Circus, weighing in at a massive 69 x 114 inches.  The other six are all oils on linen measuring 11 x 11.5 inches.  The small pieces frequently focus on nocturnal encounters along of the Roxborough Road, railings and hoardings, a splash of white from a circus tent, shadowy cat slowly emerging from darkness, tail erect.  Shinnors had been reading Jean Renoir’s biography of his father last year and he saw parallels between the influence of the Provencal sunlight on the impressionists and the influence of the artificial light on his own painting.  Hence the subtitle of the show:  Electrical Impressionism.  There are pools of various coloured lights emerging from the darkness:startling red traffic lights, orange sodium lighting, and a variety of lights from the old railway works.  The shocaptures his impressions of the world revealed by these lights. Surprisingly,he mentions Whistler’s work as a possible parallel.  Knowing this you see the connection immediately in a piece like Nocturne San-Giorgio and even more so in Nocturne in Gray und Gold -Chelsea Snow.  Although Shinnors paintings, especially Art Van Leaving (see image)are more confrontational and dramatic than Whistler’ muted work.
Having failed to track down the Shinnors paintings that used to hang in the Limerick Post Office, I eventually met up with the man himself in his studio on O’Connell Street.  I asked him what happened to the missing paintings.  He claimed that he had destroyed them and taken the stretchers for reuse.  When he was starting off as an artist he wasuffering from public indifferenceand eager to get himself noticed.  He had a family to feed.  He spoke to his patron Dessie O’Malley who arranged to get hiswork into that prime location.  When I bemoaned theirdestruction, he smiled at me, “They had served their purpose”.