Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Paddy Graham and Vincent Price

An edited version of this profile appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 12 April 2015.
Patrick Graham recounts with amusement a story about his early reputation in Dublin art circles. Confronted by one of his more fraught canvases in the Hugh Lane Gallery, a viewer confided to his companion: "poor Paddy, he's obviously very ill." This anecdote captures the common view at the time that Graham's often alarming and visceral paintings must be the incontinent spewings of a tortured psyche. Far from it. His art has evolved from his extensive reading in philosophy, especially Martin Buber, Nietzsche and Kirkegaard. These influences have led him towards the great romantic subjects: sexuality, death, and religion. He believes that art "is part of an older history made by those who saw in the dark". His paintings are essays about being and nothingness - about the religious and sexual antics of his stricken subjects as they flail about against a bleak grey background that suggests the Midlands skies of his youth. In his current show Away at John P. Quinlan's gallery at the Triskel, Graham continues his broadcasts from the brink of the abyss. Note the Sacred Hearts, the agonised self-portraits, the poignant sketch of the family rosary, the blood-red nudes, and the recurring references to mysteries. The Lamb of God is in contention with the sins of the world.
Graham's career has been a triumph - far from the myth of it being blighted by his alcoholism and occasional incarceration. He's a hard-working, successful painter, with an international reputation, living in domestic harmony in Dun Laoghaire. He has a keen interest in sport, especially rugby. (When we met he recounted, with the relish of a true fan, a recent encounter with Ciaran Fitzgerald.) He hasn't had a drink for nearly forty years and he paints every week day. He's a member of Aosdana ("a peripheral one" he says) and has work in the permanent collections of both IMMA and the Hugh Lane Gallery. He's not a big fan of the RHA but showed there when invited by David Crone. He is an outsider however in his healthy skepticism about all art clubs, academies and associations. He refused to show at the Exhibition of Living art in its time and even became skeptical of the Independent Artists group, although he did show with them for a period. He maintains that "the new Academy is the old Academy, but just a little more clever in the way it dresses and uses its voice in the very politicised world of contemporary art."

Born in Mullingar in 1943 his early childhood was marred by a series of family disasters. His father went to England when he was four and the family saw little of him thereafter. "Your father had a glint in his eye and was a rogue in his britches " Graham remembers being told years later by an old woman who stopped him in the street. His mother "scraped a living" for her young family for a while but then contracted TB and spent some time in a sanatorium. Graham was sent to live with his grand parents. He subsequently contracted rheumatic fever and became so sick that he couldn't walk and was confined to bed for nearly a year. In his confinement he became a voracious reader and started to draw using whatever materials came to hand. This reading habit and interest in art was carried on later with the help of an aunt who was the local librarian. He consumed books about art and artists. "When I was about ten I discovered Modigliani."

He went to school at the local technical college where his talent for drawing was spotted early by a sympathetic teacher, Dermot Larkin. Even now, talking to the artist more than 50 years later, his gratitude is palpable. He worked with Larkin every evening after class becoming in effect his apprentice. "Larkin taught me to be a watcher, a mixer, a colourist, a cartoon-maker and a scene painter. I remember copying Manet at 13." Graham's talents led him to achieve first place in Ireland in his Group Certificate art exam. Larkin was also influential in getting the precocious young artist a scholarship to the National College of Art. Blessed with painting skills and fluency of line, his prodigious natural talent meant he could already turn out effortlessly a polished academic study. He went straight from foundation year to second year. Money was tight with an absentee father, but Graham stuck it out and acknowledges the sympathetic support there of John Kelly and Maurice MacGonigal. He recalls his first visit to the life drawing class where the young country boy ran from the room in fright: "I hadn't seen a naked woman in my life." Such innocent days. He soon adjusted to his new environment and his path in life seemed set fair. "I was told by John Kelly that I'd be in the academy (RHA) by twenty-one."

But then came the fall. He recounts how an Emil Nolde exhibition came to Dublin and it revealed to the young painter the error of his ways. It showed him that art could be a vehicle for personal expression and that the academic painting was not real art at all. "I saw an Emil Nolde exhibition that absolutely destroyed me as a performer. I now knew I could no longer make art as a conscious aesthetic act." This revelation led to a cessation of painting and a general questioning. It also led to the pub. He discovered the delights of O'Donoghue's, Grogan's and McDaid's and spent endless hours debating the "what is art" question rather than exercising his talents. He met a wealthy American woman and they got together and revelled in the drunken bohemian life of Dublin in the Sixties. "It was", he recalls, "a great time for failed geniuses". His lost years followed and he did little painting between leaving art college in 1963 and 1974. "I was going in and out of mental hospitals". He remembers slipping into a coma in the Wicklow Hotel and being carried out to an ambulance. The breakthrough came in 1974 when a young psychiatrist suggested that he deal with his life as art: "make some drawings about your experiences here." He embarked on a series of studies of a patient called Joe and the resultant work became his first solo show at the Emmet Gallery. It was entitled "Notes from a Mental Hospital and Other Love Stories." He finally gave up the drink in 1978 and went from being one of the first patients at the Rutland Centre to becoming one of its mentors for alcoholics. He also met his future wife there. She's a psychologist and the artist maintains that "she's been a great source of balance and evenness."

His next tentative steps back into the art world came with the help of Trevor Scott who offered him some teaching hours at the Dun Laoghaire College of Art. He moved into a small studio in Royal Terrace West where a neighbour was the artist Brian Maguire. With Maguire's support he got into the Lincoln Gallery and began to show with the Independent Artists. A sympathetic review by Michael Kane helped the recovering artist on his way and soon he was a regular part of the Dublin art scene. His work however was difficult and not exactly designed for suburban walls, so sales were not great. He remained dependent on his teaching hours in Dun Laoghaire and later at DIT.

A chance occurrence in the early Eighties altered radically the trajectory of Graham's career. The actor and influential art collector Vincent Price came to Dublin on a cruise and was waiting outside the Lincoln Gallery one day when Leon De Sachy arrived to open it. He proceeded to buy three large paintings, removing them from their frames before he returned to his boat in the Alexandra Basin. Subsequently Price wrote to the artist and encouraged him to come to LA and show at the first LA International Art Fair, saying that "this stuff is essential for LA". Graham scraped together the money, aided by Vincent Ferguson from the Hendriks Gallery. He found himself at an enormous show amongst the elite of the international art world. His modest space at the periphery of the fair was ostentatiously favoured by Price and his extensive entourage, including his wife the actress Cora Browne. The attention of such a prominent collector did not go unnoticed. Graham was signed up by the Jack Rutberg gallery in LA and soon acquired a substantial following amongst the art lovers of that city. This is a rich seam of patronage that he continues to mine to this day, although sadly Vincent Price is long gone.

For a man who comes across initially as mild-mannered, even diffident, Graham has got some acerbic views on the Irish art scene and is not shy about expressing them. The provincialism of our artists is a particular bĂȘte noire. "They still retain the idea that if we imitate international art we become international. No. If you're from Mullingar, you're fucking international." Echoes there of another Patrick. And like Kavanagh, Graham uses his youthful experiences in rural Ireland to create art of universal import.