September 07 - November 04 2018
Recent NCAD graduate Sean O’Rourke draws his inspiration from Dublin’s south inner city where he has lived all his life. In 2016 Sean was awarded the NUI Art & Design prize for his triptych entitled Crucifixion, which commemorated the demolition of Dolphin House flat complex. He is based at Clancy Quay Studios.
James Merrigan interviewed Sean O’Rourke in advance of his exhibition opening at the LAB.
Sean O’Rourke has been repurposing materials found in Dublin’s inner city flats for his paintings and sculptures since art school. A graduate of the National College of Design in 2016, references to art history abound in his work, from Francis Bacon to Gerhard Richter. But it is his self-reflexive critique of society against the rusty patina of his work that comes to the surface.
On first seeing Sean’s work online and reading his artist statement, I knew I needed to meet him and his work in person. On meeting Sean I knew that an interview would be a more appropriate discursive platform to give voice to some of the social tensions he felt were emerging from his work in the lead up to his first solo show at The LAB, Dublin.
James Merrigan: Your work comes from a place of autobiography, but the environment you have been reflecting on and extracting materials from for your painting and sculpture since art college, Dublin’s inner city flats, are not precisely the backdrops to your life? Tell us a little about your relationship to these environments.
Sean O’Rourke: Well yes, my work is autobiographical to a certain extent. What connects me to these areas is the fact I live in Dublin's inner city. I have always been attracted to the rough, rundown elements associated with Dublin's inner city. When I was younger, I would unconsciously gravitate towards these elements, but now I approach them in a more conscious manner, as an artist, looking at how these elements can play a factor in influencing our personality. When first starting this project I would wander the inner city streets wanting to take reference photographs of anything to do with this rough aesthetic. When narrowing my search I found these elements more concentrated in derelict flat blocks. The thing that interests me the most about these flat complexes is the rusted metal borders on the windows. They're like abstract paintings in themselves – each one having their own individuality while still conforming aesthetically to the environment as a whole.
JM: How do you mean the “rough” elements of these flat complexes “factor in influencing personality”? Architectural determinism? Or is it more gender specific? Personal?
SO’R: Our environment, whether socially or physically, has a huge influence on us as people. It can determine the persona we project outward onto the world, not just in the flats, but in the whole of society. We all can easily conform to the stereotype of our environment if we are not fully conscious of the reasons why we might adapt this stereotype. I use these rough elements as a way of looking at the stereotype of young, working-class males in particular. It's also about how society profiles people. Generally the most insecure will adapt the stereotype of the tough, working-class male, using it as a shield to mask feelings of vulnerability. I know this because I have definitely been guilty of this myself in the past.
JM: In one sense, in French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s terminology, you are ‘redistributing the sensible’: making visible (and making audible in this interview) the external stereotypes of this particular social class, in an environment that is all about being in touch with one’s senses, the art space. There’s a vulnerability in that, isn't there, especially in your use of the word “shield”? How do you think someone from the flats, or one of your childhood mates would think or feel on seeing your work in The LAB?
SO’R: Yes, there is always vulnerability in putting yourself and your opinions out there. I find that by making yourself vulnerable and exposing certain feelings openly, that you begin to remove your social facade, and perhaps get closer to your true self. But obviously this is not an easy pursuit, as there are so many factors that influence our behaviour (our family, friends, environment, education, just to name a few). So we tend to not act outside the lines of our social groups because of this fear of being vulnerable to criticism, as well as the legit concern of being isolated. But it's the vulnerability we face within ourselves, the feelings that comes with that vulnerability that can be quite violent and overwhelming, so we choose not to examine it, and instead we conform to wearing our social mask, to "shield" our feelings. As I have said before, I have noticed this in young men in particular (as well as in myself). Instead of being vulnerable people will act and behave according to their social group, hiding feelings of anxiety, fear, shame and sadness, as this would make them appear weak, masking it with a rough exterior, to the point that they are also willing to hide the fact that they are, underneath, a ‘nice guy’.
As for how someone from the flats might think or feel about my work. It's hard to generalise, but I think visually they may appreciate the work, but for some the conceptual side of the work might be looked at as a critique of people from the flats, but this is not my intention. I can see how my work could be easily misinterpreted. The work is, however, a critique of society. But because of where the materials come from, it’s linked back to the flats. You see I don't like being put into a box, and it's funny because this is exactly what the work is about, how we are put in boxes within society. But I feel that my work and its concepts will be synonymous with the flats because of the rough aesthetic I choose to use. As for my childhood friends, again visually I’d say they would appreciate it; conceptually, I'm not so sure. Some might find it weird to talk about such issues. For others, that are more open and honest with themselves, I feel the work will strike a chord within them, and they'd know exactly where I am coming from.
JM: The ‘group’ is something that pops up repeatedly in your work as diptychs, triptychs and group portraits. Seen altogether you could call this an evolving community, with you the artist at the centre, as maker and presence, portrayed as you are as an infant and a son, a friend and a student. But you have also used the word “maverick” in terms of the individual’s unfulfilled wish to stray from the herd, from the community. There's a push and pull here between community and individuality, one conditioning the other. So how do you view the artist, whom we could describe as a ‘maverick’, in terms of community?
SO’R: I use the group portraits as a way of looking at the key elements that build our personality: family, friends, education, and the metal plates symbolising physical environment. I feel that artists, because they are influenced by so many factors, bounce between social groups, both fitting in everywhere and nowhere at the same time. So yes, the artist could be referred to as a “maverick” due to an input of diverse experiences. But if the "maverick" is shaped by their experiences, aren't they just conforming to certain elements of each social group? Which leaves me asking whether the maverick is a maverick at all, or just a merely conforming to a multitude of external factors, like the community. This is the dilemma I am left with.
Sean O’Rourke list of works
Diptych 2017 / each panel 94 x 70 cm / oil on metal taken from derelict flat complex
Each panel of the Diptych is a self-portrait. Both panels are in contrast to one another. The left panel depicts a family portrait with an infant in-between both of his parents, while the right panel shows a group of adolescents in a similar composition, with me the infant fully grown posing, hood up covering the face as a cliché hard man. In the right panel I am consciously posing, putting up a front, giving off a certain image. While in the left panel, I am nothing but an anxious child, unaware of others perceptions. When someone takes a photograph of us, we often pose the way we want to be remembered, but a child doesn’t know this, posing how they actually feel rather than in a way others would interpret. My parent’s smile like a happy family, while I come off as a little bit anxious or scared, perhaps a little bit startled by the camera man. As we get older we are very aware of others perceptions, and we hide feelings of insecurities and anxieties by creating a persona which becomes our ego, especially among young men.
Many young males pose as rough exteriors, shielding themselves from societies criticism, hiding their own insecurities and anxieties as not to appear weak. The metal plates symbolise the rough exterior that male adolescents carry around with them, as a way of hiding feelings and protecting their masculinity. The males use this exterior to be perceived differently by their peers. Using the metal panels as a way to look at the external and internal, externally a persona is projected outward to compensate for feelings going on internally.
Tutor (added panel to diptych to make triptych) 2017 / 91 x 70 cm / oil on metal taken from derelict flat complex
Tutor, the extra panel is added to Diptych converting it into a triptych, creating narrative and contrast between the three panels. As I notice my environment changing around me, I can’t help but notice myself change personally. Recognising that we are all influenced by our external surroundings, which makes us into the individuals we are today. Each panel represents the elements that build our personality; our family, friends and education, as well as the environment itself.
The contrasts between the panels are intended to raise the question of perception, especially between the first two panels (originally a diptych). It’s to do with profiling, how society profiles people and how the most insecure must put a shield to protect themselves from the criticism of others by posing as a rough exterior. The final panel (Tutor) is of myself and college tutor Chris Maguire, originally painted to be exhibited at the International Journal of Art & Design in Education; art as an agent for change, and inspired by Gerhard Richter's Court Chapel, the work looks at how much our education has an influence on us and who we are as people. And depending on who and where we are educated, its potency has the ability to turn us into unthinking conformist or the maverick the individual does wish to be. But in conjunction with the other panels it shows that even the maverick is nothing more than a conformist to its external surroundings.
Personally I used the work as a tribute to both Chris Maguire and my education at NCAD.
Tough But Soft 2016 / 80 x 81 cm / emulsion & lead on metal (taken from traveller site)
The toughness of the metal in contrast with the softness of the lead, flowing off the piece like a ribbon, bricks as its feet. The metal plate becomes the rough individual, and every tough individual has a soft side.
Diptych 2016 / each panel 122 x 97 cm / oxidized metal taken from derelict flat complex
By removing the plates from their original context and placing them into the context of a gallery space, it allows them to be primarily viewed in an aesthetic
Crucifixion triptych 2016 / each panel 122 x 97cm / acrylic on metal taken from Dolphin House flat complex
The triptych was a way of commemorating the demolition of inner city flat complexes, and as a means of documenting the constant changes throughout the city. Shifting through the debris of a culture, using found objects to make art, the triptych was painted on metal once use to board up the windows of Dolphin house flat complex. The rusted metal serves as a relic of this working class area, and by transforming them into art it brings attention to what once existed.
Originally drawn to these derelict flat blocks by the distressed elements that they possess, I remove the metal plates from their original context and place them into the context of a gallery space, allowing them to be primarily viewed as an aesthetic. Observing the influential merit of the architectures rough exterior, I begin to see how our environment has an effect on our psyche and how the raw aspects of the climate can be transferred into the individual. In lower socioeconomic environments there’s no room for vulnerability, especially among men, any weaknesses must be masked. Young males pose as rough exteriors, like the derelict buildings, shielding themselves from societies criticism, hiding their own insecurities and anxieties as not to appear weak, creating an ego to protect them emotionally. Using the concept of architecture as an indirect way of looking at the external and internal of the individual, and the conflict between the two.
The triptych is used to create narrative, each panel is a scene, which ultimately builds up to an event. Again I am using the derelict flat block in an indirect way as symbol of the ego that many young men put up as defence mechanism, unconsciously masking anxious feelings of vulnerability. The name Crucifixion was given to the work, not only because of the religious idea of the death and transformation of Christ, but it was also inspired by Francis Bacon's Crucifixion triptych. A painting fueled by intense emotions of anxiety and modern day suffering, and above all a way of looking at man’s behaviour. The flat block is an interpretation of my own adolescent ego, and my confrontation with it is played throughout the triptych, reading the narrative from right to left. The right panel is a direct reference to the onlookers in the background of Francis Bacon’s 1965 Crucifixion. Here the onlooker has come to the forefront in the form of a flat block, the CCTV camera coming out of the corner acts as its eyes. The onlooker carefully views the cross shaped ego in the middle panel from a distance before confronting it face to face. The middle panel is the confrontation of the ego head on, the centre of the cross the point of greatest suffering, one needs to voluntarily accept the fall of their own identity, an identity they have been clinging to for such a long period of time. The middle stage, after confrontation, there is voluntary acceptance, bracing oneself for the release of suppressed emotions. The ego is seen from the back in the final left panel, before it is crucified in the form of a demolition.
When watching the demolition, the metal borders are removed from the windows, leaving nothing but a dark hollow view, giving the flat block a shell like feeling. After the stripping of the windows, the block is soon cracked open and its rough exterior begins to crumble, leaving us to view nothing more than its interior. We begin to see the bright coloured wallpapers and the households of family homes, the interior gives us a different introspective, a more family oriented humane view of the block. The demolition reminds us that despite our rough exterior on the inside we are all just people, vulnerable and filled with complex emotions.