Brenda Moore-McCann: I am struck by the dynamism and ambition of your painting practice in dealing with difficult content that condenses contemporary political events through multiple perspectives. How and when did you decide to address issues of war and conflict in your work?
Claire Halpin: Around 2008, I made the shift from using family photographs as source material in my paintings to newspaper photographs, particularly sites of conflict. I was drawn to media images that echoed the composition of biblical, Renaissance, and Byzantine painting. In 2010 I did a residency in Georgia where my training as an icon painter solidified this new direction in my work. I was visiting sites of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, which I had painted from newspaper images, and was now visiting in reality – a very real and present history. I had been concerned about personal memory; what is remembered or recorded in family photographs. However, this new work expanded to consider collective memory and history, including the ‘unknown knowns’ and asking: What is true or false? What has been left out?
As the world becomes smaller with globalised media, surveillance, and efforts to control the narratives surrounding events, these concerns become ever more urgent. I have been preoccupied with major international conflicts, the wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and now Ukraine, and the impact they have had, not only on their own populations but on ours too, and how this plays out in global politics. As an artist, I see it as my responsibility to bear witness to what is happening in our own time and to question why it occurs.
BMMcC: Your work seems to concern the inherent instability of history and how this is presented, with regard to community, citizens, and human beings. Would you agree?
CH: Yes, but I am conscious that I am also following a line of enquiry. The media and images I am reading inform the content and form of my paintings. As an artist, I am consciously questioning the history, the narrative, through the crucial act of painting and image making.
BMMcC: The great historian E.H. Carr once observed: “There is no such thing as history, only historians.” What sources do you look to in your research?
CH: I look at news media, documentaries (Adam Curtis, Noam Chomsky…), podcasts on current political thinking, old National Geographics, historical maps, bible stories, and ways of relooking at history (real, imagined, or myth). Sometimes it can be a singular event or image within a conflict, or a controversary that gives me a starting point for a painting.
BMMcC: In your recent solo exhibition, ‘Augmented Auguries’ at Olivier Cornet Gallery (8 September – 9 October), you are dealing with issues closer to home, like the pandemic and the conflict in Northern Ireland. Is it your first time to do that?
CH: The Towers That Be are two key paintings in this exhibition. I am really struck by the tower building for the annual 12 July celebrations across Northern Ireland – the biblical scale, monumentality, theatrics, pageantry, and effigies. Within the context of falling statues and cultural wars, we consider the futility of building a tower only to burn it down. These paintings reference Bruegel’s Tower of Babel (c. 1563) in which, according to the origin myth, a united human race speaking a single language migrated eastward to Babylon, where they built a towering city with its top in the sky. God, observing the settlement, confounds their language so that they can no longer understand each other, and scatters them around the world. So yes, these paintings bring us right up to date.
BMMcC: It’s interesting that you are drawn primarily to the Early Renaissance, adapting both the diptych format and predella panels in your work. Perhaps these formal devices extend the narrative beyond the immediate present to convey historical, political, and cultural complexities rather than singular points of view?
CH: I find Early Renaissance paintings interesting from a compositional perspective; how narrative elements from different times and spaces can converge within the same picture plane. In some ways, it echoes our current means of consuming media or news feeds across multiple screens. Within the modular format of the diptychs, there is the potential to rearrange, reconfigure, or change the dominant narrative.
BMMcC: Has the rigour and discipline of your training been deployed in your own painting? Can you discuss the shift in technique for this exhibition?
CH: My training as an icon painter definitely made me a better painter of fine detail. I found that slowing down the process, and the practice of building up image and surface through fine brushwork using tiny sable brushes, helped a lot. With the recent paintings, I have attempted to respond in a more immediate way through a loosening of the handling of the paint, allowing a movement and blurring on the gessoed surface – a slight shift from the heavily worked and complex compositions of my previous ‘Jigmap’ series. The ever-evolving process of painting, applying brush to surface…mark-making.
This is an abbreviated version of conversations recorded at Talbot Studios, Dublin, in summer 2022. ‘Augmented Auguries’ ran at Olivier Cornet Gallery from 8 September to 9 October.
Claire Halpin is a visual artist, curator and arts educator based in Dublin.
Dr Brenda Moore-McCann is an art historian, author and art critic, based between Dublin and Tuscany.