Artist Brian Whelan Captures His Dream As The Quiet Men Come Alive
By Sabina Clarke
Strolling through the spectacular exhibition The Quiet Men, now at Villanova University through October 6th, with artist Brian Whelan, the exhibition’s co-curator and driving force, who, for years, toyed with the concept of a major contemporary London Irish visual art exhibition exploring the experience of 20th century Irish immigrants to Britain—we went from painting to painting as he described in vivid detail the story behind each painting and the personal lives of his fellow artists, the men who painted them.
Our first stop, “The Quiet Men” depicted five men, each representing one of the five artists featured in the exhibition, gathered around a table at a pub with glasses raised. About this scene, Whelan said, “This has never happened in real life—we have never sat around a table like this together; our relationship isn’t like that.”
Then pointing himself out, he joked about never looking into the mirror and proceeded to identify his fellow artists, “This is Bernard Canavan, this is Dermot Holland, and this is Danny Carmody down here, in silhouette; he died, that’s why I painted him like this—he’s got a cigarette in his hand with the smoke coming out of it. I knew Danny and Dermot first.”
Whelan is enthusiastic and generous in his praise of his fellow artists and shares an obvious camaraderie with them and a real interest in their work. He is intuitive about their individual talents and sensitive to each of them personally. And he is particularly perceptive and understanding of his good friend, the tormented , eccentric, deceased Daniel Carmody and tolerant of his peculiarities, even when he was alive. This is apparent when he recalls some of their experiences together, “ We would meet somewhere and within 20 minutes, we were arguing. He was so disillusioned with everything—it was so painful. He would storm off and later apologize and we would meet again.”
Despite Carmody’s obvious mood swings, Whelan enjoyed his company and appreciated him as an artist even when Carmody was furious with him for arriving 20 minutes late for his exhibition in Sheffield– ignoring the fact that Whelan traveled for three hours just to get there. Yet, he speaks with compassion and insight about his friend; his memories, often punctuated with laughter.
How did the The Quiet Men exhibit evolve? “It began when Danny Carmody came to an exhibit I had in Lewishire, a large Irish community. He brought a stack of photographs of his work and said, ‘I’m doing something a little similar to you, can you have a look at the painting. So I did and concluded that we did have something in common as far as content. Danny painted nightclubs and pubs and people who were drunk in the streets.”
Then through Carmody, he met Dermot Holland who also painted ordinary people and ordinary scenes such as the queue at the bus stop or a strange incident at a launderette or a man singing passionately and unnoticed, in a crowded pub. “They all had a certain feel about them. The paintings were not glamorous but they reflected the experience that we were all living. And we recognized it. It didn’t look like high art but art that belonged to us. We wanted to paint a picture of a subject that no one had ever painted before and that happened to be our own lives.”
As we moved on to “Lying in the Gutter” by Daniel Carmody, Whelan commented, “This is a brutal painting and a sad painting. Danny was a little worried about showing this painting because he feared it might be interpreted as a stereotype for what it means to be Irish. Danny was in and out of clinics all his life. He only found out that he loved art the last 10 years of his life and he struggled to catch up. He started out using house paints and paper that is found under carpets. There is a story about Danny wanting an exhibit and going to the Hammersmith Irish Arts Center with paper about 6 feet high and a hammer and a bag of nails, He started hammering the painting into the wall before he was restrained. That was how simple he was. Later, he said to me, ‘ Brian, I’ve done it all wrong. I’m stupid. No one showed me how to do this sort of thing.’”
“When Carmody died, he had 600 paintings. I called the coroner who got in touch with his son Ciaran who emailed me about 2 years later. He invited me to a garage in Sheffield where the paintings were strewn all over the floor. He said I could take whatever I liked; then left me alone. That is how we got his work. Not one of his paintings have ever been sold because of the size of them. Danny Carmody was an angry angry man who wore his wounds on his sleeve ; yet, he captured , most authentically, what it is to be Irish and living in London today.”
“Night Train with Skull,” by Brian Whelan boldly illustrates the contradictory expectations of the Irish leaving Ireland; there is a celebratory mood and also pending doom. The four train passengers—all men—are carefree; looking forward to a new adventure, unaware that death rides beside them—in the image of the skull and the emergency stop is out of order meaning there is no way back.
And in his painting, “Paradise Lost” Whelan draws on a powerful myth to illustrate another facet of the immigrant story, “ Even though I was born in London, I inherited this idea that home is Ireland. The immigrant story is a bit like this; we were driven out of the Garden and we are spending all of our time trying to get back into the Garden which is Ireland.”
Brian Whelan’s work derives from his London Irish origins and resonates with both religious and secular themes which sometimes converge. His vibrant, imaginative and richly colored mixed media paintings are rife with contradictions, symbolism, subtlety and stark realism. His canvases are filled with juxtaposed images of old churches and skyscrapers and roads crammed with traffic. His blending of the material and the spiritual realm celebrates the glories inherent in the urban landscape and the human predicament.
Was it easier for him be absorbed into London’s social system than his first generation London Irish compatriots? “I think it probably was. I think we were less brutalized by the city we were living in and we were building on the shoulders of our parents which cosseted us a little bit. Also John Duffin and I have both been very successful in our art. When I attended the Royal Academy of Art in London, I didn’t know anyone of my cultural background there. Just the fact that I was Catholic was unusual; and that I raised it as part of my character was even more shocking. If I mentioned that I was a Catholic, some people would step back a bit and say, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ If you tried to paint a crucifixion, people would shake their heads and say, ‘Oh no! You can’t do this.’ ”
About the Artist: Whelan graduated from the Royal Academy of Art in London and Kingston Polytechnic in Surrey. With more than 20 solo exhibitions and 30 group exhibitions, his work has been exhibited in China, Ireland, the Netherlands, Botswana and Uganda.
This autumn, he anticipates the launch of his book London Irish Painting and the publication of his artwork on the cover of the latest CD release by The Popes, a rock band.