Dublin based artist Eleanor McCaughey combines her interests in still-life and portraiture by producing unique paintings created using her own sculpted subject matter. Her work has been exhibited at home as well as in several other countries including the UK, US and Canada. Eleanor has received multiple awards including the Next Generation Award 2018/19 by the Arts Council Ireland.
How did you get started?
When I was a child my mother was a playschool teacher. She ran the playschool from our house, so l had a cupboard full of art materials on hand to play around with. l loved art in school and decided early on to study animation in Ballyfermot college after my leaving cert. After a year of animation, I went on to complete a diploma in graphic design. I worked on and off in the industry for a few years and I decided being at a computer all day wasn't for me. I went back to college as a mature student to study Fine art at DIT and graduated with my BA in 2011. It was a long road but I picked up different kills along the way which really contributed to my practice.
Can you take us through your art-making process?
I begin the process by making sculpture from various materials such as tinfoil, plasticine etc. I set this sculpture up like a still life with lights and different coloured backdrops. I take photographs of the still life and paint the final composition. It's a long process before I even start painting a composition that I am happy with.
What spurred the move from figurative to more abstract representations?
When I graduated from college I was using found photography to make my figurative works. After a few years of using this source material, it started bothering me that the photography was not my own and so I set out to create original imagery. I had an idea to make sculptures of the figures that appeared in my paintings. I started making figurines out of fimo, tin foil, and clay, using mostly cheap children's art materials at hand, as I was teaching children arts and crafts at the time. The models are crude and abstract representations of the figures which for me became a much more interesting subject matter to paint.
In a 2017 interview (w/ TTA - Aidan Kelly Murphy) you mentioned the origin of your exploration with sculpture. You “wanted to bring the paintings alive…” by painting 3D surfaces as you had painted pictures. Subsequently, you developed this into producing paintings of sculptures on a 2D surface. Can you elaborate on the thought process behind this?
In my earlier paintings, I used found photography to paint figurative scenes. In 2013 I was on holidays in France and I came across a market that sold found photography from all over the world. I picked up some colour and black and white photography depicting family holidays, to American government social events from the 50s- 70s. I was particularly drawn to the black and white photography as I could make up the colours, this gave me more ownership and control over the final outcome of the painting.
The colours I used were very bright and saturated and the painting of the figures over time had a more abstract and sculptural appearance. This is when the transition in my work began to happen and I started modelling the figures from my paintings into small 3d sculptures.
In 2016 I returned from a trip to Paris with photos I took in the galleries and museums. I captured some shots of sculptures in glass cases, lit with miniature spotlights which created beautiful form and cast shadows. I became very interested in the shadows, reflections and texture's that the camera was capturing and so I decided to try and recreate some of the photography using my sculptures back in the studio. This exploration has been an ongoing process since.
I think when the transition in my work happened it was more about the investigation of form and the figure. Inventing 3d forms from a 2d source. The work over time has become more about my interest in still life and looking at sculpture as the subject in portraiture.
Were the sculptures purely part of your artistic process to produce your own subject matter for paintings?
Yes, the sculptures were part of a process to produce my own subject matter but I also enjoy the immediacy which comes from the making of the sculptures in contrast to the labour intensive and deliberate process of oil painting.
I think the cheap and rudimentary materials I use for the sculptures are an important signifier for the work. Not only do the materials bring the subject into a modern context, but they also reflect the disposable consumerist nature of western culture. They represent displacement and the importance of self-identity that keeps us addicted to social media for constant validation. We embody both the subject and the voyeur. I am depending on the technical use of oil colour that works in a tradition of portraiture painting, to express deadened presences of the stilted sculptural form that is used to re-represent, also transfer knowledge of the form into a flat representational field of painting.
Does your background in classical animation play a role in your art-making process?
Maybe subconsciously it does, it definitely influenced my focus on the figure, in college, we did a lot of life drawing and making short, hand-drawn animated clips. At the beginning of this year, I exhibited a stop motion piece projected on to an 11ft x12ft painting as part of the Tulsa festival in Galway curated by Linda Shevlin. I hadn't made a stop motion piece since I went to Ballyfermot college, so that was fun to do.
Can you comment on your use of art historical motifs? Besides the references to classical busts and portraiture, some of your work has a primitive and ancient feel to it. Can you tell us where your inspirations come from?
I have a curiosity about the role objects have in any spiritual process. Growing up in a religious family there was no shortage of religious artefacts around the home. I am fascinated by the power they represent, relics of a saint or an Icon are like tangible memorials securing direct lines to healing or a heightened spiritual connection with God. With the slow death of Catholic Ireland, I think about the material and objects that replace these traditional value systems today.
What other techniques do you use?
When exhibiting, I usually make site-specific work. I am interested in using the space as a sort of set for the works. For me the installation of the works is just as important as the works themselves. I try to create an atmosphere in the exhibition space using props with video, sound, lights, backdrops or purpose-built spaces, like the room we built for showcasing paintings at The Dock, in Leitrim last year.
In relation to how you present the work, which may be a running theme also in the thought process behind making the works, is a theme of ritual and worship, etc. Can you take us through this and how you go about displaying your work - akin to your show 'The blood-dimmed tide is loosed'?
The presentation of the final paintings is very important to me and how I see the works. I build an environment for the works as though I am merchandising shiny objects and creating some sort of brand loyalty, it is almost ritualistic. Just as in social media, retail or a church, the physical environment is a primary objective in communicating with your followers, audience or market. I try to experiment with new materials for every exhibition, introducing textures, bold colours and patterns to create a sort of sickly feast for the senses. I suppose I borrow a lot of my aesthetics from my early childhood growing up in the ’80s and 90’s. The main influence on my work would be the iconic designs of the Memphis design group from the late ’70s and the ’80s with their backterio patterns and unusual combination of materials and colours. Their designs were reappropriated all around the world, burning into our subconscious through our televisions. Their unique aesthetic appeared everywhere from MTV sets and commercials to the Bayside Diner on American teen show, Saved by the bell.
How do you challenge yourself artistically?
I try to change things up to keep myself interested, trying new techniques, materials or learning new computer programs. This can get expensive, especially when you need to rent a studio space in Dublin to give you the space to experiment and make large scale work. I have been lucky enough to have been awarded the next generation award from the Art's council this year which has afforded me the freedom to spend more time making work at the complex studio's. Currently I am working towards two shows, a collaborative show with artist David Lunney at Platform Arts, Belfast, opening on the 6th June and I am also working toward a two-person show with artist Lucy Sheridan, happening at 126 Gallery in Galway in August.
This year I am participating in a mentorship through Turps Banana correspondence course based in London. This has given me new insight into my practice and will hopefully lead to new opportunities abroad in the future.