Contemporary art is cluttered with the abstract and the weird: installations that do little but momentarily bewilder, splodges of paint on canvas that fail to inspire. But artists like 29-year-old Andrew Haslett, a minister’s son from Ballyblack, Newtownards, have not forgotten the genius of the great masters or the power of immaculate draughtsmanship.
On the walls of Haslett’s flat-cum-studio hang pictures that could have been rescued from the Italian Renaissance. Studies of works by Caravaggio hang alongside original pieces - paintings of St Peter after his betrayal of Jesus, the disciple’s brow wrinkled with angst and guilt. Oil paints and brushes are everywhere: charcoal sketches of Mary Magdalene and of Jesus pile up on the coffee table and decorate cupboards above the sink.
'My art is most inspired by the work of Caravaggio and Zurbaran,' says Andrew, lighting a roll-up. 'It’s the emotion captured by what I would call baroque artists that fascinates me and the techniques they used to give things depth and intensity. Caravaggio, for example, began with a canvas painted in dark oils, adding lighter colours gradually, so that things have a dramatic feel. Most of the time artists start on a white canvas and get darker.'
Haslett has been painting and sketching from a young age and graduated with a BA in Fine Art from the University of Ulster in 2005. For a time he focused on painting interiors, stairs or corners of rooms that caught the particular fall of the light and had an atmosphere of stillness. Then his father, the Reverend William Haslett, asked him to paint a picture of 'The Sower', from the well-known biblical parable. This would hang in his parish in Ballyblack.
Attuned to the power of biblical imagery, Haslett (who works as a librarian to make ends meet) began studying Renaissance art more intently and before long was casting friends and family to pose as figures from the gospels. A cousin agreed to pose as St Peter, draped in robes against carefully placed lights. Using Caravaggio’s dark-to-light technique, and with painstaking work and Andrew’s obvious talent, the results are remarkable.
'Figures like St Peter particularly intrigue me,' comments the artist, 'because they have a dark side to them or an ambiguity. Peter betrayed Jesus at the crucial moment, yet on the same night he cut off the ear of a Roman soldier because his loyalty to Christ was great. He failed but he became the father of the church. It’s human to fail and so there is much about Peter’s experience that is universal.'
Asked why he decided to return to Renaissance styles and Christian subject matter, Haslett feels it is about searching for a profundity or intensity that he sees as absent - for the most part - from the contemporary art scene.
'Painting figures like St Peter, for me it’s about looking for answers, looking for something to believe in. So much art nowadays is so disposable and empty. But the apostles, the saints, the gospels involve intense human experiences, things that make you think, strong emotions. Even if you aren’t a practising Christian, it’s hard to be indifferent to questions of belief.'
'St Peter’s Remorse' and 'Peter’s Realisation' (pictured) are incredibly accomplished oil paintings, striking for the way they convey the figure’s anguish. St Peter emerges from the darkness, the careful brushwork pulling him into visibility. The hands show anxiety, the eyes are rapt on something intangible or they are downcast, Peter deep in thought. This is a man in a crisis of faith, finally aware of his own sinfulness and sorrowful in this realisation.
The balance of the light against the dark (known in art parlance as ‘chiaroscuro’) produces the depth and the drama of the scene. Light and dark merge carefully and seamlessly into each other, the gradations of colour just-so.
Haslett's astonishing 'Study of Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ' shows such mastery of technique and is sensitive to the Italian master’s vocabulary of exuberant gesture and fine attention to dramatic feeling.
Does Haslett feel isolated from the contemporary art scene in Northern Ireland? His work, after all, is so unlike anything else being produced by local artists today.
'I appreciate that there won’t be much of a market for what I am doing, but I think it is damaging for an artist to only be motivated by commercial concerns,' he admits. 'My work is old-fashioned, but I take great pleasure in what I do and I would certainly champion a revival of this Caravaggio-like style of painting, which is about tenebrism and the fall of light against the dark. If I have to go back in art history to find a style or subject matter I believe in, so be it.'
And with that, having finished his roll-up, Haslett picks up his paintbrush and continues working on an oil of Mary Magdalene.
Haslett’s solo exhibition, New Studies in Oils and Charcoals, will be on display at Dundonald Library throughout the month of February.