Neil Shawcross is waxing lyrical about True Tales of American Life, an anthology of ‘true stories that sounded like fiction’ collected by Paul Auster. He calls them ‘amazing’ and adds that the short story is one of his favourite modes of writing.
The renowned portraitist has an obvious interest in the written word: an example of which is hanging on the walls of the Naughton Gallery at Queen’s for anyone to see. Larger than life watercolour interpretations of beloved Penguin book covers in vivid blues, yellows and oranges, unveiled in honour of Penguin's 75th anniversary.
Shawcross's current exhibition, Penguins, is a collection that has been 20 years in the making. 'I'm fascinated with it,' says the artist, pointing to the image below. ‘It was bound to be that way. Working on it for that length of time, I assume I was getting better and better?’
For Shawcross, Pengiuns is a rare dip into iconography. He attributes it to a combination of the importance the Penguin brand has to society at large and how instantly recognizable the design and logo are.
He points to one picture where the watercolour paint has bled through the canvas, leeching down into the white space. And yet Shawcross is right, the image is still recognizable, even from a distance.
‘There are two basic painterly elements to the image. We’ve got rectangles of colour and line drawing,’ he says, voice dipping with reverential delight. ‘And I feel about the text in these images that there is as much drawing in them as if I was doing a figure drawing. It’s not just lettering.’
Some of the paintings are framed in pairs, with the titles giving an arch nod to each other. 'Death by Burial’ and ‘The Wooden Overcoat’ hang side by side in the frames. Others reference the exhibition itself, like ‘A Private View’ and ‘Framed for Hanging.’ ‘I just love the combination,’ Shawcross chuckles.
Shawcross had painted some life-size iterations of the covers – seven inches, he says, by four and a half – but it is the bigger canvases that delight him. ‘The bigger they go, the better.’ The larger works, the same proportions but in feet rather than inches, aren’t on display at the Naughton Gallery, but rather in Conor’s Restaurant on Stranmillis Road. 'Might as well give them a plug!' Shawcross laughs.
Most of the covers are of books that Shawcross has read, his favourite being The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but some are still in his To-Be-Read pile, specifically The Brontes Went to Woolworths, which delights him on title alone.
So far Penguin haven’t taken much notice of Shawcross’ homage to their product, but he says he would be delighted if they used his paintings for covers. The exhibition is potentially headed for London, 'so fingers crossed they will notice it there'.
Either way, Shawcross seems content with what he has produced. ‘The physical nature of these paintings excites me. I am passionate about paint on a surface. I have been exhibiting in Belfast for 50 years,’ he says softly. ‘Looking at this exhibition is the most pleasurable of all my exhibitions.’
Penguins runs in the Naughton Gallery at Queen's until August 28.