Imagine We Made Our Weapons Into A Ploughshare

Colin McGookin has never surrendered to compromise, as Jenny Cathcart discovers

Having viewed Colin McGookin's personal retrospective Parallax 1977-2007 at the Clinton Centre in Enniskillen, I drove to Belmont Road in east Belfast to find out more from a man who has so meticulously archived and catalogued his career as an artist.

Growing up in the Belfast area, McGookin's early visual and aural memories were of Orange parades and pageants - banners and flags, the skirl of Scottish pipes and a flurry of flute bands; marching rhythms and drums decked with orange lilies.

Aiming to understand the universal through the personal, McGookin works with symbols: from the red hand of Ulster, the Irish harp and King William on his white horse to Masonic emblems and biblical references - crucially Adam and Eve, snakes and ladders, devils and saints. A burning bush suggests not only the story of Moses, but the emblem of the Presbyterian Church in NI and pre-Twelfth of July Protestant bonfires.

As a Bangor grammar school boy, McGookin saw Colin Middleton walking to work at the New Theatre, where he designed and painted stage sets. He remembers the Middleton retrospective at the Ulster Museum. Studying at the Belfast College of Art from 1976 to 1981, McGookin lived with his grandmother in Ballysillan, and sketches of her formed the basis for ‘My Wee Orange Granny's Green Fingers’, an early painting reminiscent of the work of William Conor or Gerard Dillon.

Hitchhiking through Europe, McGookin visited Crete, the cradle of ancient Greek mythology. In Paris he admired the figurative elements in Surrealist works by Dali and met Robert Rauschenberg who was then launching his own exhibition. The sheer size of Rauschenberg’s canvases and his collage techniques encouraged McGookin to create bigger and more ambitious works. In London his favourite destination was the Clore Gallery and the Turner bequest.

While working as a decorator in a pub in Covent Garden right opposite the house where Turner once lived, a large piece of red felt wallpaper fell to the floor intact, instantly reminding McGookin of an Orange banner. Carefully transported back to Belfast, the wallpaper became the background for ‘Sons of the Fathers’, the first of three silk banners decorated with silver leaf paint which he presented for his final degree show. The other two incorporated projected Super 8 footage of an Orange parade at Downpatrick which was disrupted by hoax alarms set off by protestors from the Catholic community; a prelude to subsequent events at Drumcree.

In 1985, five McGookin banners illustrating the story of Sheela (na Gig) the Celtic fertility symbol and Samson were displayed in the Guinness Hop Store in Dublin as part of the Independent Artists Exhibition.

American Indian Orangemen who joined the Twelfth of July parade in Lisburn in 1991 (marking the Tercentenary of the Orange Order) took pride of place in ‘After the Indian Summer Dance’, a painting which caused a storm of protest from Rev William Beatty and others who described it as ‘pagan pornography’. While the story made front page headlines, McGookin defended the work saying he was simply creating an image. He had based this painting on Masaccio`s ‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’.

Inevitably McGookin's art imitated life in Belfast where, in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, sectarian violence was a daily occurrence. McGookin married Punam Surpal, whose family come from New Delhi, and she often appears as the beautiful Eve in his paintings.

The ‘Troubles’ arrived literally on the couple's doorstep when McGookin looked out of his front window one morning in February 1994 to see men in balaclavas surrounded by police with guns and torches. An IRA active service unit had hijacked a yellow ‘Holemaster’ transit van and were lying in wait for the RUC’s Deputy Chief Constable (who travelled this route each morning on his way to Strandtown Police station) when they were foiled by the police. The incident is recorded by McGookin in the painting ‘Witness’.

Such localised violence was mirrored worldwide. When in 1993 the first attack on New York's World Trade Centre took place, McGookin unintentionally presaged the 2001 attacks on the twin towers in ‘Skyscraper of Babel’s Children’. He admits that he works from intuition, but here it seemed as if life was imitating art. Closer scrutiny reveals an airplane heading toward the tower.

McGookin feels that the attacks of September 11 marked the moment when local conflict became global, causing a major shift in his outlook. On that day he was in the process of curating an exhibition funded by the New York Port Authority and the British Council, entitled UK in NY:

‘I had telephoned a New York hotel to make a room reservation when the person answering my call said ‘Hold on a minute, there is something terrible happening here...', and then I found myself watching the apocalyptic event unfold live on TV.'

When compiling his retrospective, McGookin chose the name Parallax, a photography term describing the relative movement of objects to illustrate how his world view changed between 1977 and 2007. When he mentions The Parallax View, a film about conspiracy theories, a topic which interests him, one is aware that he is not entirely hopeful about the future of the world. Sitting on his bookshelf is a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great.

A former projectionist at the Queen's Film Theatre, McGookin understands the importance of the earliest moving picture created by the Zoetrope which, with its cylindrical shape, reproduces the same picture over and over. In his programme notes to McGookin's exhibition Tradition into the Light: Life as a Zoetrope, Anthony D Buckley writes, ‘Together, a hopeful belief that creativity moves humanity forward and a more cyclical myth which denies the possibility of renewal, have produced an unresolved tension which is central to McGookin's paintings'.

Dark thoughts pervade ‘The Magic Atomic Lantern’, inspired both by the Zoetrope and Newgrange Fort. Similar gloom permeates the 'Labyrinth Tree', which was presented in a Las Vegas exhibition opened by the actor and painter Tony Curtis.

During 2006/7 McGookin was artist-in-residence at Devenish College in Enniskillen, working with Year 9 pupils aged 12 and 13 on a cross-border programme linked with Mercy College in Sligo. The project was funded in part by Yoko Ono's Imagine Foundation. Together they set out to imagine a shared future, exploring the theme of war and peace with the aid of new digital techniques. Curiously the kids did not relate to local conflict as much as to events in Iraq or child soldiers in Africa. McGookin photographed their warm up movements in PE class as they formed the letters of the alphabet and combined those images with animal masks which they created in art class. Similarly he fashioned a plough from individual weapons made by the children.

Driving away from Belmont Road this July, under the bunting and painted arches along Stormont Lane, I made for Finaghy, traditional gathering field for Orangemen, then on to Lambeg, village of drums. Thence to Brookeborough where McGookin's 95-year-old grandmother, who became a county grand mistress of the Orange order, was born, before coming full circle to Enniskillen.