Meeting Jack Pakenham at Oriel Gallery
'You have to confront the awful things that happened' says the acclaimed artist of his new retrospective
Artist Jack Pakenham's distinguished career spans over 30 years. The man who from 1969 pinned down the Troubles on a nervy Expressionist canvas has put on 35 or so solo shows, and now his exhibition entitled Here It Is: 1974 - 2014 has arrived at the Oriel Gallery in Antrim's Clotworthy House.
Pakenham, now 76 but sounding a decade or so younger down the line from his Belfast studio, says that mounting an exhibition remains exciting. 'Yes, always, as quite often you don't see 20 or 30 paintings together as you're working on one. It is quite nice to see how they play off each other and view them in a different context outside the studio.'
As aficionados may recognise, the exhibition's title is a quote from a Leonard Cohen number. 'It's a song I always liked and I used it as I thought there's been an awful lot of revision (of the Northern Irish situation),' Pakenham explains. 'I'm saying, "Let's look at it, you can't whitewash it. You have to confront the awful things that happened and work out what there is in the Ulster psyche that allowed them to happen".'
The paintings on show at the Oriel Gallery range from 1975 to the present day. The series began when Pakenham painted a ventriloquist's doll with orange hair that belonged to his son, David. 'The figure started off as a victim then took on different roles in works that deal with hypocrisy, bigotry and so on.'
Pakenham remains interested in this ongoing subject – the troubled history of Ulster – and even dealt with the contentious flag issues recently in a painting entitled 'Flagboat'. 'It's a little boat with flags and its mast broken ultimately heading between the classical monsters Scylla and Charybdis. These are little allegories about the psyche, as we're not out of the situation yet.'
Politics has haunted Pakenham's best known work from the start, and one of his largest paintings, 'Peace Talks?', featured in the Ulster Museum's Art of the Troubles exhibition earlier this year, a retrospective of Troubles art produced by Northern Irish artists over the past half decade.
Dealing with the Troubles head on is something that Pakenham has never shied away from as an artist. 'What happened on our doorstep impinged on your paintings, even when you tried to get rid of it, even when you were on holiday with your family in Scotland,' he remembers. 'You'd be having a reasonably good time then turn on the radio and hear the news. The mathematics of it was manipulative.'
In terms of artistic style, Pakenham has sometimes skewed perspective in a queasy manner to indicate unease in his large paintings depicting tense stand-offs between figures in balaclavas, tormentors and victims. He describes the style as a 'visual vocabulary that suggests what's happening here'.
'Years ago there was a book about the art of the Holocaust,' Pakenham explains. 'They weren't exhibiting but recording and I feel a bit like that. I couldn't have existed ignoring what was going on.'
The classical reference in 'Flagboat' – of steering between two evils described by the Greek epic poet Homer – indicates Pakenham's literary background. He cites Samuel Beckett as having influenced him as well as the Expressionists, and even Stanley Spencer, whom he's always admired.
The Northern Irish Otto Dix remarks: 'Yes, I am an Expressionist and consider the human drama. It's not the handling of paint that's at the centre of things, and I'm often drawn to the surreal side of things as seen by Beckett.'
Pakenham, after all, started out as a poet, belonging to The Belfast Group, a gilded collection of writers formed at Queen's University in the mid-1960s, which included Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon who met for workshops under Queen's lecturer, Philip Hobsbaum.
The poet turned painter recalls: 'I started off with poetry as it was easier to work with words. I knew what I was doing with poetry. I took six to seven years to find the vocabulary that was appropriate and although I published slim volumes, I had many more poems that were unpublished. My little poetry books appeared years ago and didn't exactly set the world alight! That's what put me off poetry.'
The problem, as Pakenham puts it, was lack of an audience reaction, which he resolved by moving to visual art, which could be exhibited in public gallery spaces. 'At no time did you get feedback with the poems. You've no idea what anybody thought but with an exhibition, people say "Rubbish", or "Good". Now and again I get a letter and that's what keeps me going.'
Having first picked up a paintbrush with intent at the age of nine – 'I was on holiday in Carnlough and saw this guy painting with oils so I asked for paints for my birthday' – Pakenham didn't go the art college route but took a degree in Spanish, French and philosophy at Queen's University.
When he finished, he rented an attic studio in Clifton Street. 'Painting's a compulsion,' he reveals. 'It is relaxation and therapy and my way of having fun. There's very little you can do about it. My wife thinks I have an addiction and I admit there are stacks of unsold work piling up.'
His day job was teaching English at Ashfield Boys' High School, where punk kingpin Terri Hooley was one of his pupils. On retirement in 1990, Pakenham took up painting full-time, although he still takes Sunday off. Interestingly, when he suffers from artist's block, he reverts to painting landscapes.
Pakenham's landscapes are not quaint, however. Rather they are moody, revealing studies of nature and the environment, never just about rocks, trees, shrubs and skies. And there is always the passionate engagement with Northern Ireland.
He says he is pleased to be showing at the Oriel Gallery – 'Physically, it's very attractive' – but wonders whether visual art gets the level of support it deserves in Northern Ireland outside of cities like Belfast and Derry~Londonderry.
'The private view last night was attended mostly by friends and relations,' he says. 'I worry about these provincial galleries and how much support they get and didn't see any local councillors there. You have to ask do they deserve this civic centre?'
Pakenham left the private view of his show to go, as he often does, to the Empire Club in Belfast. 'I'd had enough of art and wanted to listen to some good music,' he laughs. 'The Rab McCullough Blues Band were playing as they usually do on a Wednesday.'
If there was room, Pakenham probably executed one of his now famous cartwheels amongst the dancers and drinkers. A couple of years ago he boogied and did cartwheels for Cashier No 9's 'Goldstar' video (see below). 'That was funny,' Pakenham recalls. 'They emailed me and I ignored it for a long time as I thought it was friends winding me up. In the end, I said yes and they filmed it all in slo-mo.'
But the serious side remains. When Pakenham held an exhibition at the Orchard Gallery in Derry~Londonderry some years ago, his wife noticed a woman with tears in her eyes. 'She asked if she was OK,' Pakenham remembers, 'and the woman said, "Yes, but in these paintings, he's put it all down for me".' And he has, for us all.
Here It Is runs in the Oriel Gallery, Antrim until November 28.