Art Beat - Graham Gingles

A constructor of intimate narratives in boxes

Graham Gingles is very precise about his date of birth, the 23rd of April 1943, as though he remembers every moment of it. The event took place in Larne, Co Antrim, where his grandfather had established a painting and decorating business in 1902.

The company was passed on to Graham’s father, a highly skilled artisan who could make wood look like marble and who was respected for his abilities as a sign-writer. He did not believe, however, that his two sons should be yoked to the family business so it closed when he retired. Mrs Gingles ran her own hairdressing salon until the pressures of motherhood intervened.

The birth of his younger brother when Graham was seven years of age was, he believes, a result of him chewing his father’s reusable condom kept in a silver shaving-stick holder by the bedside. His telling of this boyhood tale of mischievousness indicates a provocative sense of humour, occasionally evident in the titles of his work. Gingles says his ambition was to be a gynaecologist, for obvious reasons, or a brain surgeon. He was, instead, by dint of innate talents, attracted to a career in art.

Gingles recalls making a copy of the Bayeux tapestry at primary school on a number of jotter pages. The teacher praised his effort and pinned the series round the walls.

‘I loved drawing chainmail,’ he says. He also enjoyed making war pictures, mouthing accompanying sounds of battle and drawing bodies in parts. An uncle bought him paints every Christmas and he progressed to passing his A-level art then enrolling at Belfast College of Art and Design in 1962. Here he part-specialised in silver-smithing and painting.

During his painting course in Belfast, Gingles experimented with fracturing the picture plane by stencilling on sheets of glass that were set upright so the viewer was lead through the sequential narrative via spaces and overlapping images. In 1966, Gingles travelled south to do a year’s postgraduate course in painting at the notorious Hornsey College of Art. He says of this experience that it was like the ‘60s: ‘If you can remember it you weren’t there!’

In 1969, Gingles began to make his first boxed constructions, an artform for which he is now renowned internationally. ‘If it were not for the Troubles’, he says, ‘I would not be making boxes.’

Living north of the war-zone in Belfast on the peaceful Antrim coast compelled him to comment on the awfulness and dreadfulness of what fellow human beings were doing to each other at such close proximity by constructing small maquettes of streets in which killings occured. Scenes of barbarity that, after the event, quickly resumed their innocence. 

Dead flies were placed in these environments which were set into glazed shadow boxes as protection. The artist was intuitively engaging in an established tradition of art-making of which he was completely unaware. Not until 1977 did he hear of Joseph Cornell to whom he is most often and conveniently compared.

Joseph Cornell (1903 - 72) is regarded as the father of shadow box art. A self-taught collagist and assemblagist who began in response to the art of Surrealist Max Ernst. Cornell also intuitively set his fragile art into boxes as a protection device. Research shows, however, that this method of shielding artefacts and assembled pieces of ephemera by containment predates Cornell and the Surrealists. It may, arguably, go back to a time when glass was invented suggesting it is a form of folk art rather than a Modernist imperative.

Whereas Cornell was an obsessive collector of objet trouvé who brought together disconnected items within boxed scenarios, Gingles is a constructor of intimate narratives who makes 99% of all the pieces and fixtures within his enclosed tableaux.

His working process remains intuitive and although he draws regularly, often while working on a particular box, he never makes plans or working drawings. He starts instinctively and is led by a strong personal story. ‘My work is about memory,’ he states. ‘But not completely,’ he adds by way of disclaimer and intrigue.

His memories are private and revealed through coded objects and imagery. It would be easy to be mislead by the contents of a Gingles cabinet and for a person to misinterpret the artist’s intent. This, however, does not over-concern Gingles who, like many artists, accepts the viewer’s freedom to construct their own narrative with the clues presented.

In a Gingles cabinet the enclosed story is suggested by the title. Often this is applied to the completed work. Rarely does it come first to drive the work along with the reconstructed memory. 

Currently he is making a piece entitled, 'The Naming of Parts', in which the title has come first and is about his grandfather’s rifle. This weapon was one of a shipment of 25,000 rifles smuggled from Germany to Ireland in April 1914 by Lieutenant-Colonel FH Crawford of Larne to be distributed to members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, formed a year previously. Gingles’ new work will include a plaster cast of the rifle’s bolt. It is unlikely that the full story of this antique weapon will, or could, be encapsulated within something as three-dimensional as a box.

Gingles says his work is becoming more Catholic as he grows older. This statement implies that it has borne a Protestant aesthetic throughout. Gingles concurs. But what, we might ask, is a Protestant aesthetic? Is it simply puritanical austerity, orderliness and sense of practicality and if so, how is this evidenced in Gingle’s art?

Each box makes use of strong rectangular architecture that supports and contains everything. The colours are muted within an ordered interior while the external structure or framework is stained wood rather than painted with bright colour. Often the box’s exterior is white. Each emits a religious aura – a stillness and profound sense of belief. They are like miniature places of worship that preserve moments in time by housing fetishised articles of faith.

Gingles works daily in his garden shed-like studio. It is congested with materials, tools and works in progress. Out of this confusion comes order. His exact artworks take months, sometimes years, to complete. They cannot be sold for prices that represent the hours invested in their manufacture. Gingles is content with a break-even situation that pays for material costs but his is not a practice that encourages large-scale development.

His adjoining cottage could be a larger version of his cabinets for it is crammed with aides-mémoire, paintings and collectables garnered during travels to Mexico, America, and Europe. Gingles says he would like to create environments into which one might walk but has neither space in his studio to construct such a large-scale work nor money to make it. He might instead consider opening his house to the public.

Peter Haining

Further reading

Art in Ulster Vol 2 (1978) by Mike Catto.
Art, Politics and Ireland (1990) by Brian McAvera.
Graham Gingles catalogue (1991), the Fenderesky Gallery.
Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (1997) by Deborah Soloman.