The homeless seek shelter, warmth and nourishment 'as the guts of the anonymous city rot' around them in Eoin Mac Lochlainn's latest exhibition
The title of this striking exhibition, Dídean/Home appears ironic because it features the homeless. It is certainly timely – in the week before the opening of the exhibition at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich in west Belfast a nearby centre for the homeless was burnt down by vandals, and more generally the economic crisis is driving ever greater numbers onto the streets.
In the artist statement that accompanies the exhibition, Mac Lochlainn, a recent visitor to Leonardo Da Vinci’s last home in France, quotes the master with approval: ‘Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence.’ In 2012 he participated in Artisterium V in Tibilsi, Georgia, with other European artists and was attracted by the theme: ‘The protest that never ends.’
Certainly Dídean/Home can be read as the opposite of silence, and as a protest at the plight of the homeless in Ireland and elsewhere. Topicality and commitment are of course no guarantees of effective art, but Mac Lochlainn passes that test with flying colours.
Here the homeless inhabit an apocalyptic landscape in which everything at ground level is derelict. Put it another way – the guts of the anonymous city rot. Those looking for familiar landmarks will be disappointed. We could be surveying a post-blitz wasteland or a quasi-lunar landscape in some future science fiction nightmare.
This almost subterranean zone is where the homeless survive now in any number of cities. Above them and beyond them there are more civilised zones, whether seen almost in the abstract as in ‘Nightwatch’ and 'Threshold' (above), or in the finely realised pale blue and distant ethereal tower block in ‘Tower’, or even in the tree glimpsed in the distance through the window of the derelict and mossy ‘Green Room’.
Homes in the abyss are constructed of cardboard and battens. Mac Lochlainn sketches his initial ideas in rudimentary fashion in ‘Cardboard Drawings’, which belie the sophistication of his more realised work.
Here the materials of the squat are seamlessly incorporated in a mixed media approach into what are otherwise oil paintings.
‘Construction’ goes a step further, and using cardboard and battens only is effectively a sculpture. Some of the homeless do not even have the protection of a shelter, thus ’Interior’ (and note again a deeply ironic title) focuses on rudimentary bedding open to the street.
Others find comfort where they can. Fires provide warmth and a welcome glow in ‘Hearth’ and ‘Night’ (see cropped image below), and even offer the prospect of conviviality. We do not see the homeless gathered round the fires here, rather we are put in the position of a wanderer coming towards and attracted by the glow of the fire. We are almost back to a prehistoric world.
The modern necessities of survival are more prosaic as ‘In the Marketplace’, where an old man eats from a polystyrene container, or in ubiquitous plastic beakers whether ‘Upside Down’, ‘Empty’, or ‘Gone’.
In the midst of it all, humanity survives powerfully in Mac Lochlainn’s larger portraits. There are strong personalities here. They face the artist undaunted, or the artist may have chosen to realise them thus. They may be rain soaked, tear stained or mud streaked.
‘Paul’ may have blotched eyes but still catches our attention. The character in ‘On the Lookout’ has fearfully lined brows, perhaps the price of the ever watchful suspicion of his most penetrating eyes. Only in ‘No-one Knows’ (main image) is there a possible touch of sentimentality – there is a slight air of the noble and still resolute Kathleen Ni Houlihan here.
There is no fear of that in ‘Nameless No. 7’, who is slumped in a doorway in the uniform of the poor with trainers and track suit bottoms evident but face half hidden in oblivion by a hood. There is no question of the subject looking at the artist here.
It sounds irredeemably bleak, and yet this is not just a matter of shades of black and grey. Mac Lochlainn’s faces may be blotched and worn but they have colour. So do the cheap clothes and bedding of the homeless.
Then there are those fires that glow in the night, or the higher lighter buildings that float above. It seems an inappropriate world to describe as colourful but MacLochlainn’s use of it works, and reminds us that this too is part of the living world.
All the paintings are on sale at prices ranging from £350 to £1,800. Dídean/Home runs in the Gerard Dillon Gallery at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich until February 28.