Snaring Bewildered Birds

Graduate artist Mark Healy satirises world leaders on tracing paper at Enniskillen's Higher Bridges Gallery

Having gained a distinction in his art foundation course at Fermanagh College, local boy Mark Healy enrolled at Huddersfield University where his tutors – practicing artists like Robert Clarke – encouraged him to experiment.

So he drew with his left foot; he hung chairs on lamp posts and fire escapes in the middle of the night; he admired the work of Grayson Perry and Geoff Koons and discovered how, in his questioning of Christianity and mass culture, the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietsche, prepared the way for expressionism, existentialism and post modernism, influencing artists like Mark Rothko along the way. 

It was said of Nietsche that 'his writing could be dangerous and very equipped to snare bewildered birds', and Healy, keen to show what he can contribute to the contemporary art scene, references this in the title of his debut solo exhibition in Enniskillen's Higher Bridges Gallery.

As part of his degree course, Healy spent three months at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea, where the students he met produced very little conceptual work yet boasted remarkable technical skills. The experience made Healy sharpen his pencil to create cleaner lines and more aesthetically pleasing drawings. The visit to Seoul also made him more politically aware and probably inspired the four main pieces in this exhibition, political cartoons drawn in pen and ink on tracing paper, which of course lends itself well to multi-layered effects and textures.

Each of these four pieces features a different world leader who has been given an animal head to match his or her perceived character. All of the leaders adopt a firm stance, holding, as fencers do, their left hand behind their back and in their right hand a symbol of their power.

So Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, is the badger, neatly suited with collar and tie, holding a hammer and surrounded by shapes and colours from Moscow’s Red Square. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in world politics, is a brown mouse with a round face, pretty whiskers and pert ears. Her trademark jacket nicely shows off her embonpoint and she wears a necklace instead of a tie. In her right hand is a scroll and behind her, in bright primary colours, a map of the EU countries.

American President Barack Obama, the fox, holds a dove with an olive branch in its beak. He is selling the American dream to the American people but behind him a character is reading a book entitled Capitalism Needs Poverty. Amid garlands of roses more sinister symbols appear: shoots and ladders, drones and tanks. 

This being the Chinese year of the sheep, the final leader is Xi Jin Ping, President of the People’s Republic of China. He has acquired a ram's head with sturdy, curly horns and a handsome hairy beard. A hammer and sickle brooch adorns his lapel and from the fingertips of his raised right hand he dangles three men one below the other. While stars twinkle in the sky, tear gas billows around the President’s feet.

Healy’s drawings are dense with detail, from the dots on Obama’s tie to the shoes and socks worn by the tiny comicbook figures in ‘Meat’, one of the other works in the show not featuring a world leader.

Here three men with animal heads kneel over a large piece of raw meat, grazing busily – for a student who supported himself doing honest work in a glass factory and in a mortuary, cleaning lorries and washing dishes, the fact that 1% of the world’s population controls nearly half of the planet’s wealth clearly grates.  

Growing up in rural Fermanagh in the townland of Carrow in the lea of Cuilcagh mountain, Healy’s fond memories of his grandmother’s cottage – its neat net curtains and the tick of her grandfather clock – filter through in his art work, especially pieces those which illustrate his concerns about the environment. 

In ‘The Fall’, for example, there is an upside down tree and a man tumbling from the sky, and in ‘For the Best’ a little girl seems to be reining in a kite which is actually a cloud, patterned with the design of those net curtains.

Being much more interested in people than in religion, Healy is attracted to the notion of the passionate spectator. In ‘Me and You’, the presentation picture for the exhibition, two figures look out at the viewer. In the background, a young woman with an owl’s head sits on a mound, legs crossed, calmly strumming her guitar, happy with the status quo. The young man in the foreground takes up a jaunty, questioning stance in the middle of a rubbish dump, which is full of discarded material objects – a tyre, a TV set, an umbrella. He clearly wants change.

It is a shame that Healy did not show a few more pieces, for the eight works on display look somewhat spare in the Higher Bridges Gallery. And despite the advantages he gained in using tracing paper as a primary medium, its disadvantages are obvious in the wrinkled edges of some works damaged during the framing process.

A first solo exhibition is clearly a landmark for any young artist, and Healy is already an accomplished and imaginative illustrator with interesting stories to tell. He can be justly proud of his achievements thus far and deserves much encouragement.

Snaring Bewildered Birds runs in the Higher Bridges Gallery, Enniskillen until February 21.