Discovering Rhythm in Urban Decline: The Paintings of Ronan McGeough

What drives you to paint?

I paint because I feel it's my creative way to connect with people, to tell them a story or to express an experience. What I really look for in a painting is something that resonates with life as I see it and speaks to us as humans. I also really want to entertain people not only in the escapist, idealistic, inscrutable sense but in a genuine way that resonates with the audience as being truthful about our lives. Uncovering a deep emotional experience. On the surface my paintings can appear conflicting in being playful, humorous in some areas along with being dark and deceitful in others. But on a foundational level they're about quite universal things that I hope people can relate to, such as our own struggles with isolation, loss, confusion and our constant struggle to define our place in the world.

In your statement you talk about urban decline, unease and cultural wounding. Does this reflect how you feel about cities?

I suppose yes and no is my answer to this. I've lived through and been in a position to observe different aspects of the city lifestyle, whether it's living through a recession and seeing how it effects the landscape or my own personal struggles when I first moved over to London. Saying that these are the places that cause the creative happenings in the first place. It is also the place I feel I need to be to pursue a career in this field, so the struggles I've outlined are what stimulates creative types. For all the negatives that can effect you on a personal level, this is what drives that creative endeavour in people. From a professional point of view it has certainly shaped my work and will only continue to do so.

How long have you lived in London for?

I've been here for four years, hated the first two, been loving the last two.

Has London’s rapid physical and social evolution is influenced the nature of your work?

Yes it has. I still consider myself fairly new to London so the most important influence has been the sheer amount of creative types that occupy the city. A case study I read recently states around 800,000 people work in what is considered a creative industry, representing nearly 15% of the London economy and around 20% of the workforce. It has 12% of the UK population and 40% of its arts infrastructure. These numbers are staggering to me and reassuring in a sense to give hope to an industry I previously thought was completely fraught with consequence in terms of lack of work, leading to lack of motivation, leading to not being able to make art. Being internationally recognised for Its sub cultures, often cosmopolitan in nature, now with the cultural creativity not too concentrated in the west of central but also in most inner suburbs such as Hackney, Brixton, Islington, Waltham Forrest but also more recently south of the river Thames to Deptford and Peckham. I understand that London's centre has largely been a centre for consuming rather than making culture and in some sense completely uncreative, with the productivity creative hubs and across the inner ring abutting the centre. But the most striking thing I've witnessed in my time has been the property prices increasing so dramatically which is causing severe problems for artists or firms that essentially anchor or support London's contemporary creativity. All that said being inundated with art at most corners is inspiring and wonderfullyencouraging, the conflicting nature of the disparity of pricing is really tough. It's pricing a lot of us out in terms of studio, flats and in the social aspects of just being out with friends, but doesn't the best art come out of adversity? We’ll see!

What are the most important compositional aspects to your work?

The most important thing compositionally is to discover a rhythm or underlying tone that leads your eye to view the artwork in a certain way and draws a narrative. To look for large underlying shapes, the colours and the movement. Proportion is also key; how things fit together and relate to each other in terms of scale, whether near or distant, small or big.

How much of your personality it reflected in your painting?

People say a painting is too personal a thing not to involve your personality in it and I don't really read too much into that if I'm honest. I'm not conscious of mine being in there anyway. I certainly use painting as a form of emotional ventilation, so I guess there's some of me in there somewhere alright, but I don't think it's appropriate to stereotype artists personalities solely on the way or manner in which they create art. It’s subjective and most people disagree with me and that's grand. I'll let my close friends decide if there much of my personality in my work.

What has been the most pivotal moment in your creative career thus far?

The most pivotal moment for me was in I think 2009 I went on a University trip to Berlin to see a few shows and a solo Peter Doig show really had an impact on me.

It's partially what he said and how he described his work in that stuck with me. “I react to what happens during the making of a painting, this is what determines when a painting is finished for me. I have no ultimate plan really. I want to be surprised.”Peter Doig. This made me realise I was being far too self conscious about my work in that I had no idea how to finish a painting to the point that I never really felt I ever completed one. I would come away from a piece with a feeling of unfulfillment and when I had to I considered the piece finished. After seeing and reading more about Peter Doig I introduced an air of spontaneity onto my work, loosening up a bit and started getting so much more joy out of working, so I'm a much healthier painter from this. Also reading his statements and them being completely devoid of any sort of theatrical pretension was refreshing too. Just a guy talking about how he makes his work. His actually pieces didn't require much explanation for me because they’re so infused with narrative anyway, all that you require is a visual sensitively to appreciate them. The more I looked at his work the more enhanced it became for me. His oneiric imagery permeates everything like fables, myths, legends all pulling together to tell a story on a canvas.

A Syrain Exile. From Damacus to Dresden

Tell us about your painting A Syrain Exile. From Damacus to Dresden that you made for The Londoner's Compass exhibition this October.

This piece tells the story of an article I read about a Syrian family of four who traveled from Damascus in exile. Their goal was to find refuge in London, but have since settled in Dresden. It took them nine months and they documented everything along the treacherous journey in search for asylum. Taking some of the details described that had become embedded into the two children's minds, I have combined these images to create a new imagined landscape of unease and optimistic wonder that encapsulates the journey these two children aged four and six went through. I chose a collagist method of composition juxtaposing the images of landscapes of the evacuation point of Damascus and the destination of London. 

What creative advice would you give to yourself if you could go back five years?

To not go over the top and completely and utterly interrogate myself in the most analytical way about why I like a work. What the ‘like’ might mean on a deeper level than your initial reaction to it. The deeper you go, more often than not, the more sheer nonsense pops its head up. This self consciousness was the DNA of modernism and something I'm quite keen to avoid. Do you like that piece in an ironic way? No, I like it because it's a lovely shade of blue. End.

Come and see Ronan's painting in The Londoner's Compass, this October.