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Profile of John Shinnors

Profile of John Shinnors

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Published by ardmayle
A profile of the Limerick artist John Shinnors.
A profile of the Limerick artist John Shinnors.

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: ardmayle on Oct 17, 2012
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John Shinnors

In  October  2003  the  University  of  Limerick  unveiled  Sean   Scully’s  monumental  Wall  of  Light  at  the  entrance  to  the   university.    Senior  academics  from  the  university,  local   government  officials,  and  members  of  the  upper  echelons  of   the  Irish  art  scene  graced  the  splendid  occasion.    The  great   man  himself  was  there,  closely  attended  by  Barbara  Dawson   from  the  Hugh  Lane  Gallery.    After  the  various  speeches,   certain  notable  guests  proceeded  to  a  grand  dinner  in   Plassey  House,  the  president’s  domain  –  a  handsome  art-­‐ bedecked  building  on  campus.    As  Limerick’s  leading  artist,   John  Shinnors  was  of  course  invited  to  join  this  select  group.     But  he  was  having  none  of  it.    It  was  time  for  his  nightly  trip   to  the  Spotted  Dog  –  his  local  in  Roxborough.    While   Shinnors  doesn’t  bite  the  hand  that  feeds  him,  neither  does   he  bother  to  give  it  the  occasional  lick  of  affection.       John  Shinnors  is  arguably  one  of  Ireland’s  most  successful   artists.    All  the  indicators  are  in  place:    Aosdana,  the  RHA   annual  show,  the  Gandon  profile  with  laudatory  essays  by   Brian  Fallon  and  Aidan  Dunne,  the  IMMA  permanent   collection,  the  Crawford  collection  in  Cork,  many  important   private  collections,  and  a  substantial  RTE  documentary:   Michael  Garvey’s  Split  Image  –  John  Shinnors  in  1997.    He  has   had  a  series  of  sold-­‐out  shows  in  Taylor  Galleries  over  the   years,  one  of  which  involved  a  well-­‐documented  squabble   between  patrons  jockeying  for  precedence  as  the  truck   carrying  the  work  arrived  from  Limerick.    Even  more   significantly  his  work  sells  well  at  auction,  unlike  many  of   his  contemporaries.    Yet  Shinnors  remains  a  maverick  on  the   Irish  art  scene,  someone  who  doesn’t  quite  belong.    This  may   be  partly  to  do  with  the  resolutely  unclubbable  nature  of  the   man  –  it’s  difficulty  to  imagine  him  enjoying  a  bibulous   dinner  at  the  RHA  for  example.    Or  maybe  it’s  something  to   do  with  his  refusal  to  take  his  role  as  an  artist  too  seriously.    

He  sees  it  as  a  job  rather  than  a  vocation  and  doesn’t  engage   in  too  much  navel-­‐gazing  about  the  meaning  of  his  work.     Although,  ironically,  the  work  itself  with  its  provocative  and   ambiguous  motifs  is  ripe  for  speculative  analysis.   Shinnors  is  a  popular  and  respected  figure  in  his  native  city.     He  frequently  features  in  the  Limerick  Leader  and  is  an   active  participant  in  the  life  of  the  city  –  as  evidenced  in  a   recent  spat  with  local  councillor  Tom  Shortt.    Comedian  Pat   Shortt’s  brother  was  not  amused  by  Shinnors  description  of   some  public  art  as  “moronic”.    You  will  find  his  work  at  the   university,  in  the  Hunt  Museum  and  of  course  in  the  drawing   rooms  of  the  Ennis  Road.    Tony  Ryan  of  GPA  and  Dessie   O’Malley  were  early  supporters.    A  visit  to  the  National  Self-­‐ Portrait  Collection  in  the  University  of  Limerick  provides  an   opportunity  to  see  his  magnificent,  moodily  lit,  self-­‐portrait.     The  template  surely  for  his  scarecrows’  noses.    And  it’s  not   all  one-­‐way  traffic  in  Limerick.    He  sponsors  an  annual  art   scholarship,  the  Shinnors  Curatorial  Scholarship,  at  the   Limerick  College  of  Art.    He  is  also  a  well-­‐known  figure  on   the  streets.    On  a  recent  trip  to  the  Limerick  City  Centre  Post   Office  to  enquire  about  the  whereabouts  of  his  historical   paintings  (Sarsfield  and  other  heroic  local  figures)  that  used   to  hang  there,  I  met  two  customers  who  claimed  to  know   him  well  and  offered  suggestions  as  to  the  whereabouts  of   the  missing  paintings.     The  art  itself  reinforces  his  outsider  status.    It  defies   categorization.    He’s  certainly  not  an  abstract  painter  in  the   Tyrrell  mould,  nor  is  he  part  of  our  standing  army  of   landscape  artists.    He  has  no  truck  with  the  neat  “isms”  used   by  critics.    “I’m  a  Shinnorist”  he  jokes.    You  can  look  at  his   early  surreal  work  and  see  the  influence  of  Jack  Donovan,  or   trace  the  lineage  of  his  chiaroscuro  to  Georges  de  la  Tour   and  Caravaggio,  as  some  critics  have  done.    But  his  mature   style  is  truly  unique.    Figurative  elements  emerge  slowly   from  what  seem  initially  to  be  abstract  compositions  mainly  

in  black  and  white.    (Shinnors  has  famously  claimed  to  use   five  different  blacks.)    He’ll  cheerfully  talk  you  through  the   hidden  elements  in  each  piece  but  it’s  more  fun  to  see  what   you  can  uncover  on  your  own.    It  takes  multiple  viewings  to   fully  decipher  a  piece.    Over  the  years  certain  tropes  recur.     The  ominous  magpies  and  the  free-­‐wheeling  swallows,  the   disturbing  scarecrows,  the  looming  lighthouses,  and  the   looping  kites.    And  always  the  stripes:  badgers  and  cats,   railings  and  washing  lines.    The  best  of  his  work  has  a  dark   expressive  quality  –  haunted  and  mysterious.    What  the   critic  Brian  Fallon  referred  to  as    “spookiness”.    This  is   particularly  true  of  his  scarecrow  heads  with  their  gaping   sockets.    The  series  of  these  heads  he  completed  in  2002  are   one  of  the  highlight  of  his  career,  and  one  of  the  most   impressive  achievements  in  contemporary  art  in  this   country.    Unfortunately  they  have  disappeared  into  a   corporate  collection  and  have  barely  been  viewed  by  the   general  public.    Occasionally  there  is  a  purely  decorative   piece,  such  as  Cat’s  Home  (1999)  or  some  of  his  Friesian   paintings,  but  these  are  exceptions.    He’s  no  formulaic  artist   rehashing  a  bunch  of  worn-­‐out  motifs.    He  is  constantly   breaking  out  in  new  directions,  finding  fresh  inspiration   around  him.    His  regular  visits  to  Dun  Aengus  inspired  a   series  of  large  paintings  that  captured  the  striking  beauty  of   that  magical  place  from  a  unique  birds-­‐eye  perspective.       This  was  a  literal  work  (no  shadowy  ambiguity),  simple  and   powerful.   When  asked  about  influences  he  paraphrases  Monet:  “what  I   see  around  me  is  my  guide”.    He  is  inspired  by  those  sudden   visual  encounters  that  can  happen  anytime  and  will  be  the   catalyst  for  a  series  of  paintings.    Shinnors  is  keen  to  assert   that  his  recurring  motifs  are  grounded  in  real-­‐life  incidents  –   as  if  he  is  eager  to  dispel  any  fanciful  interpretations  of  his   work.    The  scarecrow  was  first  spotted  in  a  neighbour’s   haggart,  the  kite  on  a  holiday  in  Kilkee,  and  the  lighthouse  on   a  day  trip  to  Loop  Head.    He  encountered  the  migrating  

swallows  trapped  in  an  old  keep  where  they    were  rescued,   he  tells  us,  by  our  brave  artist  and  his  Harris  hat.    His   stimulus  could  be  a  herd  of  Friesians,  a  line  of  black-­‐clad   waitresses,  or  a  magpie  circling  St.  John’s  Cathedral.    Or  it   could  be  (as  in  his  current  show)  a  circus  tent  glimpsed   through  railings  on  the  Roxborough  Road.         Shinnors  spent  18  months  at  the  Limerick  College  of  Art   under  the  loose  tutelage  of  Jack  Donovan.    He  left   prematurely  for  London  –  for  freedom  and  for  financial   reasons.    After  the  London  hiatus  and  a  variety  of  casual  jobs   he  returned  to  Limerick  and  began  to  paint.    Initially  he  was   strongly  influenced  by  Donovan’s  style.    “That’s  the  way  I   wanted  to  paint”.    He  submitted  works  to  the  network  of   small  commercial  galleries  that  proliferated  in  those  days  –   Goodwin’s  Gallery  was  a  particular  favourite.    These  solo   forays  were  reasonably  successful  and  he  made  a  modest   living  supplemented  by  some  teaching  hours  at  the  alma   mater  he  had  deserted.    His  big  break  came  in  1984  when  he   won  the  GPA  Emerging  Artist  award.    The  awards  ceremony   was  attended  by  John  Taylor  of  Taylor  Galleries  and  he  was   impressed  enough  to  offer  him  his  first  Dublin  show  in  1987.       His  current  show  in  Taylor  Galleries  (until  the  27  October)  is   his  first  one-­‐man  show  since  2007.    It  consists  of  a  mere   seven  paintings,  although  one  of  these  is  the  enormous   Hoarding  and  Small  Circus,  weighing  in  at  a  massive  69  x  114   inches.    The  other  six  are  all  oils  on  linen  measuring  11  x   11.5  inches.    The  small  pieces  frequently  focus  on  nocturnal   encounters  along  of  the  Roxborough  Road,  railings  and   hoardings,  a  splash  of  white  from  a  circus  tent,  a  shadowy   cat  slowly  emerging  from  darkness,  tail  erect.    Shinnors  had   been  reading  Jean  Renoir’s  biography  of  his  father  last  year   and  he  saw  parallels  between  the  influence  of  the  Provencal   sunlight  on  the  impressionists  and  the  influence  of  the   artificial  light  on  his  own  painting.    Hence  the  subtitle  of  the   show:    Electrical  Impressionism.    There  are  pools  of  various  

coloured  lights  emerging  from  the  darkness:  startling  red   traffic  lights,  orange  sodium  lighting,  and  a  variety  of  lights   from  the  old  railway  works.    The  show  captures  his   impressions  of  the  world  revealed  by  these  lights.     Surprisingly,  he  mentions  Whistler’s  work  as  a  possible   parallel.    Knowing  this  you  see  the  connection  immediately   in  a  piece  like  Nocturne  San-­Giorgio  and  even  more  so  in   Nocturne  in  Gray  und  Gold  -­  Chelsea  Snow.    Although   Shinnors’  paintings,  especially  Art  Van  Leaving  (see  image),   are  more  confrontational  and  dramatic  than  Whistler’  muted   work.   Having  failed  to  track  down  the  Shinnors  paintings  that  used   to  hang  in  the  Limerick  Post  Office,  I  eventually  met  up  with   the  man  himself  in  his  studio  on  O’Connell  Street.    I  asked   him  what  happened  to  the  missing  paintings.    He  claimed   that  he  had  destroyed  them  and  taken  the  stretchers  for   reuse.    When  he  was  starting  off  as  an  artist  he  was  suffering   from  public  indifference  and  eager  to  get  himself  noticed.     He  had  a  family  to  feed.    He  spoke  to  his  patron  Dessie   O’Malley  who  arranged  to  get  his  work  into  that  prime   location.    When  I  bemoaned  their  destruction,  he  smiled  at   me,    “They  had  served  their  purpose”.      

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