|JODY MCGRATH: THE HUMAN CONDITION
Jody (Joseph) McGrath is an artist of Irish descent who lives in Philadelphia. He reached out to me on social media, we chatted and you can read the rest here in our chat. He has made a long journey with his art www.jodymcgrath.com and continues to follow his dream. Shouldn’t we all? That’s what I call, “The Human Condition.”
MICHAEL: Hey Jody, First of all, aren't you from Ireland? How long have you been in the U.S.? Did you come here to pursue a career as an artist? What's the art world like in Ireland?
JODY: Yes. I am originally from Armagh City which is in The North of the country. It's situated not far from Belfast where I attended The University of Ulster. I studied Fine and Applied arts. It was shortly after graduating that I decided to make an academic and geographical change. This transpired in my moving to the east coast here in the U.S. I had a short stint in New York, then to Philadelphia which has been my home for almost fourteen years.
MICHAEL: And why did you come to the U.S.?
JODY: The main reason behind this move was to pursue my art both on an academic as well as social level. At that time, I was heavily influenced by such artists as Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg and Basquiat, among others, as I still am today. Pop art was never really a driving force in relation to my work. However, through certain gallery exhibitions, people have asked whether I consider myself as such. My response? No, but I wanted to see the work of my peers through their eyes. America was a catalyst for an approach to the painting I had always wanted to create.
MICHAEL: What about painting in Ireland?
JODY: Ireland has for a long time maintained a very high and exceptional pool of artists. But the tendency of most people is to view Irish art in the literary sense; painting, sculpture etc., take a secondary position. Within the last thirty years art and in particular Northern Irish Art has gained more well deserved attention from the global art world. Artists such as Rita Duffy, Paddy McCann and Willie Doherty have opened up Irish art to both a new level and a new audience. And this, I view as a giant leap in terms of putting Irish Art out there to a whole new audience.
MICHAEL: What I've seen of your work appears to be abstract and outsider figurative. How do you describe it and what inspires you to paint?
JODY: I have never really attempted to put a label, so to speak, on my work. I usually leave that decision, if any, up to those viewing it. In a sense, I find it quite alarming at times after I have finished a painting. It often appears somewhat not to have come from my own hands - almost to the point where it resembles the work of a stranger. This I find most appealing. In saying that, there remains a certain continuity within all my work that resembles me. The term “abstract,” I find almost misleading. As in reality, everything can be viewed in that sense. You can attach abstraction to almost any circumstance. So in that respect, I wouldn't bracket myself within just one word. There is a large figurative response to my paintings. This is sometimes by happenstance. The inclusion of the human figure in my work is of the utmost importance to me. I believe in most of my work it’s the basis or starting point for what I’m trying to convey, namely the human condition and what goes on within us all. It’s a rarity for me while painting to put an extreme emphasis on the face or head. This is not to say that I leave it expressionless or vague. I don't. It's a trait that has been with me ever since I started painting - whether that be intentional or not. Maybe it has to do with identity or personification. It’s just something that tends to happen while I paint. Inspiration for me is everything at any given time, day or night. My head is awash with paintings. They construct themselves and then it’s up to me to try and cement that image or images. At the present time, I am working on visually laying to rest ghosts from childhood. Having been brought up in a war zone, it tends to leave one with scars, some obvious, some not so. Only now do I feel mature enough to visualize or exorcise said ghosts. I have not found this an easy task, but a necessary one. The paintings are on both a personal and human level. I would like to believe identifiable too all.
MICHAEL: I don't want to disturb you, but what fighting was going on during your childhood in Ireland and what role did art have in all of that for you?
JODY: As previously mentioned, I grew up in Northern Ireland. The time period then was one of violence and accompanying paranoia. War has been in Ireland for centuries. The root cause being unwanted English involvement in strictly Irish affairs. This question I fear is quite impossible to condense. There are hundreds of books on the subject. But as far as my art is concerned, this situation has and still is an integral part of my work.
Witnessing violence in the extreme at an early age left an indelible scar that only recently have I been mature enough to attempt to visualize. It's only upon reflection that time has shaped and influenced my most recent work.
My work to an extent can be viewed as political - in the sense that I am conveying emotion from a certain standpoint. As it almost seems now, I am an outsider looking in. This gives one an almost bystander type stance.
Painting then as much as now has been both the solace and at times sheer discomfort of being raised in an environment where the ugliness of war is on one’s doorstep. My method for overcoming this is to paint. There is both a communal and global attempt in my work - not just from my own perspective, but a perspective where I hope anyone can ascertain what I am saying on my canvas. Artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix have had a huge influence on me. On first seeing their work, I was left in awe. The power they conveyed became etched in my mind. I still refer to them habitually, soaking up again and again both the beauty and horror of some of their work. So as I continue to paint from reflection, I hope that those who may view my work will see both the darkness and more importantly, the light of my innermost workings.
MICHAEL: Given the fact that you're now in the U.S., do you ever feel inspired by your current environment and paint from where you are in your life today?
JODY: Now that my home is here in the U.S., barely a day goes by when I don't see, hear or feel something previously I had not recognized. This then sets into motion the inspiration that leads from my head to the canvas. I have been painting the American flag for as long as I can remember. Both its color and geometry are so appealing to me. While in university, this iconic image took on more and more relevance in my work. And its continuity remains within the work I am now creating. Having traveled quite extensively within the States, many images have been stored in heart and soul - from being in the East Bay Mountains of Tennessee with a pack of wolves to getting lost on the subway in New York City. I sometimes feel that living here is akin to walking through a never-ending painting. There is no end to the inspiration that exists here.
MICHAEL: I totally agree and I’ve lived here all my life.
JODY: There is an almost childlike quality to how I feel meandering around certain cities here. As a fan of movies made here between the periods of the 1950s to the 1970s, I sometimes include this in my work; the glow of the traffic lights on the wet tarmac in “Cool Hand Luke” to the twang of the hillbillies in “Deliverance.” These as well as my day to day existence, shape and mold my mind and emotions which then ultimately lead to my canvas.
As I mature in my work, I can see form and content becoming ever looser. This has happened as much by accident as intent. A generation of American art has led to this almost new beginning. I cannot help but be inspired by the works of certain American painters. Larry Rivers is a prime example, Rauschenberg another. I wholeheartedly believe in The American Dream. And in some small fashion, I believe I have entered into that with my work. If I can dream it, I can paint it.
MICHAEL: That's very interesting because as you know, the American Dream is going through a tough time right now. Like the rest of the world, America is struggling and artists are especially struggling right now. Thoughts?
JODY: The world economy at the moment as we all know is in a state of chaos. This resounds within both The United States and ripples across the Atlantic. For artists, this is quite a pivotal time on many fronts. Politically, aesthetically, financially, etc. The idea of “The American Dream” seems to fluctuate with the advent or onset of crisis. Yet personally, I believe in it - from an artistic and at times, romantic standpoint. Like all dreams, this one is open to personal interpretation. I may at times have my head in the clouds, but my feet remain steadfastly on the ground. I have never liked or used the term, "struggling artist" though most things I feel in some way are indeed that – like when it comes to purchasing all the materials I need to continue painting. This at times can constitute a small fortune. That’s why on occasions, I have painted on everything from cardboard to tin cans - just so that I had some sort of material to try and express myself. It’s not as reactionary art. I watch with eager eyes the sale of art - people paying millions for certain works. Seemingly throughout economic droughts, the works of famous artists have never really seemed to depreciate. But this is a total world away from me. A world I can only dream of. I paint on regardless of climate. I have to.
MICHAEL: Where are you living right now and why? Also, what are you working on now? Are you still working on abstract works?
JODY: At the present moment, I am residing in the Philadelphia area though at some point next year, I am intent on moving to New York. Being on the periphery of the art world physically can take quite a toll in terms of keeping up to date with what’s going within the art world. At the moment, I am currently working on a triptych. It deals with various facets both within and outside of my life on a personal as well as purely painterly direction. One of the panels will depict Pontius Pilate. I have also been fascinated by history and this is one man who has popped up in my work. Previously, I have painted John The Baptist meeting Jean Michel Basquiat. Sometimes it doesn't take a lot of thought to paint a canvas. I work very quickly. I guess this is in conjunction with my thought process. It's almost as if I am in conversation with the paint and the canvas. This style of mine does not mean I just rush through a painting. I don't. But I do know when a painting is finished. I believe the path I now find myself on has it where my work is becoming a lot looser. At times I no longer feel it necessary to have figures or shapes as such, just color. This has happened quite to my own astonishment. And at points, it has almost caused me to become a tad hesitant before I paint. But this distraction is momentary and I just grab a scrap off cardboard or charcoal and off I go, applying whatever I feel is apt at the time to the blank canvas.
MICHAEL: What do you hope to do in New York that you cannot do now? Many artists say that they don't necessarily need to live and work in New York. Do you feel that New York is the best place for an artist? It's very expensive!
JODY: Currently where I live is a hike to New York. So to live there would cut down on so many things; I mean the proximity and close contact to galleries, museums, art schools and artists from all over the world etc. Of course, it's expensive. Living hand to mouth is a way of living for many artists, but I find personally that there is always some sort of price to pay in pursuing one’s goals and dreams. I have battled with life and with art for years, but that's who I am and that's what life is.
MICHAEL: That region will struggle to recover from Hurricane Sandy for years to come. What's it like for you and other artists affected?
JODY: Where I live, it has remained relatively unscathed apart from some branches and roof tiles. We remained pretty much off the beaten path of its wrath. However, I do know some artists in New York who had a terrible time with power outages and mobility. Thankfully, none of them were hurt in the physical sense. I do know that there were galleries that were damaged and are still in the process of recovery. It just reinforces the enigma that is Mother Nature.
MICHAEL: What concepts and ideas are inspiring you right now? Where are you now in your evolution as an artist?
JODY: At the moment, I am currently working on a triptych. This is more so due to having some left over canvas which isn’t really big enough for what I want to put on them. I can feel restricted at times when I go big and then have to revert back to small for reasons that may be as annoying as finances. But it's better to paint than to just dwell on the idea. I believe it’s akin to the bicycle analogy. If you don't use it, you may lose the ability to get back on. It's quite simplistic. But that's how I view it. As far as what I intend on painting, I may have mentioned before certain iconic figures from history. History has always been so inspiring for me - people such as Pontius Pilate, Wilfred Owen and so forth. But when the brush hits the canvas, then things seem to have a way of re-adjusting themselves. So what may have been my starting point figuratively may turn out as something different.
I am at a point in my work where maturity has shaken me. I desire to have the stability of representation, like so many artists. This can be quite the bitter pill to swallow. But I believe in my work and paint on regardless. I always have, always will.
MICHAEL: Thanks Jody. This has been great.
JODY: Thank you so much Michael. I greatly appreciated greatly the chance to express myself. I pray I did my art and myself justice.
MICHAEL: You did indeed.
See Jody McGrath’s work at www.jodymcgrath.com.