Eoin McEvoy in his studio, a repurposed tropical house at the family’s Virginia home.Photo: Ruth McEvoy

Dead paintings

EXHIBITION County Museum hosts artworks by Eoin McEvoy

Eoin McEvoy seems destined to fail.

The Virginia born artist is in the Eden Gallery of the County Museum unwrapping framed canvases and plotting a hanging plan for his works. The vast majority of these accomplished paintings would represent successes for many others. Back home from London, due to the pandemic, his entire back catalogue was available to choose from, save for those sold. The earliest work is a curious, cartoonish piece executed in pen when he was 16, but it’s unlike anything else displayed. A number of canvases represent his live-in apprenticeship in Norway under Odd Nerdrum, where he painstakingly learned the rules and techniques of classical figurative painting. Other work is more free, looser. The most recent works undertaken in his new studio, the former tropical house at the Virginia garden shop attached to his family home, is well represented.

Eoin recoils at the word retrospective, since he’s only entering his prime: “It’s wrong to have a retrospective at 31.” Rather, he’s availing of the unexpected gathering together of all his work in the one place since returning home.

“I have it there now, and I don’t know when I am going to have it again. And people locally haven’t really seen what I’ve done so far,” he says of the work forming the exhibition.

“The one word I keep coming back to: ‘underwhelming’,” he volunteers. “For me to see this is the best. I’m always thinking, what’s the next thing I can do?

“It’d be better to call the show: ‘Bad paintings until now’,” He says jokingly, and swiftly corrects this overly dismissive attitude: “But I don’t think they’re bad. I hope I can do better.”

The problem – one of many he raises in the course of an hour long conversation – is revealed in the exhibition title: ‘Measured Against Nature’.

“It’s something Van Gogh said about measuring yourself against nature – that was his measure,” explains Eoin.

“It’s more about when the person is there in front of you, how do you make something that’s more alive than that experience? Because it has to be.

“If you were sat with the Mona Lisa, the real Mona Lisa the person, you perhaps wouldn’t be impressed. Because the painting is more the person than the person, and that’s how I think a painting should be. It’s a kind of vampiric thing, portraiture. Because you want to take a piece of the person’s soul. You want them to live a parallel life in an ideal world, and that’s them, they don’t exist anywhere else almost.

“That’s what ‘nature’ is and you have to measure it against the experience of the person being there. But it’s never as good, or as real, or as true as the experience of being there with the person, or with the object.”

Painters can get closer than photographers, the Celt suggests.

“Photographs reinforce mortality. You look at a photo of Abraham Lincoln and you just think: He’s dead,” Eoin whispers melodramatically. “I never think that when I see Rembrandt – I think: He’s here!”

This exhibition does offer a few ‘He’s here!’ moments. Portraits of his friend Christopher, and his sister Ruth feel like an essence of these sitters have been captured. They bring Lucian Freud to mind.

He gracefully acknowledges compliments for the quality of these works, and briefly permits himself to admire morsels of his own work.

“There’s parts of paintings that I’m happy with. This hand I like,” he says of Ruth’s, resting protectively on her handbag. “So I would show it for the hand.”

After working under Odd Nerdrum, Eoin moved to Edinburgh and put into practice the classical techniques he had studied.

“I did about six months of work and just destroyed all the work because I thought, it just isn’t what I want to do.”

When he says destroyed, he literally tore the canvases.

“At the time I thought I hated painting so much in this way,” adding he considered ceasing to paint.

“When you are stuck in that classical world, and you are a little bit known, it’s hard to break out. Actually your own mind is stuck in it as well. So then I started painting on cardboard and thought: to hell with it, just do whatever.”

We’re standing in front of a brightly coloured self portrait. His facial features are more suggested than executed, and the figure is loosely rendered.

“It’s not very modern or anything, but certainly it’s a break away from the very classical – the pure black, the chiaroscuro. It has more energy.”

However, Eoin still values classical techniques and has returned to them during spells in Paris and London. It has served him well as he has shown work in Scotland’s National Gallery, and most notably he had an homage to Rembrandt shown in the home of the Dutch masters, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. That accomplished work, a self portrait of Eoin laughing was accepted for an exhibition in 2019 to mark the 350 year anniversary of Rembrandt’s death. Carefully unwrapping the layers of bubblewrap, Eoin admits it holds a special place, before characteristically adding: “I just love the frame more than anything.”

Rest assured, it’s worth seeing for much more than the weighty frame.

The remainder of the work on display is more liberated, and varies greatly in styles and subjects. Eoin says: “It looks like a group show where everyone’s friends.”

Not that he compares himself to Picasso, but the example of the Spaniard confirms his view of the value of a training in classical art while pursuing other forms of expression.

“Since I trained in it, I can use it whenever I feel like it,” he says. “You could meet someone and think, yeah I could envisage a certain portrait looking a certain way; but other times I want to be free.

“This is where I oscillate between the two.”

Can you not find a compromise, something that is then your style?

“I suppose that’s what I’m working towards, but I’m not really there,” Eoin, who is still only 31, says.

The Celt notes his criticism of both his classical work, and his loose work and asks to see the work where he’s least unhappy: “Show me the work where you think ‘okay, I’m nearly there’.”

“I don’t think there is a ‘there’. I actually think the only time I’m happy is when I’m painting, when it’s not finished. Once it’s finished, it’s dead. To me all these are just dead paintings.

“It doesn’t mean they’re bad paintings. I don’t think they’re bad, you can be unhappy with them and still be good. But I think they don’t serve me now. The only enjoyment in painting is the possibility that you might do something great, but that’s always slightly further away. Because if you did it, that would be horrible.”

So while it seems preordained that Eoin will fail to measure up against nature, that’s the way he likes it.

‘Measured Against Nature’ by Eoin McEvoy opens on Thursday, July 15, 6-8pm and runs until September 6. He will set up a studio space in the Eden Gallery on July 16-17, and July 22-23 when he is available to speak with viewers about his work.