Baring all for the sake of art: Cork based artist Ian Brennan's latest exhibition

Baring all for the sake of art: Cork based artist Ian Brennan's latest exhibition
Co Cork-based artist Ian Brennan with one of the paintings from his exhibition.

Last year, the artist Ian Brennan put the word out on Facebook that he was looking for volunteers to pose nude. People got back to him in their droves, aged from their twenties right up to their seventies. He went with 10 of them, two of which became the focus for an accompanying documentary to go with an exhibition.

Brennan wanted them to do more than sit for him. He had them bare their souls, what he calls their “shadow sides”, and he responded in kind. He says he put a huge effort into each portrait. Some took about a month to complete after which he often had to take a break for a fortnight — he was so exhausted emotionally by the effort. At times, it drew him to the edge of physical sickness. He shed tears. He was tapping into his own life’s battles.

“I get really enmeshed with the process,” says Brennan. “I get trapped in the feelings sometimes. If I’m painting anger I notice that energy of anger erupting in me. I’ve experienced vulnerability. I’ve experienced shame. I’ve experienced sadness. I’ve experienced loneliness, fear, isolation, abandonment over the course of my life.

"My artistic process then is my inner critic becomes activated. That voice becomes loud in my head. All I hear is somebody telling me, ‘It’s shit. It’s not good enough.’ Which is why the exhibition is called I’m Enough. That’s a common thread.

“The words ‘I’m not good enough’ — every person that I interviewed and had sit in front of me said those words at some stage when they were talking to me.

The exhibition is really turning everything upside down, looking at the part of us that is usually in darkness and shining a light on that, and saying, ‘Actually, I am enough in my shame. I am enough in my vulnerability. I am enough in my sexuality. I am enough in my abuse.’ To reclaim and fulfil ourselves and not allow that small part of ourselves become all of us.

Brennan, 36, grew up in Caherconlish, Co Limerick, but is living in Dripsey, Co Cork. He packed in the day job a year and a half ago to concentrate on painting. His portraits are quite jarring. Sitters experienced a range of emotions once their portraits were revealed to them. Shock was the most common initial reaction. Some were excited. Some delighted.

“It varied,” says Brennan.

For Brennan, the work in putting together his exhibition and documentary has left him in a better place: “That’s the feeling I get at the end of it. As we say, ‘I’m full of myself,’ which can often be interpreted as a bad thing to say in Ireland, in a negative way. I can say, ‘I’m full of myself in a very positive way at the end of this – and exhausted!’”

Ian Brennan’s exhibition and documentary I’m Enough is at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin (28-30 June); Courthouse Arts Centre, Tinahely, Co Wicklow (13-31 July); and Burren Art Gallery, Co Clare (2-6 Aug).

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