Happy in a space between canvas and stage

Joe McNicholas’ role as production manager for Corcadorca theatre company inevitably informs his art, writes Colette Sheridan

One of the self-portraits by Joe McNicholas on display at St Peter’s in Cork.

JOE MCNICHOLAS’ work as an artist and as production manager for theatre company Corcadorca sometime seep into each other, most notably in his response to Pat McCabe’s play, Sacrifice at Easter, staged at Elizabeth Fort in 2016.

It’s a large oil-on-canvas that dominates McNicholas’s art-strewn living room as he prepares for an exhibition of his paintings at St Peter’s in Cork.

Once the play was over, McNicholas was keen to get back to the easel. “I was looking for an idea and thought that I could take images from the play and fiddle around with them, whether they were actual physical images or were referenced in the script.”

As anyone who went to see Sacrifice at Easter will recall, there was a real-life cow used in the production. “I decided that my painting was going to be built around a spiral centred on a figure holding the cow. From there, I created a composition.”

McNicholas’s exhibition, a mix of portraiture, satire, social commentary and history paintings, will include ‘An Irish Political Allegory’ which created controversy when it was pulled from an exhibition at CIT Cork School of Music in 2016. This satirical painting, which features all the Fianna Fáil Toaisigh presiding over a ghost estate, includes a depiction of the bare torso of Charles Haughey seemingly engaged in a sexual act.

Although this is a very small segment (eight inches) of the large painting (eight feet by five feet), it was deemed to be sexually explicit and had to taken down from the walls of the Cork School of Music as children would have seen it.” McNicholas doesn’t know what all the fuss was about.

A portrait of McNicholas’s two-year-old son, Fionn, depicts the child holding a globe of the world. Above him is Alayn Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy, who drowned in the Mediterranean. McNicholas was initially reluctant to use the iconic image in the same painting as his son. “But it’s such a powerful image. It’s like Fionn has the world in his hands and symbolises hope and then there’s the nightmare image above him.”

McNicholas, originally from Mayfield in Cork, graduated in fine art from the Limerick School of Art and Design in 2004. After spending the following year as student union president there, he completed a master’s degree in arts management at NUI Galway.

“I came back to Cork and when I got the opportunity to work with Corcadorca, I jumped at it.” McNicholas’s work with the company, since 2009, combines production with some artistic input. He is very proud that the company has seven nominations in the Irish Theatre Awards which will be announced at the National Concert Hall next week.

“We got nominated for best production’ for Far Away (by Caryl Churchill) on Spike Island and we were also nominated for bringing theatre to unusual places.”

Last summer’s Spike Island production was quite a challenge in terms of logistics. “We had just under 12km of cable. The idea was that nobody in the audience would be able to see it. The set was 0.5km and 250 metres wide. The power was out on the edges. We had to design two operating positions and build them. We even had a custom made lighting desk.”

McNicholas, who has his own studio near his home in Cork city, was one of the founding members of Sample Studios on Sullivan’s Quay, now vacated to make room for the development of a hotel.

He regrets the cycle that’s so common for such spaces — “Recession hits, artists come in to buildings and keep them alive. Then, once there’s money to be made, the artists are gone.”

Joe McNicholas’s exhibition, nArRaTive, is currently on at St Peter’s, North Main Street, Cork

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