Séan Lynch explains the genesis of his art

Learning that artist Sean Lynch has developed a calibre of work worthy of representing Ireland at the 2015 Venice Biennale is interesting in itself for an art lover, but to discover that his childhood discovery of a 19th century Kerry builder has been instrumental in informing the work, suggests an intriguing back story worthy of investigation.

“When I was a boy I was fascinated with a builder called Pat McAuliffe,” says Lynch.

“He taught himself about architecture and applied stucco to townhouses and shop fronts in places like Listowel. I had no access to art galleries and museums growing up in Moyvane in the 80s, so this incredible heritage was my first experience of art,” he says.

Since then, grafters with art sensibilities and capabilities is one of the leitmotifs in his work, where he unearths past events and objects, presenting them as insights into historic and social events, structures and even beliefs we were unaware of previously.

Stone masons, John and James O’Shea of Ballyhooley, Co Cork are another interest of his — brothers who took their stone- carving skills to Oxford around 1860 and rendered carvings on notable buildings like the Natural History Museum, a story that formed the basis of an exhibition Seán made for the Hugh Lane Gallery in 2013.

“It fascinates me how the O’Sheas survived the famine and acquired virtuoso stone-carving skills when they just had artisan training,” he says. “Then they showed up in Oxford and were celebrated, and made very political work.”

Lynch’s fascination with these topics and the effort he makes to uncover them has taken him into the realms of cultural anthropology, history and archaeology, underpinned by far-ranging research skills and a nose for the forgotten but fascinating.

For the Venice Biennale, it informed the sculptures, found items, (both physical and ephemeral), and video work for his exhibition entitled Adventure: Capital, which was been seen by over 400,000 visitors. 

Taken on a journey round a forgotten or abandoned Ireland, the exhibition witnesses how a fairy bush was saved from the monstrous intrusion of a new road in Co Clare, and a visit to a council depot in Cork to unearth a half-buried and forgotten work by sculptor John Burke which was removed from a housing estate on the north side of the city, having been blamed for a number of social ills which seemed to coincide with its installation.

All very different stories but whether they’re monumental subjects like labour- intensive sculptures or simple found objects, they’re unified in the exhibition by a relationship summed up perfectly by Lynch. “They all become friends like a group of strangers in a rented house.”

However, it wasn’t just his childhood interest in forgotten stories and heroes that informed his art. Formal education was provided by Limerick College of Art and Design, after which he had a studio in the city before going back to college.

He chose Germany, and Frankfurt’s renowned Stadelschule art academy in particular, modestly claiming it was because of good airport links between the west of Ireland and Frankfurt, but belying the fact that it’s a leading centre for experimental art, where teachers include Turner Prize winners and a Venice Biennale Golden Lion award winner. 

These days he spends half the year in Askeaton, Co Limerick where he now lives, and the rest of the year on the road, working alone again after the buzz of preparing for Venice, a process that included an interview and then a year to make the exhibition, all of which he describes as having been, “an intensely social process, not at all like the normal tradition of the solitary artist”.

His next project takes him to Cornwall for a month to make a video. “I’m looking for what’s particular to the place,” he says.

“It’s quite concentrated work, talking to people and driving around looking. I’m also curating an exhibition in London in March, which I like to do once a year or so. I get time to spend on research and not have to make a show myself.”

In the meantime, Adventure: Capital has returned to Ireland and is showing at Limerick City Gallery of Art, to be followed by shows in Sligo, Belfast and Dublin.

Spitting image

 Séan Lynch explains the genesis of his art

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