When Brian Maguire, an Irish painter, talks about his work, he sounds more like a documentary filmmaker or a war correspondent.
He wants to portray the plight of “people who are invisible, people who have been shot,” he said. “I want to tell their story. We are storytellers.”
His exhibition at the Missoula Art Museum, “In the Light of Conscience”, is inspired by his travels around the world: Mexico and Arizona, Europe and Syria. He has also traveled to South Sudan for an upcoming show and to Brazil to speak with indigenous groups about deforestation in the Amazon.
When his exhibit opened here on March 18, paintings of buildings gutted in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war resonated differently, after news sites were filled with images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In Syria, he was reminded of George Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War, “Tribute to Catalonia”.
“He said that in war everything you read is propaganda. All. The only thing you can believe is what you see with your own eyes. However, because you only see a tiny part with your own eyes, that too is suspicious,” he said.
People also read…
“What I saw with my own eyes was the destruction of a quarter of the city by artillery,” he said.
While he was in the gallery on Friday morning, a few people walked around the exhibit. The word “Ukraine” came as they quietly looked at the paintings. The title of the piece is “The war changes address: Aleppo 5”.
A silhouette of a figure is seen walking past the bones of a multi-story structure, rendered in a clear expressionist manner that captures the dark desperation of a scene, with dripping paint.
The images in the series come from all over the world, including his own travels.
“I don’t give virtue to any of the methods, the method is the way to get there, whatever you want to get. Most of the method is talking to people,” he said.
His paintings come from media images, documents such as police files or photographs he took on location.
“I work from photographs. I work from the dead. Which means that whenever possible, I’ll talk to the police, but that’s not always possible, especially in Central America. It’s too dangerous,” he said.
He also works with the families of the people he represents.
In Ireland, for example, “I worked in prisons for a long time and I know the fathers or grandfathers of these young people. So this is an example where I use or partly use the people involved in all these cases, I would do a painting for the family. That would be how I would pay my way,” he said.
The first of his paintings on Syria was taken from the Internet. The destroyed apartments remind him of Sean O’Casey, an Irish playwright who built stage sets.
“But I couldn’t do it twice. So if I was going to do more, I had to go out there and experience it,” he said. (Even when he was in college, “there had to be an aspect of the real world involved in making a painting.”)
After he was able to enter the country in 2017, he took part in a student-led UNESCO workshop for children.
“The first thing I do is an art class for children. You don’t do it to get something, but it always gives something,” he said.
Afterwards, a student showed him around the city and the neighborhoods that had been bombed. This man, who went from law to psychology, is the figure in the picture.
Connection to the West
While Maguire lives in Dublin and Paris, this is her first solo exhibition in a museum in the United States.
Maguire’s ties to Montana run through Idaho. He was a close friend of late artists Edward and Nancy Kienholz, who lived in Hope, a small community on the northeast side of Lake Pend Oreille. He has a workshop there and has been spending summers there for decades.
His exhibition at the MAM is accompanied by a project planned for an exhibition in 2023. He received a Fulbright grant to produce a series of portraits of missing and murdered indigenous women. It has an unfortunate precedent in an earlier series: portraits of Ciudad Juarez women who went missing or were murdered in a homicide wave that topped a thousand.
He met with families to talk about their loved ones to produce a short biography. He paints a portrait, one that he gives to their loved ones, and one that he exhibits. “This work has been shown continuously for about five years now (in) different locations. It was first presented to the European Parliament,” he said.
The new series in Montana is a “continuation,” he said, in his visual philosophy of what’s included and what’s left out.
“The attacker, who is often mean, is not in these photos. There is no place for him, and it’s always him,” he said.
Instead, the painting is a celebration. He said: “There is a tradition in this world — painting portraits indicates the importance of the subject in the portrait. You could say that when I’ve done them in prison or when I’ve done them from the dead, the unknown, I’m turning it upside down, but that’s not the case. I don’t think so,” he said, preferring to leave it up to others to decide.
“If this community decides that this work is valuable, they will care about it and keep it in places like this,” he said.
These are rendered on a smaller human scale compared to the monumental size of the Aleppo paintings, one of which is 12 feet wide.
The Tia Collection in Santa Fe asked her to interpret Bible stories for the present. He pondered what it would be like to imagine “Jesus Christ murdered by a mob” in modern times. He drove down a road near the Idaho border and arranged a painting of a truck pulling a mannequin to recreate the murder of James Byrd, a black man from East Texas, who was dragged to death by two white men.
One of the more ghostly images, “Above our heads the hollow seas have closed,” is to your left as you enter the gallery. A figure dressed in a white shirt faces the viewer, surrounded by an ethereal expanse of blue. It’s only when you read the card that you realize it’s a drowned refugee, his response to the crisis of migrant deaths as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean.
It was based on media images, but he traveled from Paris to Athens in Italy, tracing the journey of migrants and talking to those he met. (Merkel declared amnesty then.) He once nearly drowned as a child and said it’s not something you forget.
“It stays with you,” he said.
The MAM exhibit includes several paintings of migrants who died crossing the US border. He stayed in El Paso, Texas and worked in Ciudad several months a year for a long time. He was eventually introduced to Greg Hess, the chief medical examiner for Pima County in Tucson.
Hess gave him access to the thousands of photos in his archive, and the resulting paintings were exhibited in the United States and Europe to raise awareness of the issue.
“These people are invisible, they are completely invisible. We don’t even have their names,” he said. “Because even if they had ID on them, it’s probably not theirs.”