Art amid the rubble
Last year, painter Brian Maguire hitched a ride to Aleppo to capture the toll that years of fighting has taken on the city's architecture. He tells Hilary A White how talking to the survivors of conflict helped shape his haunting paintings
'I find that wherever the consensus is, the best place for the artist is the opposite side of the street. Going to Syria was a good example of that."
Brian Maguire, head stooped and eyes surveying a huge canvas being gingerly hung by two helpers, is chewing over the question: why, time after time, does he seeks out the dark stuff?
Why did the Bray painter plant himself in Mexico's most dangerous city to depict the butchered victims of cartels? What gravitational pull made him travel to Syria to photograph architectural evidence of dizzying violence inflicted on a society? How does one simply walk away from such things? "The paintings are not trying to tell the truth as I see it," he says.
"When I talk about my experience in Syria, brief as it was, it's complex. When I got there and saw the destruction of these cities, that's not complex. It's very simple. This exhibition is very simple. The painter in me doesn't have a problem - I just get on with it, to present what has happened, what's been done. I'm reporting in a particular way."
War Changes Its Address: The Aleppo Paintings is the beguiling, widescreen and haunting new collection by Maguire that is soon to open its doors to the public in IMMA, Dublin. It is in some ways the culmination of a line that began in 2008 when Maguire spent four years in Mexico looking at the endemic female homicides of Ciudad Juárez and the complete desertion of the justice system there.
The border and all it comes to mean for Mexicans was omnipresent and Maguire's focus extended from the disappeared women to the men murdered while trying to cross into the US. At the same time, images of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean began to circulate more vigorously on the news feed.
In typical Maguire fashion, he took to his car after being denied a spot aboard the LÉ Eithne. He talked to refugees at supermarket car parks in Italy and sat with a group of Yazidis in a hotel in Athens. Afterwards, he drove back to Paris (where he spends half his time) through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany. He had touched-down into the refugee crisis to see it for himself, the experience feeding into his stunning 2016 collection Over Our Heads the Hollow Seas Closed Up. An itch remained - what were these people running from?
"An opportunity came about to hitch a lift to Syria last March so I went like a shot," the 66-year-old grins. "You couldn't make these paintings from internet images. I did one from a photograph which I showed in Miami and I couldn't physically do another. It didn't mean nothing. With that project in Juárez about the women slaughtered there - I did one in the studio and then couldn't do any more. I had to go and meet the families."
A night-time bus journey some years ago from Zagreb to Sarajevo had opened Maguire's eyes to what the phrase "war-torn" meant. He saw the black, coffin-shaped holes created by tank fire where doors and windows once stood, the architecture behaving like a storyboard for human horror. Syria, however, was a step beyond. "When I got to Aleppo, it wasn't that shocking to me," he says, his voice a coarse whisper. "But what I hadn't seen was when we drove through Homs for 30 minutes. Total. Utter. Devastation."
Truth, as they say, is one of the victims of war, and Maguire to this day is sceptical about what we are told about the conflict in Syria. During the workshops he conducted with children and his interactions with survivors there - pivotal, he swears, to these paintings - he got a different take on the mucky dynamics.
"The f***ing reporting of this war is lop-sided, and of course it is," he says with genuine frustration.
"I spoke with as many people as I could to get a grip on it. The destruction was carried out in the taking back of the city, but it was also carried out in taking of the city initially. There was a bomb put under the Carlton Hotel that reduced it to 10ft of rubble. I met university students preparing to go to war, being conscripted, and thinking they'd be killed. One young student studying law said to me, 'the Syrian army saved us'. I'm not an apologist for the crimes committed by the state forces in Syria but I still won't blind myself to what I see."
Maguire relates the time he was just about to leave Damascus when his group came under fire from al Qaeda and the Army of Islam. The former, he said, had been invited to the negotiating table the following day by the UN. "Their preparation for it was to attack Damascus with rockets and rifle fire the night before. I doubt it was ever reported," he shrugs.
Fittingly, the paintings that Maguire conjured from the photos he took work off a washed-out, jaundiced colour scheme where the yellows and blues of the Middle East are cut with damp greys and black holes. The buildings wear the scarring of the conflict. They emerge as powerful ciphers for the realities of that war, bridging the distance of shiny news analysis and statistics. Real lives were housed here.
"There's a conflict between the beauty of the work and the subject of the work," he says, "and I've always played with that. With the women in Juárez, I worked off the family photograph of them which is always the most beautiful photograph that exists. With these I tried to make them move from architecture to organic. There was a point in between both where the picture is held."
Even though he'll swear that his official roles down the years in bodies such as the Arts Council, NCAD and IMMA itself, not to mention his membership of Aosdána, make him "a quintessential member of the establishment", Maguire still has an edge to him. A few days after this exhibition's opening in Kilmainham, he will travel with Concern to South Sudan, the latest address-change of war. There, he will most likely find the customary darkness his work seems to feed from (even if he claims the craft itself is the therapy). His family might worry about him - he doesn't quite know and you wouldn't wager he entirely cares.
"I think Sam Beckett was the best man to explain these things. He was once asked why Ireland produced so many good writers, and he said that when you're in the last ditch, all you can do is sing. When there's nothing left that you think you can do, you can at least make your mark," he says, laughing at the elusive absurdity of it all. "I took this as a job many years ago because I could do nothing else. That's it."
War Changes Its Address: The Aleppo Paintings runs in IMMA, Dublin from January 26 to May 6, 2018. A full programme of talks and events will accompany it. See www.imma.ie. A limited-edition signed print is also available to purchase, with all proceeds going to the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund, www.maryrafteryfund.ie