Artist Conor Walton has very high standards discovered Declan McCormack on a visit to his studio.
O JOY! O art! I recently discovered that all those uncashed Greenshield stamps didn’t go to waste. I was visiting painter Conor Walton in his apartment-cum-atelier in a Georgian pile on Mountjoy Square on the eve of his forthcoming, and first, solo exhibition.
In 19994 he received a £10,000 grant from the Elizabeth Greenshield’s Foundation in Canada. He needed it, too. Still does. “One worries about the viability of making a living as a full-time painter,” he says.
His parents had another career in mind. Architecture. But he chose the creative art of perspective (“distortion of scale and size”) rather than the proportional art of construction.
He does commissioned portraits to pay the rent. Despite the paucity of his exhibited work -“only 20 paintings in 7 years”- his reputation has grown and he now charges between £1,500 and £2,000 per portrait He paints his clients, who include bishops, priests and businessmens’ wives, “as sympathetically as possible”. But you can see that he regards it as a distraction from his real purpose - becoming a great painter. “I try to measure myself against high standards”.
His work attests to that. It is, at once, mature and vibrant, cerebral and sensual, precise and surreal. And there are some glorious blues. I’m a sucker for good blues.
He lives on his own in an upstairs apartment which constitutes a large bedsit-cum-library-cum-protester (thinking zone) and a huge dramatically fenestral studio. The whole place is very tidy and uncluttered. It’s tidyness seems a mite inartistic. “I’m a fussy person,” he claims. He’s also into mannerist painting - wonky perspective, intense colours, studied and reflective work. He needs order around him for his work.
W.B. Yeats moaned about the dilemma of the artist torn between life and art. For Conor it’s no Hamletian dilemma. “my life isn’t one long party . . . If you really want to do something well you have to devote most of your waking time to it . . . Maybe I put more into the work than life.
In his studio there’s an empty bottle of Chateau Latour. It was used as a prop. “I use everyone and everything in my life.” His father bought it during the ‘70’s oil crisis. Oil was expensive, wine was cheap. They drank it to celebrate Conor’s 28th birthday last December.
In the studio there are also some pieces of Moore Street fruit which have lost the sensual beauty and tangible lustre with which they were endowed in his many still life paintings. Walton is surprisingly fond of the word ‘sensual’. Indeed he’s fond of words in general and has a fine command of subordinate clauses.
The tension between earthly pleasure and higher things are very evident in his work. He’s a lapsed Catholic. (Don’t tell the bishops). But if he were still of the faith he’d probably be “ not pre-Vatican II, I’d be pre-Council of Trent”. For religion and art are interlinked - both are about “transcending human limitations”.
There are lots of nails on the studio walls. Suffering artist? The explanation is more prosaic. Most of the paintings which he has slowly produced (he’s proud of the slowness and meticulousness of his production) are already at the Jorgensen Gallery. He’s now framing the remaining works. “Did they teach framing at art school?” He smiles.
He feels he is “basically self-taught” and regrets that he didn’t enjoy the apprenticeship system of the 16th and 17th century painters.
He aims high. One of his props is a telescope. He was into astronomy when he was young. Though he was never really young. The youngest of seven children “I was always in adult company . . . It was a wordy, argumentative family”. At school he talked to teachers.
is an encased violin in the studio. “Yes, I was made learn the
piano. I don’t play any instrument.” Although he did paint
some Bodhrain for Walton’s shop! He listens to music while he
works. And to the Vincent Browne Show.
There was a girlfriend. It ended a year ago. There is no life-mask of her. No hair lost. “As a child I was solitary”. And doodling. Yet he loves company . . . “talking to people is a great pleasure”.
He also loves the company of thinkers and philosophers. A Jacques Barzun book is wedged beside his Senheiser earphones on the bunk bed that is only accessible via a retractable ladder. The apartment seems to be full of ladders.
There is no TV. “In my parents’ house I flick through the channels in a vague dissatisfied way”. He is anti-modernist. His heroes are the Old Masters, especially those devoted to the transcendental beauty of the human form.
He gets particularly animated introducing me to the works of Pontormo, a 16th century Florentine mannerist who painted in the bella manniera. He particularly admires the pieta of “this very intense artist”. Intense is a very good word in his vocabulary. An intense delineation of human form and a sharp provocation of the human mind (of the viewer) seems to be his goal.
That’s why he can’t abide 19th century painting (“the impressionists . . . Very fine in a limited way”) and as for modern stuff . . . Well, no. And contemporary Irish? “I’d prefer not to comment . . . Painters should be seen and not heard . . . I don’t want to give ammunition”.
Despite his family background - two grandparents ’out’ in 1916 - his spiritual patria is definitely Italy. “Such a beautiful country, so much beauty in the colours, you can’t go into a church without finding something”. And the people “very visual and sensual”.
Conor will be exhibiting there in December. He’s anxious to see how his neo-Mannerist paintings are received there. Not that he’d like that label. “I hate labels”, he says. Comically, he bought a jogging tracksuit (“I was never into sport”) and asked for the least labelly one. He was done - on the door hangs the most in-your-face three striped Adidas tracksuit I have ever seen.
For all his self-assurance he is also a little worried about how he’ll go down with the Sunday Independent readers. “Don’t be too provocative,” he smiles as I leave. “Be bland.” Says he!
- Declan McCormack, The Sunday Independent, March 28, 1999.