Walking past a demolition site, there are a few things that people inevitably notice: the sound of drilling, dust on the pavement from brick that’s been smashed up or brought down, glimmers of previous wallpapered living rooms, or a generally gaping absence in the usually packed and towering skyline.
Or maybe they don’t notice anything at all, simply registering the absence of another landmark they might have passed on their way to work. For Sean O’Rourke, a visual artist, painter, photographer and recent NCAD graduate, these sites are impassable troves of endless artistic possibility, giving deeper meaning to the sociopolitical landscape that we find ourselves embedded in.
“When watching flats getting demolished, and seeing the rough exterior crumble, I began seeing the bright coloured interiors of family homes and this gave me a different perception. Conceptually, I liked the idea of the external and the internal, using this idea to look at how people are viewed within society. You see, society profiles people from working class backgrounds – young men in particular. We only see one side of them, the rough exterior, but under that rough exterior is a humane interior. And that’s what I try to express in my work.”
O’Rourke’s paintings work towards capturing the unique relationship between the past and present – what something once was, and what it comes to be remembered as. The result is a sort of artistic urban renewal, a memorial to an older time.
“Seeing the environment change around me, I can’t help but notice myself change over time. The regeneration of these Dublin inner-city communities made me very conscious of how things change over time, and that all we are left with is our memories.
“My ‘Crucifixion’ triptych was broken down into two main concepts – how our environment influences our personality and a commemoration of Dublin’s inner- city flat complexes. These complexes are a part of Dublin’s history, and that’s why I’m bringing attention to them… I sift through the rubble of these demolition sites looking for material I can make art from.”
O’Rourke finds discarded material worthy of his artist imprint by excavating through rubble. In the past, he has worked with metal plates once used to board up south inner-city flat complexes, such as Dolphin’s House and St. Teresa’s Gardens, which he then layers with oil, lead and emulsion, transforming them into a documentation of the ever-changing environment that surrounds him.
“I use my own photography as a reference for most of the work, so after wandering the streets taking photos and collecting found materials, I go back to my studio and go through the material I acquired.
“I pick the best photos and stick up multiple images on the walls around me. I stick them on the walls to allow me to think about what I want to paint and why I want to paint it. This helps me build conceptually and visually on my ideas. Once I chose a subject to paint, I hang numerous images of that subject from different angles on the walls of my studio and go through my metal collection to find the right plate to work onto.”
Material is one thing indeed, but there is something deeper lying behind the layers of O’Rourke’s work. The young men he paints in his ‘Diptych’ resist posing, and the main focus is the natural unawareness of a child being photographed and therefore “posing how they actually feel,” compared to the adopted poses of adolescents who “pose as a way to shield insecurity.” I asked if he could explain more about this. Is it the insecurities that are the point of focus in the art or is it the personalities behind the poses that attract him?
“Watching a derelict building’s rough exterior crumble during a demolition, seeing the brightly coloured interiors of family homes, it gave me a different perspective of the building, a humane view. As people we are the same… We give off a certain perception of ourselves, built by our environment. I use architecture in an indirect way to highlight the conflict between the interior and the exterior. So my work’s focal point is not about insecurity, it’s about the ego – the shield we put up as an identity to protect vulnerabilities from peers.
“Discipline. Look at anyone who is good at their craft, they have this level of discipline that allows them to show up all the time. There seems to be this illusion around artists that they are lazy, but if you look at any artist that is doing well for themselves, or is a master of their craft, they put in the time to get where they are and do it consistently to maintain that level of success.
“I work seven hours a day, six days a week. I realised to get good at anything you need to show up constantly, and the fruits of your labour will present themselves to you over time. But it can be hard to show up if you don’t have the passion, so I believe it’s a mixture of both consistency and passion.”
O’Rourke has worked himself to an interesting and exciting position. Incorporating sculpture and moving the focus away from Dublin, O’Rourke has an upcoming solo show in The Lab Gallery, where he is hoping to look at influence within a wider societal context, and how we conform to our environment.
What does he hope to achieve with this show?
“I would want the audience to understand the concepts behind the work… To think about how much our environment has an influence on us as individuals… Getting others to connect with your work should be the main goal of an artist. But I don’t get upset if someone doesn’t get it either. People always interpret your work in their own way, no matter what. It’s just part of the game.”
Sean O’Rourke’s exhibition closing party takes place The Bernard Shaw on October 25.