The relationship between art, politics and activism is one of the most contentious in the field of art theory, and Brian Maguire has long provoked his audience into a state of critical and ethical reflection, by putting the question of art’s role in depicting issues of global injustice at the centre of his work.
Maguire was born in Bray in 1951, and his long-standing career as a painter began in the 1980s, with solo exhibitions in the Triskel, the Wexford Arts Centre, and the Douglas Hyde. This period was preceded by a personal crisis Maguire discusses in an essay by Ed Vulliamy, published in an artist monograph in 2018. Vuillamy, widely known as a war correspondent, interviewed Maguire on several occasions, and the artist shared details about his family, his formative years, and his professional practice. He describes his experience as a young alcoholic in Belfast in poignant terms; time bleeding away, each day another “hung-over write-off.” Fortunately for Maguire, he had a breakthrough moment.
“It was a helter-skelter of alcohol and alcoholics, through which I went to college in 1969, had a child in 1974. Then, just before Christmas in 1979, I realised: this had to stop or else you’ll die drunk, literally. I went into a program and I’ve been off it ever since – and that’s when my career began.”
Growing up in Belfast in the 1960s and 70s, the artist responded to the sectarian inequalities of his environment by joining the Official Irish Republican Army, a Marxist-Leninist offshoot of the paramilitary organisation. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that in the past 40 years, Maguire has been drawn to subjects that not only elicit an aesthetic response, but a political one.
Maguire’s new exhibition at Kerlin consists of a handful of large-scale acrylic paintings, grappling with the theme of ecological disaster by examining industrial deforestation in the Amazon basin; Maguire contemplates several scenes that involve the clearance of the rainforest for commercial profit.
This continues a well-established tradition of exploring injustice in the global South, and in Latin America in particular. Maguire spent ten years off and on in Ciudad Juárez, a city in northern Mexico, where the artist explored the social and familial impact of a surge in femicides between 1993 and 2005. The phenomenon of “feminocidio – mass abduction, violation, mutilation, torture and murder of women” – compelled Maguire’s attention. In interviews with Vuillamy, he talks about the all-too-familiar component of this shocking story: “it figured, of course – women come below men, poor come below rich, brown comes below white, and Mexico comes below America, young below old. They don’t fucking count, and that is why they die.”
This detour into Maguire’s Ciudad Juárez paintings – portraits of the murdered women – serves to highlight another notable feature of Maguire’s artistic practice, evident in The Clock Winds Down: the artist’s preference for travelling to and in some cases living among the people and areas that his artworks depict. According to the curatorial materials, Maguire visited Brazil in April 2022, navigating his way along the Abacaxis River, travelling by boat from village to village, observing the fire-scorched, barren landscapes wrought by deforestation. He also noted the “persistent neglect” that indigenous social groups of the Amazon basin, including the Maraguá people, suffer in Brazil.
This sensitivity to a wider imbalance in Brazilian society is captured in the painting, an outlier among the exhibition, titled ‘Child Living From the Waste Food on the City Dump (São Paulo 2003)’, which features a lone, small silhouette among a dark wasteland. The date in this title is another clue that Maguire’s artistic concerns are borne from lifelong personal experience and longstanding habits of international collaboration: he remarks in our correspondence that he’s “had a 25 year engagement with radical social groups in Brazil;” involving a wide-range of activities, from drawing portraits of individuals murdered by the dictatorship, to visiting inmates in the infamous Carandiru Prison, to teaching children with “a Dublin-born Holy Ghost Father” called Pat Clarke “in São Paulo favelas”.
Maguire’s painterly style has been described as neo-Expressionist, but don’t be misled into thinking that the artist bears a strong resemblance to abstractionists like Pollock and Rothko. Maguire’s expressionism, if that is what it is, belongs as much to the tradition of modern European expressionism, of the likes of Henri Matisse, Egon Schiele, and Vincent Van Gogh. What he does share with the American avant-garde is scale: his works are expansive, room-dominating adventures in paint; ‘The Burning Amazon’, typical of the collection, is 9 x 15 feet. And Maguire has a remarkable facility for colour and contrast, not only within a composition, but also between – this exhibition features canvases that represent stages of forest clearance, with moments of tranquillity bracketed by immolation and ruin. The verdancy of the rainforest’s bright green swatches are underscored in a contrapuntal arrangement with the yellow licking flames and sky-darkening smoke that represent its erasure.
But what about the import of the show? After all, these paintings offer an explicit political critique of destructive ecological practices, and the exhibition notes assert that Maguire’s approach is “an act of solidarity,” about “rehumanising his subjects and recentring the narratives of the disenfranchised.”
I should say that I am sceptical about claims that art can play a meaningful role in the events of global politics, if by “playing a meaningful role” one means “causing changes to the material circumstances” of whatever issue is at stake. Take Maguire’s ‘The Burning Amazon’: I think it’s unlikely that a painting of workers destroying the Amazon rainforest will have any impact on the decision to continue that practice. It’s not that I doubt that art plays a significant role in stimulating discussion and shaping norms through culture – of course I do. But my (fairly uncontroversial) take is that, whatever degree of influence an artwork exerts through normative channels – by inflaming people’s passions enough to speak to their peers, or to make changes in their behaviour, or to confront their politicians etc. – I don’t think that the reach of that influence is limitless: its limit is, for the most part, the nation state. What follows from this is that it’s unlikely, maybe even impossible, for a painting of deforestation in the Amazon to change the material circumstances of that situation, in the event that the painting is a) exhibited in Ireland and b) produced by an Irish painter.
To be fair, the above claim is not being made. In our correspondence, Maguire writes that “art reflects society – Trotsky referred to art as society’s cracked mirror.” He continues: “The more accurate art is and indeed the more powerfully it is created then the greater contribution it makes to our understanding of society. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is a 20th-century example of this process. In early life I made political posters and leaflets, delivered or put them up, now I just make my work – though I am very proud to have designed the Labour Poster for the Marriage Referendum.”
I appreciate Maguire’s point. But is visual art the best place for understanding the world, if the aim of that understanding is to use it to make political changes? And does a greater degree of accuracy render more understanding? I remain sceptical about these ideas. I share a concern voiced by Theodor Adorno, for whom “committed art,” i.e art with a political message, was suspect: its instances “all too readily credit themselves with every noble value, and then manipulate them at their ease,” he wrote in 1974, adding that committed art “often means bleating what everyone is already saying.” This is why “autonomous art,” or modernist, experimental art, is preferable: autonomous art questions and expands the public’s understanding of self and world without didactically explaining; it offers “knowledge” by confronting us with “non-conceptual objects.” While Adorno’s assertion is overly dismissive, the rationale that underpins his account is persuasive.
Nonetheless, however you understand the obligations or capacities of art in the context of international politics, nobody can deny the depth of Maguire’s engagement with issues of social justice, nor deny the aesthetic impact of his enormous, pulchritudinous artworks. As Rosa Abbott of Kerlin noted to me, Maguire’s work in The Clock Winds Down possesses “a visceral beauty.”
Words: Tom Lordan
Feature Image: The Burning Amazon – Brian Maguire