From New York City To The Heart of The Liberties – Ishmael Claxton


Posted 2 weeks ago in Arts & Culture Features

DDF apr-may-24 – Desktop

Dublin 8 Fine Art photographer Ishmael Claxton has come out of a monumental 2023 swinging, off the back of an incredible thirty-nine shows exhibiting his electric fusion of eclectic influences from the Surrealism to Pop Art movements with fiercely analogue technique. We were curious as to the things that gave shape to his arresting, fiercely original work.

Ishmael Claxton‘s journey from New York City to the heart of the Liberties has been a winding road. First working in mathematics, his impeccable eye led him back behind the lens and across the world. After completing 39 shows over 2023, what may be the most shows any living visual artist has exhibited in one year, he welcomed me to his sitting room, and surrounded by his astounding work, we sat across from one another sipping coconut infused coffee. He talked to me about Afro Irish, a beautiful piece which features the renowned Dublin DJ, Syl Black. – Adhamh O’Caoimh

“I play around with a lot of techniques. This piece deals with the idea of fighting for the identity of being an Irish person. It was part of a series I started called Migration Integration, all about dealing with when you’re from somewhere else and you come to a country, when you’re trying to integrate to a place, you bring a part of yourself with you. So, how to integrate into a new culture, but maintain that piece?”

The work is immediately arresting, presented across three different formats, each one of a kind.

“I used a prism to create that effect of fading away, and that represents him coming into his whole being, and he’s split into these different sections of himself. This one is a technique I use called double layering, it creates a 3D effect. You have a regular photo, then you take an acetate photo on top of it, and it creates layers so if you look at it from different sides it changes. The same photo, here, printed on canvas gives it more of a painted quality.”

Yet more bewildering is the purity of what he does to get such arresting results. Claxton eschews the modern conveniences of digital post production techniques and complex studio trickery, instead preferring the implementation of effects at the source, then staging and capturing a miniscule fragment of time.

“This is all film, analogue. So that’s literally a prism in front of the lens. There’s no post production. A lot of the work there’s really no post production. Even if you look at the Holy Mary fixing herself, a collaboration with Make Up Artist Anabel , a lot of people ask how I did it. That’s just how I took it, a black backdrop and the way it looks like a cutout, just how I lit it. The smoke was my assistant walking around with a smoke bomb and my good friend David was holding the light.”

Claxton left the unrelenting roar of New York to study under individuals in Europe, the classroom having lost its appeal, from both sides. His interest in the medium took root in childhood, blossoming after he had achieved his academic goals.

“I was born in New York, but I’ve lived all around the place. In America, we have these things called after school centers, where you  go to do your homework and typically, you have some activities. One of mine was photography, but more darkroom photography, taking a photo, learning to develop it. I was in elementary school, so that planted a seed.”

“I remember using my mom’s cameras back in the day, and there was always something I liked about the image. Something unique that I thought was really cool. As I got older, it went to the sideline. I come from a somewhat academic family, and when I told them I wanted to study art they were not having that, so I ended up studying Pure Mathematics, and teaching for a while. I’d saved up a few bob, and I wanted to do photography. I started taking a class in North Carolina, where I was living, and when I went back to New York, started studying and did my  first solo show, at a little Japanese Gallery in Dumbo.”

With a dissatisfaction that would be all too familiar to anybody working in the arts, Claxton cast an eye on Europe to further develop his craft.

“I still felt the work wasn’t strong enough, I had been taking classes, but I wanted to go to Europe and study art. I had been a few times, so I had this Idea of what it would be like. I wanted to travel and learn, rather than sitting in a classroom. I always preferred a pedagogic method where I’d be learning from individuals, one on one. I went to Germany, and Paris for a while, and I was dating Violet, the mother of my daughter, who told me “You should come to Ireland”.

When I came here I started to develop more storytelling projects, one of the first of which was Migration Integration. From that I started to develop more ideas, and techniques, and have started doing some mentorships, working with established artists to develop my style. One of the first was Mella Travers, from the Darkroom in Dublin. She mentored me for a few years, and then I did a residency in Morocco, and through that I was also developing my craft. Parallel to that I also started lighting assistance, and digital technician work, but that’s more the more commercial aspect of it.

“I’ve always been more interested in the Fine Art side of this, always looking, always learning, so then within the last few years I’ve been doing a mentorship with Conor Horgan. Now I’m also doing a mentorship with Sean Hillen, so this has been helping me refine the style. It’s been a plethora of people who’ve helped me refine my style, to come to where I’m at now, and I’m still working with the same people, we’re still evolving.”

 

A staggering 39 shows in one calendar year is a monumental feat, how did you manage to accomplish that?

“I don’t create work for shows. I just create work. Some of the work for these shows was from four, five years ago. There’s so much of it that I can pick and choose, so across those 39 shows there was some old work, new work, everything in between.

 

A lot of my work has to do with race, with sexuality, mental health, with class. I try to make work that goes across the board and touches everyone. I want people from all walks of life to be able to see it , and to interpret it. That’s the way I think about it when I make and show the work.”.

 

With so many shows, can you tell me about some personal highlights that spring to mind?

One of my favorite shows I did was in That Social Centre, in Phibsborough. I love the grassroots stuff. The energy there and the love, it was such a heartwarming feeling. I had six pieces in that show, and I was experimenting with larger scale pieces. The biggest thing I had done to that point was A0, and I had a perfect project to exhibit in their space. I’m normally used to dealing with gallery folks and museum folks who need it to be a certain size. That they were able to give so many artists a unique chance and situation. In the arts, we often get caught up in the idea of The Institution, but once you make art that is for everyone, and doesn’t have to be over intellectualized. It wasn’t like a museum, or gallery, it was all cool vibes, it was all a level playing field.”

Indeed, many of Claxton’s shows over the year were in these unconventional, untraditional spaces.

“I identify as a punk. I’ve always been more of an underground kind of person. I like going off the beaten path. I’ve always enjoyed finding unique locations to exhibit. Of the 39 shows, I’d say maybe fifteen of them were in these kinds of spaces.”

Claxton is also one of the co-founders of ÍOVA, an ever evolving collective of creatives who have been prolific in the years since they began.

“ÍOVA is a group of visual artists from various backgrounds. We wanted to do something different, off the beaten path, not the usual gallery standard. Coming from the same ideology. You can do gallery stuff, and also do the underground,  and be multi dimensional.  We’ve done four culture night shows, shows in nightclubs, in my friend Peaches Ink’s tattoo studio – Studio E – we just improvise in the spaces to make them into a gallery. I’ve always enjoyed finding unique venues.”

 The self maintained collective sprang from humble origins, people recognising one another from repeated visits to a small independent shop.

ÍOVA started about six years ago, in Gunn’s Camera Shop. Myself and a few other photography enthusiasts, who all shoot analogue film. So we would always see each other there, and we would have chats amongst ourselves, and eventually we just started going for pints. After a while we started meeting up regularly, and originally it was just called photos, chats and beers. It just started as a group of between five and ten of us, one of our first events was a presentation of our work, more like feedback sessions. And that naturally developed into putting on our own shows. The second year we did it at the same space, but much more organized, we have a theme, similar printers, pieces framed, a few big names. I think we had about 2000 come and view that.  David Buckley, one of the co-founders came up with ÍOVA, which is ‘image’ in Irish. As an artist led group, we don’t get funding, and we’re not for profit. Everyone chips in a few bob, and that pays for everything in the show.

 

So what does 2024 mean for Ishmael Claxton?

“This year I have a plethora of things coming up, though I’m trying not to do 39 shows again. That certainly takes a toll. My focus is mainly going to be on solo shows, but first, I’m doing a show with ÍOVA on April 5th in Tøn Gallery, Temple Bar.  That’ll be a show on prisms, running for a month. The first solo show is at Liberty Ink on the 11th of April. It’s named ‘You’ll Never Be Cool Again’, and it’s a tribute to my nerdy side, a japanese/punk themed show. An ode to my affinity for anime.

From Antiquity To Modernity is a collaborative series of concerts and a multimedia visual artistic  installation held between May and June, at the National Concert Hall. That will deal with understanding the historical role artists and musicians of colour have played. Then I have a big solo show on the 7th of June in the Irish Georgian Society, a solo show that deals with class and sex. It’ll be revisiting a famous Venetian ball that happened in the 1950’s, and recreating it in a modern context.”

Indeed, it looks to be a busy year for Claxton, as he begins to work on a larger scale, not content to rest amid well earned adulation, he is also working on ‘Capall Gang’ a book concerned with finding the deeper meaning between various social classes and the deep Irish connection to horses.

Already renowned for his astounding eye, and his talent for creating and immortalizing remarkable moments of stillness, we can seemingly forever look forward to more from the prolific auteur.

Thoughtful work, with weight and meaning. A punk spirit. An immaculate host, to boot.

@ishmaelclaxton

Words: Adhamh O’Caoimh

Photograph of Ishmael Claxton by Issey Gould

Photo of Ishmael Claxton and Nancy Claxton by Violet Ogden

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