There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day.
The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892
When you look at one of Paraic Leahy’s paintings, what do you see? It’s question to which the answer could be quite revealing. The forms and shapes that occupy his work all seem somehow related to this world, yet not quite of it. Resonant though impossible to place; distorted, mutated, unexplained. There’s a semi-figurative aspect to some, such as The nothing of the Void (2017), which evokes the blanket monsters of childhood. While The Unknown part of the Self (2017) has the appearance of the sprawling, twisting, tightening tendrils of a plant left to go wild.
The Irish artist is deeply interested in the human subconscious and the unknown shapes that dwell there; populating the dark depths of each individual’s inner world, and furnishing the unmapped territories of the mind. Much of his inspiration is drawn from the writers, theorists and psychoanalysts of the late Victorian period; particularly their ideas relating to the uncanny, otherness and doubles, and the florid, encircling nature of their language. Leahy’s painting process could be described as an attempt to mirror their efforts, delving into his own psychic hinterland as a reservoir of creative material.
An important breakthrough came in 2015 whilst Leahy was RHA Tony O’Malley artist-in-residence in the rather isolated, remote village of Callan in Kilkenny, Ireland, where he stumbled across Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. The well-known story presents a portrait of psychological collapse; the troubled narrator growing increasingly disturbed and obsessed by the shifting, inconsistent pattern of the wallpaper surrounding her. The bloated curves, flourishes and outlines that go running off like “wallowing seaweeds in full chase,” eventually give way to the outward projections of her own ‘excited’ mind. She begins to see forms and then the shadowy figure of a creeping woman lurking behind its “silly and conspicuous front design.” By the tale’s chilling end, the narrator has ‘become’ the shadowy woman; realigning her cognitive self with this other identity (perhaps her own double, you might say).
The wallpaper’s swirling contours, both concealing and volunteering all sorts within, brings Leahy’s own paintings to mind. Indeed, pattern is somewhat of an obsession for him as well. He collects pieces of wood and timber with unusual markings and grains; takes photographs of repeated designs within nature, such as the arched tails and spiralling leaves of the Monkey Puzzle tree; and remembers an early childhood fascination with the tangled strands of hair lying on his mother’s kitchen floor (she was a hairdresser). Patterns have a cathartic quality to them. They allow the mind to wonder; distracting the consciously thinking part of the brain so that other impulses can begin to surface.
Shapes and patterns have long been used in psychology; the most famous example being Hermann Rorschach’s inkblot test, which developed out of the klecksographs created by the German poet and physicist, Justinus Kerner, in the late 1800s. The test works through an analysis of the images, resemblances and cognitive associations subjects find in the randomly generated, symmetrical shapes created by ten folded ink spots. Leahy has researched the technique, along with Blotto (a popular parlour game of the 1850s, which involved making random marks and decoding them), at length, and certain of his newer works, such as His Twinned being for the making of Beauty (2017), almost bare their own resemblance to ink blots through their organic, almost symmetrical quality.
As Leahy’s practice continues to evolve, he envisages his work growing larger in scale, and the multiple shapes explored across series, collapsing down into single, unified pieces. He is currently working on a new body of watercolour paintings to exhibit as part of The Sense of Things (PAPER and Durden and Ray’s upcoming group show which opens in Los Angeles in November, following on from The Surface of Things). It will be interesting to see what future patterns of the mind emerge.
Words by Sara Jaspan
The Sense of Things will run from 4 – 25 November at Durden and Ray, Los Angeles