Paraic Leahy is an award-winning painter based in Kilkenny, Ireland. His highly detailed paintings explore an interest in the human subconscious and the unknown recesses of the mind, approached through the lens of early psychoanalytic theory and concepts relating to the uncanny. Here we talk to him about his current exhibition The Nothing Unfurling Under Her Gaze at PAPER (runs until 22 Sept).
Sara Jaspan: Is there a particular theme to this exhibition or idea behind it?
Paraic Leahy: I draw a lot of the inspiration for my work from reading, especially the physiologically-charged fiction of the Victorian Gothic writers or early psychoanalysts. In the months leading up to the exhibition, I became very interested in À rebours (Against Nature) – a seminal piece of 19th century Decadent Literature by the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. The story focuses on the tastes and inner life of its eccentric antihero Jean des Esseintes who loathes bourgeois Parisian society and tries to retreat into an ideal artistic world of his own creation: a realm governed by an ideology of excess and artificiality where human artifice is supreme and nature despised.
There’s a chapter in which the character grows obsessed by the artistry of fake flowers, extolling the skill of their makers at length, until his extreme admiration then transfers to real flowers that look like counterfeits – entering into ecstatic raptures over a list of varieties that he considers to ‘parody’ or give ‘the illusion of’ entirely non-floral materials. Towards the end of the novel, des Esseintes eventually loses the ability to distinguish between the real world and his perception of it.
I was really struck by this notion of the real and the counterfeit. I often paint in oil on wood or watercolour on paper but for The Nothing Unfurling Under Her Gaze I began experimenting with a type of paper that mimics the appearance of wood. I really like the idea of presenting both materials together – the real alongside its replica, the second serving as the double of the first – creating a blurred sense of reality. The theme of doubling, twinning or mirroring is also present in other aspects of the show. You see it in the stereograph reference central to ‘The nothing unfurling under her gaze’ (2018), for example, and the pairing of ‘His twinned being for the making of beauty’ (2017) and ‘The unknown part of the self’ (2017).
SJ: How did you first become interested in these themes?
PL: The double has always played an important role in my work – it all connects to my longstanding interest in mirrors, reflections, shadows and other representations of the ego explored by psychoanalysts like Otto Rank, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, and writers such as Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve also done a lot of research into early psychological techniques like the Rorschach or ‘Inkblot’ test, which produces an image formed of a double of itself.
But I guess the fascination originally developed out of my earlier practice which revolved around painting in series; always exploring a core pattern across multiple works, adding a small element or altering a subtle detail each time. I had to paint through each body of work to move on to the next idea, which would invariably centre around a new pattern. It’s this that led me to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) in which the female protagonist becomes obsessed with the illusive pattern in the wallpaper of the room she is confined to. She fundamentally needs to obsess about it in order to move forwards. And that’s the way I paint – it’s obsessive; compulsive. I simply have to keep working through an idea until I push through it.
SJ: Have you presented work as doubles or pairs before?
PL: Not as explicitly. I showed ‘His twinned being for the making of beauty’ (2017) and ‘The unknown part of the self’ (2017) side-by-side at The Sense of Things in Los Angeles last year, which is probably when the idea of referencing twos first began.
SJ: Where do the patterns or images in your work originate from?
PL: I’ve been obsessed with patterns since I was a child and often find them in nature and the everyday world around me. In terms of imagery, however, I source a lot of ideas from the old Victoriana photographs that I collect – typically rather formal studio portraits of a poor or faded quality. Somehow the lack of detail caused by the image’s deterioration provides more scope for my mind to wander as I try to abstract the beginnings of a design from what’s leftover. I also like playing with and heightening the features of the artificial painted backgrounds these photographs often feature; the folds of the lavish drapery, sections of architectural ruins, or artful assortments of plants and shrubbery. Again, it taps into that fake-real thing.
I enjoy studying the work of the great Flemish masters for similar reasons. The way they painted small patches of lace or scenes in the distant background of the composition with the same level of precise detail as the objects or figures in the foreground completely flattens the image, despite its pioneering use of three-dimensional perspective, yet I like the effect; how they became carried away with the detail.
The imagery in my own work is intended to be both detailed and illusive – providing just enough to give the suggestion of a human form or a monster-like shape lurking amongst a maze of curling tendrils or tangle of sheets, but nothing exact. The aim is to trigger the viewer’s own imagination (or psyche), which then does the rest of the work.
SJ: Do you think the shapes and imagery that emerge in your work are specifically rooted in your own, individual subconscious or could they have a more universal significance connected to a collective unconscious?
PL: I think they more belong to my own inner subconscious really. I seem to be particularly drawn to these kinds of shapes and patterns and then people respond to them.
SJ: But I guess the fact that your work resonates with your viewers and they recognise these themes within it suggests some kind of identification?
PL: Yes. My work is informed by what I’ve been reading or looking at, but it’s also open to interpretation. I want to allow space for viewers to be drawn in and find their own shapes and patterns within each piece; to get caught within the detail and discover their own subconscious reflected there.
SJ: Could you tell us about the title of the exhibition, The Nothing Unfurling Under Her Gaze?
PL: It’s taken from a chapter titled ‘The Rorschach Test; or, Dirty Pictures’ in Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century Hardcover (2006) by the British writer and mythographer Marina Warner. The full sentence reads: “In the essay On Being Ill, when Virginia Woolf lay in bed staring out of the window at the ‘gigantic cinema’ in the sky, she reflected on the eddies and currents of her own attention as it figures out the drama of the nothing unfurling under her gaze; the stir up in the clouds mimics her ‘endless activity’ of thinking, and of that special human act – reflexivity.”
The phrase spoke to me for several reasons. On one level, Woolf’s cloud-tangled daydreaming perfectly captures the way that we often project our thoughts, especially our subconscious thoughts, outward onto the world around us (this being basic principle upon which the Rorschach Test and, to some extent, my own images work). But it also resonates with the fluid, organic nature of the patterns I so often find myself pursuing across series, which have a simultaneously tangled and loosely flowing quality. The gaze, meanwhile, is a subject referenced throughout art history and connects with my interest in mirrors.
The ‘her’ in my title, however, doesn’t refer to anyone in particular. Though not through any deliberate choice, a lot of the books I read are by women. I’ve got really into Warner’s writing on folklore and the uncanny, but I’m also a huge fan of Victorian detective stories, murder mysteries and psychological tales which often seem to focus around women protagonists.
SJ: Were these paintings all made to be exhibited together, as a complete ‘group’? Are there any other themes that join them thematically?
PL: Yes, except for ‘His twinned being for the making of beauty’ and ‘The unknown part of the self’ (which I exhibited last year), they were all made over the course of the past five to six months specifically for this show at PAPER. Thematically, I suppose I was trying to hone in on that floating, ghostly image that haunts in my earlier work; returning to the apparitions in the fabric and the ‘creaturesque’ shapes in the undergrowth. But I’ve also been trying to introduce more depth within the pictorial space through layering paint, overlapping pictorial planes and the curvature of the stereo view in ‘The nothing unfurling under her gaze’. This dimensional element makes the shapes of figures in the image appear as if they’re coming out towards you, adding to the uncanny sense of animacy.
SJ: When we last spoke you expressed a desire to begin working on a larger scale and collapse the multiple shapes you explore across series down into single, unified pieces. Are you still working towards this aim?
PL: I guess I’ve not really achieved this yet, but it’s something I keep thinking about. I’m just trying to figure out how to do it in the right way, rather than just blowing up an image for the sake of it. I think one clear shift in my practice marked by this exhibition, however, is the way I’ve begun to use more of the space within the work rather than leaving large amounts of negative space around a single central image. I’d like to keep exploring this further.