When Brian Maguire, an Irish painter, talks about his work, he sounds more like a documentary filmmaker or a war correspondent.
He wants to depict the plights of “people who are invisible, people that were put down,” he said. “I want to tell their story. We are storytellers."
His exhibition at the Missoula Art Museum, “In the Light of Conscience,” draws on work from his travels across the world: Mexico and Arizona, Europe and Syria. He’s also visited South Sudan for an upcoming show and Brazil to talk with Indigenous groups about the deforestation of the Amazon.
When his exhibition opened here on March 18, the paintings of gutted buildings in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war resonated differently, after news sites were filled with images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In Syria, he was reminded of George Orwell’s account from the Spanish Civil War, “Homage to Catalonia.”
“He was saying that in war, everything you read is propaganda. Everything. The only thing you can believe is what you see with your own eyes. However, because you only see a tiny bit of your own eyes, that too, is suspect,” he said.
“What I saw with my own eyes was this was the destruction of a quarter of the city through artillery,” he said.
While he was in the gallery Friday morning, a few people made their way around the exhibition. The word “Ukraine” came up as they were quietly looking at the paintings. The title of the piece is “War Changes Its Address: Aleppo 5.”
A silhouette of a figure is seen walking past the bones of a multi-story structure, rendered in a clear expressionist manner that captures the bleak despair of a scene, with dripping paint.
The imagery in the show comes from around the world, including his own travels.
“I don’t give virtue to any of the methods, the method is the way to get there, whatever you want to get. Most of the method involves talking to people,” he said.
His paintings originated with images from media, documents such as police files, or photographs he’s taken on site.
“I work from photographs. I work from the dead. Which means that where possible, I will talk to the police but it's not always possible, particularly in Central America. It's too dangerous,” he said.
He works with families of people he’s depicting as well.
In Ireland, for instance, “I spent a long time working in prisons and I know the fathers or grandfathers of these young people. So that's an example of where I use or partly use the people involved in all those cases, I would make a painting for the family. That would be how I pay my way,” he said.
The first of his Syria paintings was pulled from the internet. The wrecked apartments remind him of Sean O’Casey, an Irish playwright who would build tenement sets on stage.
“But I couldn't do it twice. So if I was to do more, I had to go and experience it,” he said. (Even when he was in college, “there had to be some aspect of the real world involved in the making of a painting.”)
After he was able to enter the country in 2017, he participated in a UNESCO workshop for kids led by college students.
“The first thing I do is an art class for the children. You don’t do it in order to get something but it always delivers something,” he said.
Afterward, a student gave him a tour of the city and the parts that had been bombed. That man, who was switching from law to psychology, is the figure in the painting.
Connection to the West
While Maguire lives in Dublin and Paris, this is his first solo museum exhibition in the United States.
Maguire’s connections to Montana come through Idaho. He was close friends with the late artists Edward and Nancy Kienholz, who lived in Hope, a small community on the northeast side of Lake Pend Oreille. He keeps a studio there and has spent summers there for decades.
His exhibition at the MAM is in tandem with a project that’s planned for a 2023 exhibition. He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to produce a series of portraits of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. It has an unfortunate precedent in a previous series: portraits of women in Ciudad Juarez who disappeared or were murdered in a wave of homicides that exceeded a thousand.
He met with families to talk about their loved ones to produce a short biography. He paints a portrait, one that he gives to their relatives, and one that he exhibits. “That work has been shown continuously for about five years now (in) different places. It was first shown in the European Parliament,” he said.
The new series in Montana is a “continuation,” he said, in its visual philosophy, what’s included and what’s left out.
“The perpetrator, who’s often evil, isn’t in these pictures. There’s no room for him, and it’s always a him,” he said.
Instead, the painting is a celebration. He said, “there’s a tradition in this world — painting portraits indicates the importance of the subject in the portrait. You could say when I did them in prison or when I do them from the dead, the unknown, I’m turning that on its head, but I’m not. I don’t think so,” he said, preferring to leave it for others to decide.
“If this community decides that this work is valuable, they will mind it and they will keep it in places like this,” he said.
Those are rendered on a smaller, human scale compared with the monumental size of the Aleppo paintings, one of which is 12 feet wide.
The Tia Collection in Santa Fe asked him to interpret stories from the Bible for the present. He contemplated what it would look like to imagine “Jesus Christ murdered by a mob” in modern times. He drove up a road near the Idaho border and arranged a tableau of a truck pulling a mannequin to re-create the murder of James Byrd, a Black man in east Texas, who was dragged to death by two white men.
One of the most ghostly images, “Over Our Heads the Hollow Seas Closed Up,” is on your left as you enter the gallery. A figure in a white shirt faces away from the viewer, surrounded by an ethereal expanse of blue. It’s not until you read the card that you realize it’s a drowned refugee, his response to the crisis of migrant deaths as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean.
It was based on images from the media, but he took a journey from Paris through Athens to Italy, retracing the route of migrants and talked to those that he met. (Merkel had declared amnesty by then.) He once almost drowned as a child and he said it’s not something you forget.
“It stays with you,” he said.
The MAM exhibition includes several paintings of migrants who died crossing the border into the U.S. He stayed in El Paso, Texas, and worked in Ciudad for several months a year for a long stretch. He eventually was introduced to Greg Hess, the chief medical examiner for Pima County in Tucson.
Hess gave him access to the thousands of photos in his archive and the resulting paintings were exhibited in the U.S. and Europe to raise awareness of the issue.
“These people are invisible, they are completely invisible. We don’t even have their names,” he said. “Because even if they had an ID on them, it’s probably not theirs."