Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Ruairi Fallon McGuigan explores memories, his Belfast roots and the domestic environment in his prints and paintings. His experience of living in alternative spaces has made him interested in what makes a home when you’re often on the move, and how objects become a record of places, events and people. He explains how he made his reduction woodcut "Cuttings from Athens", which pays tribute to a friend and her rented flat, and how it feels to get into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2020.
Why did you decide to make "Cuttings from Athens"?
I’ve been living in alternative spaces in London for the last few years, and I’ve developed a huge interest in the domestic environments we live in. As I made more work about the subject and explored my own situation – living in studios, caravans and derelict buildings – I also became interested in the antithesis of that: the everyday, rented flat in London. My friends’ more normalised, but equally interesting, domestic existences.
This print depicts my friend Eleni, sitting in her flat of eight years. Her life has progressed since uni, her plants have grown, but it’s still the same flat, with the same slouched sofas.
I wanted to create a series of portraits examining individuals in their own unique domestic situations.
Her flat has also played a part in my life in London. I did my first tattoo there and got many myself, and I also lived there for a month. So it was nice to document a moment of that space, especially considering that she moved out this week.
Plants are a recurring motif in your work. What do they represent to you?
There a few different reasons for this, I suppose. Aside from loving plants and having a vast collection myself – including lots that were collected as tiny cuttings on various travels and have been nurtured up into the larger plants that often feature in my work – I’m interested in their function in the domestic space. Plants can bring any space to life and make a mundane place exciting. We own these plants, and when we leave, they can come too.
Plants are intrinsically connected to light – you examine where light falls in a space and work a room around the plants.
There's also an environmental element. We try to grow a lot of our own veg, propagate plants and have a better understanding of seasonal food in the UK – what we can grow ourselves. I created a large greenhouse installation with my friends Ali Glover and Henry Burns for the Art Licks festival last year.
So I suppose the simple answer is that they're quite a big part of my life and it’s natural that they end up inspiring elements of my work, or at least being used as motifs within it.
In London, at my age, we are always on the move. A home isn’t the space you are currently occupying, but more the objects and plants you furnish it with. We bring the same objects from one house to the next, recreating it again and again. I suppose these objects create a sense of belonging or stability in our lives.
It’s a complex reduction woodcut. It must take a lot of planning to get that subtlety of shadow and highlights. How did you prepare your ideas and make the print?
My prints have become more complex over time as I get to grips with the woodcut process. I learn with each print I make, experimenting a little more each time.
I create a preparatory pencil drawing first, which is usually my guide. For this piece, because of the complex leaves, light and shadows, I created a full-colour acrylic painting as a guide to figure out all the colouring beforehand. This is the first time I’ve done this, and it is definitely a lot more work, but I think it was worth it and it’s an approach I'll take again in the future.
I also create the illusion of more layers than there are by monoprinting within each printed layer. I carefully ink up different shapes using guiding marks drawn on my inking table. The isolation gets easier with each layer as I cut more away and reveal more detail in the block.
I never plan the number of layers, I just keep on working through the print until I’m happy or excited by the results. This is often earlier than you would think.
It looks like you use an almost pointillistic approach to convey shape and shadows in some areas.
I do use an etching needle to create a pointillist effect. I actually stumbled upon this by accident. I often used woodblocks that have been sitting around the studio for my prints. They might be dented, or even have been used as a scalpel board. I saw through this the detail that you get from a woodblock if it was inked properly, and this encouraged me to think outside the box with regards to mark-making in my prints – sanding or scratching areas.
I do also get stuck in a cycle of adding more and more detail, not necessarily to the artwork’s benefit. I try combat this compulsion by jumping from medium to medium and introducing new processes that I’m not so comfortable with into my work.
You have a very distinctive approach to colour. How did that develop?
When I left uni, the artwork I was making was completely black and white at the time. I was making one-layer woodcuts. I think the decision to use colour in my work was actually quite petty; I remember my mum (who is a mosaic artist) making a comment about my inability to use colour, maybe hinting that I avoid it cause I’m not comfortable with it. She is great at colour, it’s one of the predominant elements in her work. From that point on, I think I had a bit of a bee in my bonnet and started creating reduction prints in only colour (no black layer) to develop my skill at mixing colours and pairing them.
I’m quite particular with colour when I’m printmaking – more than I am with painting, anyway. You’re committing to printing this single colour across 30 prints, so it better be the right colour, and it better look good with the next colour.
There are also simple things, like always mixing across the colour wheel, giving the colours a slight earthiness, as well as always keeping my leftovers to mix into the next layer or next print.
How does it feel to get into the RA Summer Exhibition this year? This is your second time being selected, isn’t it?
Yeah, this is my second time and it always feels great to be accepted – a lot better than being rejected does, anyway! I attended the Varnishing Day and the show looks great. I got to see some artists’ work that I’ve followed online for a long time but have never had a chance to view in person, which was nice. The experience has been soured by Covid, though, as most things have been. The last time I was in the show it was quite social, chatting to other artists in the exhibition and making new contacts; this time it’s all a bit distant, everyone keeps themselves to themselves. Hopefully the show will still get a good footfall this year and the work sells well.
You’ve been working on objects such as backgammon and chessboards recently. Is creating something that balances art and practical use something you particularly like to do?
I like the idea that I will make these things, show them as art and cast them out into the world, and over time financial value will be forgotten and they will become normal household detritus. Maybe they will end up at a car boot sale being sold for 50p and go to a new home where they would find a different kind of value.
Maybe that just a romantic thought, but I’m really interested in the idea of objects and memory: how they can evoke memories in us, how they carry the physical marks of events with them, how we move them from place to place and carry them with us to feel like we still belong. Often there are elements in the game boards or tables that are inspired by my memories – a physical document of an experience or a trip. The first backgammon board was inspired by a family trip to Morocco, and it’s also tied to the family holiday house where I learned the game as a child.
Your mother is a mosaic artist. How has that influenced your work and your choice of career?
It’s definitely affected both. With regards to choosing art, I’m not sure – I always loved drawing and making, and she was incredibly encouraging, but I don’t think I was guided or pushed in any given direction. It was more that her studio provided a space with possibilities – tools, the room to experiment outside of school, and really push towards something that resembled a self-led practice. I suppose the main benefit to my mum being and artist was the living breathing reality that you could be. You would make fuck all money but that was ok; it didn’t matter most of the time. The example was there that you could be good at making things, get a studio and muddle along seeing if you can make it work, which is exactly what I’m doing now.
With regards to her influence on my aesthetics, I would say it’s strong but our material output is physically very different, so it isn’t always apparent. The longer I work away, I develop my own practice and start using different materials outside of her remit, so it becomes less obvious, but I think my ideas and what I like to make work about are very much tied up in my mum’s way of looking at things – her politics and convictions.
How did you get into doing woodcuts?
I started doing relief printing during my BA in Illustration at Camberwell. My first series of woodcuts was based on my experience of working at a crumbling old Irish bar in the borough of Lewisham called the Joiners Arms.
I created a series of 15 or so portraits of working-class Irish diaspora men in the pub. Dark, atmospheric prints, with small elements of white denoting the men’s faces and hands coming out from the darkness.
I started looking at the blocks as objects and my thoughts on the subject of the Irish diaspora started becoming 3D. First a series of lathed, carved bottles, then furniture, then the whole pub – I even brewed all my own stout for the opening night.
Flanagans Bar was my final major project at Camberwell. I wanted to break the conventional white space and create a transition up the stairs into the darkening, narrow pub. You work your way to the bar, where you remain drinking, and you slip into a false sense of place and become detached from the art.
How has the pandemic situation affected your practice?
It’s actually been really good with regards to my studio practice. My studio is on a mezzanine above a prop-maker and set-building company. Normally there are power tools and music blaring all day, which can be quite distracting, but as there was no work going on at the company during lockdown, I had the building to myself. It was so peaceful. It also meant the workshop wasn’t being used, so I started working on a lot more 3D projects using the tools downstairs and having little bit more space to spread out.
I took a new approach to painting by working big and manically, then refining after, which was a nice departure from my usual overconstructed painting process. I could indulge ideas that felt disconnected to my practice and not worry that I was wasting time with them; time didn’t exist in the same way anymore. I’m trying to hold on to this now, but it is hard not just to slip into old routines.
What are you working on at the moment?
A lot of things. I’m quite a manic maker, always starting new projects and learning new skills. Over the last few years, I have been working on a series of large paintings, accompanied by a lot of small paintings, drawings and sketchbooks. These mainly focused on alternative living and the caravans that I have lived in at London Bridge. Sadly, we got evicted at the beginning of August, so it feels like a good time to have an exhibition, finish the series of works and draw a line under them.
I’m muddling through with the woodcuts, which has been hard due the print studio being closed during lockdown. I did create a series of pencil drawings of figures writhing, fighting or hugging; I’m not really sure which. They’re sort of aggressive and homoerotic. They’re exciting though and I’m looking forward to getting back to the print studio and maybe turning them into a series of etchings.
I’m also making semi-functional/art objects and even some fabric/appliqué collaborations with my girlfriend.
I’m having an exhibition at AMP Gallery in Peckham from October 9-11, so I’m currently working on that. This involves finishing the collection of works that has been building up in the studio and includes final touches to some large-scale paintings and a series of arrows I began making during lockdown – a sort of surreal comment on the bizarre situation we are living in and that almost end-of-world feeling when everyone began panicking and bulk-buying.
Ruairi has a special exhibition as our featured artist at Greenwich Printmakers Gallery from October 5-25, and his prints are available at the gallery throughout the year. To find out more, see his artist page and his website. His work is also on show at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition until January 3.