“I’ve been trying to make large paintings for years.” An interview with Donal Moloney

Donal Moloney is an Irish artist who lives on the Wirral. He was born in Cork and studied at the Crawford College of Art (BA), the Slade School of Fine Art (MFA) and University of the Arts London (PhD). Donal moved to Merseyside after being appointed Senior Lecturer at Liverpool Hope University.  He has exhibited widely and in 2016 Donal won the People’s Choice Award in the John Moores Painting Prize with his painting ‘Cave Floor’. Donal is a founding member of the organisation ‘Teaching Painting’ whose remit is to investigate the teaching of contemporary painting practices within art schools. 

We visited Donal on the hottest day on British record, in his studio, a purpose built shed at the end of his garden, where he was in the process of working on a series of new large paintings.

So, I was expecting to come in and see tiny paintings.

Got them as well!

I’ve been trying to make large paintings for years and just haven’t been able to do it.  I’ve tried a few times and then I’ve usually just binned them and then I end up coming back to small paintings, but this is the first time where it feels like it might work out…not so terribly.  I’m making small ones at the same time, those very dense overlapped paintings…

There were these works on paper that I made previously…

…and they sort of opened up a different way of working, maybe like exploding the denser paintings.  I’ve always liked staining and working on the flat, you know, allowing the paint to do its own thing.  I’ve always thought, there could be a contrast there with that very deliberate ‘I made this’ sort of thing.  So I’m just trying to find ways of making it work. I think the way of taking the pressure off is just to say, I’m going to make both at the same time. I remember seeing a Peter Davies exhibition in 2009, he had three paintings in a show at the Approach and each one of them was very different and I thought, ‘oh yeah you can do that.’  I got into this frame of mind of working in a series and doing the thing you’re best at or you’re most interested in.  So yeah that’s where I’ve sort of arrived at, at the moment.

And how long have you been working on these?

I’d say since Easter, maybe early Spring? I’m trying to just combine different things.  I’ve got this idea, which has led to this sort of sectioned out painting.  

The images are kind of buried under masks and dug out almost.  Just the way the primer’s doing this kind of strange thing, it’s got a texture to it.  I usually don’t work with any kind of texture. It sort of happened accidentally.  The way the staining has sort of gone into it, there’s kind of a brush stroke underneath it, there’s kind of two different marks operating at the same time.

I was thinking about this yesterday, I think no matter what I’m doing I’m trying to find marks that are kind of channelled through something else.  I don’t have anything against a direct mark, it’s just, I like marks that do two or three things at the same time.

I feel like your paintings are quite funny because there’s trickery. I think I might know what objects I’m looking at but I’ll never really know the truth.

It’s hard to name them maybe?  When I was selecting images the other day, I was going through a big pile of stuff I had and I was kind of saying no to certain things, like, this is a stack of rejects…

…I stuck up a Buddha head and I thought, it’s gonna take over, I mean, I like the fact that you might not recognise it for a second and if you paint it you can play around with the look of it and you can delay that, ‘whatever it is’, but it was the same with these ones, I thought nah, they look too much like jewelry or earrings. 

I’ve been robbing images from the web, whatever I can get my hands on. You know when you go to the V&A website? I love that, and it’s got millions of images. It’s all ripe for harvesting you know, really excellent shots.  I used to make my own sculptures a couple of years ago to paint, which I still have in the background, but I’ve kind of gone back to what I used to do as an undergrad student and just rob stuff from everywhere.  I’ve just been on the web robbing stuff. *

Do you Google specific words? I think it would be really funny to do some project about the words that artists Google.

Yeah sometimes when I haven’t Googled stuff for a while and I’ll be like, I want something sparkly and you end up recycling those words and the same images come up and they’re like your old friends, you’re like, ahhh I remember painting you!  And you really got to know that piece of plasticine that was in some kid’s ceramic class on Pinterest when you searched for ‘ceramics’ and you robbed a little bit in order to solve a visual problem.  You get to really know something that was so mundane and throwaway.

I do like the idea of humour as a kind of a lure in the painting. Kind of, a way in.  So even when I am selecting images I must be subconsciously trying not to be so directive. It’s a bit of a game isn’t it?  A lot of the time I’m painting things, following the photograph in a certain way or interpreting the photograph, but something like a ceramic vessel, you can paint it and suddenly the scale shifts and changes.  You can leave out certain elements, you can add in certain things, shift a colour and suddenly it can look like a painting of something that’s 50ft tall. Then you’re orchestrating a sort of narrative

I still love the idea of something reflecting in the painting, because you’re looking in but it’s suggesting a space, it’s a weird slippery thing.

Like when you see a van Eyck with lots of shiny things in it and you’ll see van Eyck himself reflected in the mirror, but it’s distorted.  So where’s the viewer in that space?  Are you implied to be in that space as well? There’s the narrative of the staging of the painting, the narrative of the way the objects are kind of doing something a bit zany, maybe?  That sort of thing, playing with light and space, I would just do that all day.  I love it.  Paintings are like windows; you can think of them like windows. You can put windows in them, to other worlds and you can also play around with them so they are less like windows, more like screens, you can add some sort of digital field to them, or light to them, something kind of fluorescent maybe.  And then they can be like mirrors.  There are so many other metaphors you can think of.  I do think the one about mirrors is really fascinating.  I fell in love with the idea of specular highlights a couple of years ago and I’m still trying to figure out what it is about that shininess that fascinated me.  It’s a bit like the lure, something that draws you into the window then pushes you back out.  There’s a kind of to and fro.

What you’re not doing is really important as well.  You know, I’m doing these kind of floating things, I’m saying ‘I’m up for that’, that’s what I want.  I’m also doing these really detailed things, I like that, I’m also up for the interaction between them.  But there are so many other things that I’m not doing, you know with the marks that I’m using, the hand is quite tricky to find maybe. I quite like artists who work like that. 

You know the writer Norman Bryson?  Someone put me onto him a couple of years ago.  He wrote some fascinating texts about still life painting in particular.  He writes about Willem Kalf and others like that who make these very flat paintings, where you can’t really see the trace of the hand…he talks about a lot of Western representational painting as an erasive medium…like a mark that kind of erases itself.  So you think, that’s a way a viewer can go right into that scene, but actually the way that you’ve erased the mark draws more attention because you’ve done so much work to hide that.  It’s a really fascinating study of still life paintings that you’d think are really boring and I got turned onto it because I was painting objects and trying to figure it out. It just opens up a really strange genre of painting.

A couple of years ago I kind of thought maybe I’m a contemporary still life painter, because the paintings were made of these little objects, assembled in one space.  I love people like Damien Meade, William Daniels and people like that who make their own sculptures and then paint from them.  I have this old one that’s been hanging around the studio from years and years ago. 

After my MA I tried to make large work but it was a bit of a disaster.  You know one of those terrible moments when you’re in the studio and nothing’s working and you’re like, this is really awful and I’m just going to quit and that’s when you go, I’m going to make something more in tune with what I really want to make.  So I said, ‘OK, instead of making ten paintings I’m just going to make one.’  It was kind of like an experiment just working on one thing at a time.  I got rid of the feeling of the horizon and I think that opened up more kind of freedoms in the newer stuff. This and subsequent paintings were very influenced by Rachel Ruysch and other painters working in this ‘sottobosco’ or forest floor still life theme, as if you came across this scene accidentally rather than a carefully composed still life awaiting for you to address it.

I do still want to continue making work in that vein, because I only made four or five of these and it opened up this whole world and I can keep mining that world.  They were always surprising.  I feel like it’s a very slow body of work that’s just going to build in the background.  When I worked on it, it did feel like I was working on four or five paintings at the same time because I was working in one corner and then down in the other for a month and then I go up to another corner and eventually they would join.   

I feel like I’m taking this kind of work at the moment and just sort of blowing it apart and sort of imagining what’s in between and looking at ways to kind of, play around with chance.  I’m doing this thing that I haven’t done for years, working on something large, then moving onto another and picking up on something that feeds back in, so there is a kind of call and response between works.

You can see more of Donal’s work by visiting his website www.donalmoloney.net


* The V&A provides a database of images from it’s collections for public use. Henry Cole, the V&A’s first Director, declared that the Museum should be a “schoolroom for everyone”. Its mission was to improve the standards of British industry by educating designers, manufacturers and consumers in art and science. Acquiring and displaying the best examples of art and design contributed to this mission