“How do you put yourself in a painting? It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and not known how.” A conversation with Richard Meaghan.

 WARNING: Contains adult themes and imagery.

Richard Meaghan is an artist based in Liverpool, with a studio in a biscuit factory where he paints and draws every day. Richard studied Fine Art at Staffordshire University and Wirral Metropolitan College and on graduating was awarded a travel grant to study Renaissance Art in Italy where he was taught how to make oil paint in a Monasterial retreat just north of Lake Garda. Richard has exhibited widely both nationally and internationally and recent exhibitions have included ‘The Sense of Things’ at Durden and Ray, Los Angeles 2017, ‘Art & Christianity Now’ at Southwell Minster, Nottingham 2018,  ‘My Artists Telescope’ at Jerwood gallery, 2019, (online exhibition curated by Nigel Cooke) and ‘The Undersides of Leaves’, a solo installation of works on paper, at Paper gallery, 2020. Richard also runs Paint Club, a small art school, usually held in his studio, but currently running via Zoom. Students pop by any time and are free to paint, draw, read, chat, drink tea and eat biscuits.

Brendan and I met with Richard in his studio in summer 2020, after the first lockdown began to ease.  We spoke about how recent events in Richard’s life have impacted his work as an artist.

Richard: Technically I know how to paint; I can paint anything I want to, but how do you put emotion in a painting? How do you put feeling in?  Like in my Zoom classes we say, how do you paint a birdsong?

All I knew is that I wanted to paint me. I wanted to be able to get me into the painting. Can I say this does not necessarily mean literally, physically me, but the idea of me, lived experience, my thoughts, my world… All the paintings that I had done before, yes they sold, but they sat in a world of the usual kind of colder, disassociated artwork that the art world lives off. You know, they don’t like the personal and emotional, they shy away from that. So my paintings at that time lived in that world and they did well because they worked nicely on hotel walls and in people’s houses. And I wasn’t worried at the time; I was always looking for a better gallery, always wanted a richer dealer. After having my son Charlie things changed, I realised that what I was painting before was too cold, there was no passion in it, there was no emotion, there was no life, none of my life and that’s what I wanted. I just wanted to paint and so I did just that. It’s only taken me about 20 years to find out how to put myself into a painting, ha!. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do but not known how and this realisation has been a huge step forward for me.

Brendan: And now you’re feeling like you’re getting there?

Richard: It was the cancer, it was finding out I had prostate cancer.

It was a big thing splitting up with my wife and knowing that was the right thing. We’d lost children through miscarriages. It was massively emotional; emotional for me as a bloke and totally horrible for her. We ended up being offered IVF and we had our son, Charlie, and then there was a little baby embryo, a blastocyst egg, sitting there waiting for us. But by the time Isabella was born, the marriage had completely broken down. It’s fine, we’re still friends, but that was the starting point, where I’d lost my manhood, in a way. I’d lost any physical sense of being a bloke, personally and sexually. I was happy having my kids, because I love them and I was happy being an artist because I love my job. But I found that as a man in his mid-40s, I had this need, that I was a physical man. I wanted love, but I also wanted a physical side again and these feelings came back like an absolute fire in me.

Then in 2018, a year later, I found out I’d got prostate cancer and I was like, okay, cancer yeah I’ll deal with it. I met with the surgeon. He’s all smiles you know, suited up, the pink socks or whatever, you know how surgeons are, really charismatic, and he was beautifully spoken. He just said yeah, once you’ve had the surgery you’ve got a 50–50 chance of being incontinent and you’ve got an 8% chance of ever getting an erection again. Well you know when the walls close in? I just felt like I had been given my manhood back and then had it snatched away. Afterwards I found out that we could just watch the cancer – I could do a test every three months, because it wasn’t aggressive. A lot of men go, “I’ve got cancer!” and want it immediately taken away while not fully knowing the reality of living without your prostate. They damage all the nerves by taking it out. I researched it and realised that no-one is really talking about what happens to us as men.

Feeling scared about my future, worried that my circumstances may mean I would not find love again, I found myself at the lowest point in my life. I had been accessing support from Sunflowers, a charity that supports people with cancer and then I was doing art classes with them and other stuff. It was important to talk about attitudes towards the penis and the idea of an erect penis not being just about sex. I know a little bit of low is creative in terms of bringing your emotions out, but I found myself crying in Tesco’s, you know, I was just shocked. I kind of lost myself a bit. I just came in here [the studio] and I worked.

Artist’s studio

Brendan: You were painting at the time?

Richard: I came in as I always do. I felt nothing at first, then I asked someone to pose for me and it started from there. I used her as a kind of safety net in a sense, to not think about the other things and I just worked. I drew her and drew her and drew her. She was who I drew, she was who I painted. I didn’t know where it was going. I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do and I just made hundreds of images of her to get me through. She kinda saved me.

Richard: I had started to wonder how I could paint about love and the search for it and such things, but also paint about how emotional I felt all of the time  – the lows and then massive highs, it was bleeding out of me. How then do you paint that in a physical manner? A lot of people will look at the paintings I did between 2018 and 2019 in only one way. I mean in terms of being a bloke in the PC world that we live in. You know – just another man painting a nude woman. But the work wasn’t about that, it was a personal thing, my journey that I wanted to put forward.  

Richard: My show in January 2020, at Paper gallery in Manchester was an installation of these drawings, of all the things I went through at the time. The larger paintings [above] were finished just after this.

The Undersides of Leaves exhibition, Paper Gallery, 2019

Josie: The paper you’ve used is really interesting. There’s just something about the quality that is so lovely. It’s like waxy plastic paper.

Richard: It’s called Lana Vangard. You can also use Polypro sheets – they work the same way. A lot of watercolourists are using it now.  It takes layers of pastel but it also really holds ink and watercolour. You can spray fix and work layers into it.  So it’s been refreshing. Watercolour is brilliant as an expressive medium. You have the chance to be really free, and with this paper you can wipe the watercolour off, so you don’t have to think about making mistakes.

The Fall, Watercolour, acrylic and ink on Lana Vanguard hi-tech paper, 60cm x 50cm, 2019

Richard: 2019 was a pivotal year. I had already met someone who I had fallen in love with – a cancer scientist, ha! We talked and talked about everything important in life and art. We talked about the shitty stuff and I realised I just hadn’t dealt with some things. There were things on my mind that I wanted to paint, experiences that had happened that I wanted to put down on paper.

Josie: But then lockdown happened, right? Did that impact your work?

Richard: Lockdown paradoxically gave me the chance to sit down and reflect, away from the visual distractions of the studio! I made time to research and write about late Picasso – something that I had been meaning to do for a year or so. I read that Picasso had a prostate operation in 1965 and this gave me a fresh insight into his late works. You realise his last works are always dismissed as the antics of a sex mad, male chauvinist. Coming into the 70s, with second-wave feminism, the art world was very conceptual and it was going against manly abstract expressionism and the physical bravado male, for which Picasso in a lot of ways stood as the king. They were totally super-sexed kinds of images and I found them completely amazing. But I get it – in the 70s there was a change in attitude both artistically and politically, which culminated in the ‘death’ of painting with the grey monochrome and flat, dead, painting. It takes away every emotion.

Richard: I realised that the 70s wasn’t a place for post-Picasso and he was dismissed out of hand. He took that emotional state that was totally anti ‘the death of painting’ to a real height in those late paintings. I don’t think artists have really followed him since. Everyone else has followed the death of painting, with a kind of ‘cool’ art that is disassociated with being human and being emotional. Those paintings became really important to me and helped me produce several paintings that tackled my experiences directly rather than in an overly emotional way [featured below]. They are rather brutal and unflinching. It allowed me to come to terms with some of the imagery I was using.

More images from Richard’s series of work ‘Make Love or Live’ can be found on his website by following this link.

(WARNING: These images contain sexually explicit imagery.) https://www.richardmeaghan.net/make-love-or-live 

Richard: These paintings, the situation and the essay I wrote on Picasso, ‘A Crisis of Masculinity’ have moved things forward in a way that has laid the foundations for a new body of work that deals with the very personal, as well as sardonic observations of a dysfunctional society.

Brendan: With some artists who are very emotional, the last thing they would do is put it in their artwork. They almost distance themselves and use art as a way to escape that.

Richard: I always knew that I wanted to find me in a way. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I know that some people will understand and some people won’t. I knew that what I was doing wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. I liked a lot of my paintings, don’t get me wrong, but I kept shifting, trying to find a place. I was always emotional. I didn’t know that I wanted to get that out. And yes, it’s taken a massive event in my life for me to sort of understand what it is I want to do as a painter. But that may change again in a couple of years, I don’t know, but that’s the journey. I’ve always painted the journey.

Brendan: The work you made 10 or 20 years ago, was that a reflection of who you were then or were you hiding behind that?

Richard: No I’ve always been the same person. I’ve always been like that, you know, but I’m trying to tease it out. You come at it from loads of different angles. I started in a place and I moved from there, you know on that linear path. It doesn’t matter where you start does it? Obviously, you see loads of things, you read loads of things, you’re influenced by loads of things and that all comes in and it drives you intellectually and technically and hopefully then you find your way.

Josie: But you did feel that in the earlier years you weren’t quite getting what you wanted?

Richard: I’ve always been technically adept. I pride myself on being able to look at any painting and know how it’s been done. I can put my hand to literally anything, you know, I read, I try and understand but I wasn’t feeling it, I was painting the idea of being a painter and not necessarily being true to myself.

Josie: There’s this argument though, that to be able to make any painting you want, you need to develop technical skill first. If, early on, you were trying to use your emotion predominantly to make paintings, you might not have been able to execute the paintings in the same way, as you wouldn’t have developed your technical ability yet. I feel like you’re not just getting emotion out, you’re also making something that is compositionally beautiful, that’s been worked out carefully. There are very technical things going on and very expressive things, so there’s a lot of skill needed.

Richard: That’s really important to me. I want art to be about everything. For me, art in the age that we live in, with everything at our fingertips – techniques, understanding Old Masters, understanding modernism, the difference between a window to the world and a lived experience – we can access so much, but it’s about how we paint that. I want to paint everything. I want technical skill and I also want to be able to have the freedom to lose myself. 

 We examined a highly detailed painting titled The Hour of Noon that Richard had recently re–worked.

The Hour of Noon, oil and pastel on aluminium panel, 110cm x 90cm, 2020

Richard: It was such a topsy-turvy painting, finished off in some ways by glazing through and scrawling ‘Impotent’ into what was a beautiful cloud and tree. The Hour of Noon refers to Nietzsche and his concept of eternal recurrence, an afterthought during the process of painting, as the cycle of life was the start of the painting and quite by accident, the ending too. It depicts the three stages of my life, young man painting desire, old man painting young man painting desire as a reflection on his life, and the horse symbolises virility, the man I am now. The violence of painting ‘impotence,’ as a kind of schematic word written large across the top, was important. Impotence is my worry and it sits heavily with me all the time, but also ‘impotent’ means that I can’t express what I want – how to paint what I feel. How do you do that? So I’m left unpainted in the painting, because I am not finished.

For me, art and painting are about scope. I don’t want to inhibit myself by painting the same thing over and over again. I want everything in there – abstract, realism, storytelling, mark making and being expressive.

Josie: And why not have everything in there?

Richard: And why not. But it’s scary. I really admire artists who do that. You know, life changes, the work changes. I’ve always felt like art runs parallel to your life. An emotional event has set me on a path, and I have found a reason to paint. Life couldn’t be better, my condition is stable, I feel like I am finally, after all these years, painting me for the first time and whilst all the crap was going on I met the most amazing woman and fell in love. The End ha!!!

You can find out more about Richard’s work by visiting his website www.richardmeaghan.net

An up-coming essay on Richard and his recent work will be published soon. Insights to this paper can be found here with art historian and writer Ann Murray  Prostate Cancer and Masculine Identity in the Work of Richard Meaghan | Ann Murray (ann-murray.com)