Conor Walton: Pessimism, Painting and the Incandescent Spark

Following my review of ‘Glow’ at the Catherine Hammond, I caught up with one of the artists, Conor Walton, via social media. We began a conversation which grew into the following fascinating dialogue – James Waller    


I wrote in the review of ‘Glow’ about what I perceived as a humorous aspect in your painting practice (I was thinking at the time of an image of a skull wearing a party hat). I understand now, however, that you are not comfortable with that perception or reading of your work?


Well, there is undoubtedly humour and playfulness in my work, but you described me in your review as a sort of painterly “comedian”, and I took exception to that. There’s an underlying seriousness to what I do that makes the “comedian” label misleading, I think. Mislabeling can be a particular problem with my sort of work. You also described me as a “classicist”, which is another label I don’t like. People sometimes call my work ‘classical’ in the sense of “classy”, which is a compliment, but classicism as a doctrine I don’t subscribe to. In the context of contemporary art, it often implies “backward-looking”, “politically reactionary”, “obsessed with narrow notions of beauty and good taste”, etc. None of these epithets really apply to my work, but via the label “classicist” I can get tarred with them anyway. This in turn justifies the marginalisation of my type of work, its exclusion from institutions like IMMA that promote “Modern” art. When you have to fight to be taken seriously in some quarters, being called a “comedian” can reinforce the attitude of high-brow condescension, which was why I took issue with it.


Rex 2013


Interpretation is a funny thing, isn’t it? When we engage with something, we generally tend to project something of ourselves onto the experience, and so everyone tends to see something different or differently. The weirdest one for me was having an installation piece, called “Icon Chamber”, labelled ‘occultist’, with secret references to Wicca. The installation contained, and was about, Russian Iconography!!! Your comments about classicism intrigue me though. I know the marginalisation issue is a big one, but there are many Classical Greek and Renaissance themes and references in your work which read to me as a very genuine grappling with that tradition. In what way do you think of this work, if not in light of Western Classicism? Understand, I’m not referring to any contemporary art world prejudices, but to art historical threads…


Classicists usually espouse “timeless values” and hold (contra Naturalists/Romantics) that the most important example to guide living artists is the art of antiquity, often identified with works from the golden age of Greek art. This sort of doctrine allowed the early Renaissance Italian critics to attack Van Eyck and Van Der Weyden on stylistic grounds (even though they could paint any contemporary Italian painter under the table). It allowed the Poussinists to attack the Caravaggisti, the Dutch Classicists to attack Rembrandt, and the French academics to attack Gericault, Courbet, Manet, the Impressionists, etc. All were derided for ugliness, for departing from the eternal principles of ideal beauty, as revealed to us in antique art. In these debates my sympathies are always with the Naturalists/Romantics/Eclectics who didn’t tow the Classicist party line. Yes, my work is ‘learned’ and displays knowledge of the art of antiquity, traditional symbolism, etc. It displays a lot else, however. The amount of plastic in my paintings, the eclecticism of my sources and references (children’s toys, political cartoons, current affairs, pop songs, supermarket products) all these, from a hardline Classicist point of view, are corruptions and signs of Relativism. My lurid colour, my love of the grotesque, these too are signs of corruption, decadence. Classicists usually espouse some sort of humanism, some version of the creed than “man is the measure of all things”, generally supportive of the idea that in our capacities we are “a little lower than the angels”, well above “gross nature” and thus capable and justified in shaping the latter to our needs and wishes. I simply don’t believe this. I think my work, taken as a whole, strongly expresses a vein of anti-humanism, of pessimism about our capacities and fate. True Classicists, who tend to perceive their values as threatened these days, and who perceive these signs in my work, will tend to read them as deeply subversive, heretical, dangerous. Progressives (who share with humanists a high estimation of human nature but take a more complacent, optimistic view of our future) tend to see the same things in my work as buffoonery, as “jokes” that needn’t be taken too seriously.


The Crusaders Entering Constantinople, 2015



I’m intrigued by your sense of pessimism and anti-humanism, and it strikes me as somewhat paradoxical. Is painting not, in its very essence, by its very existence, and our platform for it, an optimistic phenomena? I have just been looking at your piece The Optimists, a satirical piece, obviously, but which also delivers, with genuine delight a beautiful colour melody…


I’m a “cultural pessimist”. I believe that our civilization is in crisis, and that, on many fronts, things have to turn out rather badly. I think it’s unavoidable at this point: we’re heading for disaster. Dreadful things are happening; an evil is unfolding that will rock our civilization to its core. We’ve unleashed forces that could lead to our own extinction, to say nothing of what we’re doing to the rest of life. My work bears witness to this in a small way, as I feel it must (and I think it does so with much joy, really). But for those who believe in “Progress”, who believe that we must grow ever more scientific, ever more enlightened, freer, richer and more just, this is a very hard lesson to learn. I think they’ll learn the hard way that history really isn’t on their side, but right now anyone that points this out is usually called a “pessimist”. That’s the role I have to play. The hilarious thing is that, in these days, when we supposedly “have nothing to fear but fear itself” and Optimism is the state religion, it’s much more fun to be a pessimist! It’s subversive! And I’ve discovered through my work that there’s an unexpectedly large market for pessimism. People “get it”. They share it, more than they’d like to admit.


The Barbarians at the Gates, 2015

As for my personal temperament, I think of myself as perhaps “sanguine”. The four classical temperaments offer a little more choice and nuance than the optimist/pessimist duality that we try to fit everyone into. When I was starting out as an artist I toyed with the idea that I was “melancholic” because melancholy was traditionally associated with Genius, but it never suited me. I love my work, I love my food, I’m fascinated by the world around me, I’m raising a young family, I feel incredibly lucky on so many fronts. If I take a dim view of the state of our human world, I think that’s an honest reckoning, not due to any ill temper on my part.

It’s worth remembering that “optimism” is an eighteenth-century word. It entered the English language with the translation of Voltaire’s Candide, which is subtitled Optimism. He was taking the piss out of this new philosophy, expounded by “Dr. Panglos”, according to which everything always works out for the best. As a rigorous philosophy it never really bore scrutiny, but it matched the spirit of our truimphant Western Civilization. Unfortunately, that triumph is now unraveling.

I think we have to try to remember how people thought before optimism, how they coped with suffering and adversity. Ultimately we need to come to terms with tragedy, in its oldest sense. The meaning of tragedy has been degraded: as you hear it on the news today it means “something dreadful that shouldn’t have happened.” But tragedy as the ancient Greeks understood it is something inevitable; the unfolding of fate. The process of enlightenment in classic tragedy is a coming to terms with fate, the acceptance of one’s destiny (however hard), and a rejoicing in it. I think, given what we face in the real world, the great artistic opportunity of the coming century will be the “Rebirth of Tragedy”. No other artform will salve our guilt. And looking back, I think Optimism has been a tremendous blight, artistically, culturally, with its ‘happily-ever-after’ stories, its whitewashed fairy-tales in which the Wolf doesn’t eat Little Red Riding Hood. Optimism rendered the Holocaust meaningless, incomprehensible.


The Joker Wins Again, 2015


I certainly can’t argue with your prognosis of our civilization. I recently saw a large exhibition of Daniel Richter’s work in Denmark. Do you know him? What struck me most on seeing his work was the dichotomy between his blazing, almost joyous colours and the apocalyptic verve of his imagery. It is a paradoxical state that to me vividly mirrors the spirit of the age. Inevitably, and Richter says this himself, painting, as filtered cultural object becomes a consoling force, removed somewhat from ‘reality’ (whatever that is). You say you love your work – do you also see it, not just as a warning, but as a consolation for others? Is it, perhaps frustrating if it becomes so?


I’ve seen some of Richter’s paintings but I’m not hugely familiar with them; I haven’t attended an exhibition of his work. I don’t really understand what he means about painting being a consoling force. ‘Consolation’ seems to imply a power-relation: children are consoled by their parents; adults are consoled by religion, by ideology, by money, perhaps by art too, but isn’t each of these basically an infantile response to inadequacy and loss? I’m certainly not trying to either warn or console. I’m trying to reflect what’s going on, both on the surface and beneath it. My own agenda is really selfish and compulsive: being a “visual” person I need to come up with images to express – to work out – how I feel and think. Painting helps me to see better, and even where my paintings fail, realizing them helps me to see and correct the flaws in my vision. I hope that my vision aligns with others, and that by performing a service for myself I’m performing it for others, too, in some sense. But reactions differ: some people will see a picture and say “Yes! This picture sums up my feeling too.” Others will sigh, roll their eyes and shake their heads in disapproval – as I do, often enough! Each painting is a battlefield to me: it represents a struggle, and even when successful, something more like a truce than a victory. It couldn’t possibly console me! If someone else is consoled, that is their prerogative, I suppose, but it strikes me as a strange response. It seems to make me, as the ‘consoler’, a focus of devotion and authority, and I’m not comfortable with that.


I also wonder at the schism in the West, stemming from the ‘Enlightenment’, between metaphysics and logic. Do metaphysical or spiritual concerns come into your work? I ask this as it seems to me that the loss of the spiritual dimension in Western discourse has given ‘carte blanche’ to the current, and as you say self-destructive, course of scientific determinism…


I don’t buy into the idea that “scientific determinism” is the problem in any way. Science is supposed to determine things, and every determination it makes is an absolute blessing: it provides the hard knowledge we need to make whatever choices we have. The notion of an epic conflict between “science” and “spirituality” I find totally fake: it only serves those whose beliefs don’t look good when a hard, bright light is shone upon them. Humans are so prone to delusion and wishful thinking, and so much “spirituality” falls under those headings! The traditional religions have had a hard time from modern science, but richly deserved it in so many respects. The intellectual feebleness of New Age spirituality is a wonder to behold! Both are at war with modern science because the latter has shown up the tendentiousness and fraudulence of so many of their claims. Looking at the wider world, I just don’t see an excess of logic or a dearth of metaphysics. Far from it! We remain stubbornly metaphysical creatures, and metaphysics still suffers from its age-old flaw of veering off into wishful thinking and outright delusion. As a painter (and a person) my core philosophy is realism. Realism points in the opposite direction to metaphysics or any sort of disembodied spirituality. It always has. Take Leonardo as an example: he’s unusual as an early modern painter who wrote a lot. What did he have to say about God? Next to nothing. Pretty much every time he mentions God in his notebooks, it’s either part of a stock phrase, totally unrevealing of his convictions, or tinged with irony. This is despite the fact that most of Leonardo’s paintings are supposedly “religious”. And he’s not alone: his studio-mate Perugino is famous for his many alterpieces, but according to Vasari he was also notorious for his personal irreligiousity. Underneath the surface, what’s inspiring the development of painting from the 15th to the 19th century is an anti-metaphysical movement; a rejection of the whole scholastic philosophical superstructure with God at its apex. What really fires these painters up is what metaphysics has tended to neglect and denigrate, which is visible nature, that which is directly perceivable through the senses. The body, the experience of subjective perception, the expression of personality is fundamental to every major artistic development from Van Eyck to the Post Impressionists. What’s really striking is how little influence “spiritual” or “metaphysical” ideas had on Western painting. Neoplatonism was merely the official doctrine of reactionary academicism throughout that whole period, and of almost no consequence. But when we reach the 20th Century and High Modernism, out goes the body, out goes visible nature, in comes ‘The Spiritual in Art’ and ‘The Dematerialisation of the Art Object’. In other words, in comes Metaphysics (or Bullshit and Delusion).


Allegory of Knowledge, 2006

The real story of our time is the triumph of an anti-nature philosophy on the back of rampant industrialism. In the arts, what best expresses that philosophy has been disseminated most widely, with all the force that mechanical reproduction makes available. Modernist propaganda tries to put a more positive spin on the facts, obviously. And with the decline of conventional religious belief, Art has become a substitute religion among the Cultivated, and artists have become its prophets, saints and martyrs, and even its gods! The result is a sad parody of religion, with the gullibility of the masses and the rich exploited to the full, rubbish venerated superstitiously and sold for millions, curators and academics enjoying all the perks of priesthood, and artists rewarded and worshipped for bluff, charlatanry and megalomania. It doesn’t work. It’s not my job to console or redeem anybody. I can’t offer escape to a better world. I might, through my work, help reconcile people to this one, help them enjoy it, make them a little more worldly. To do my work, ‘spirituality’ as a word or a concept is something I hardly need at all. ‘Deterministic science’, on the other hand, I hold steadfastly to with all my heart. What science is currently determining, coldly and clinically, is the likely endpoint of out-of-control industrialism for our planet and ourselves. In doing so, it may force us to reappraise the beauty and importance of nature. The ideology of “Progress”, the notion that we are demigods in control of our own destiny, is now under sustained scientific attack, since it has become obvious that we barely understand the consequences of our actions, and even when granted some insight, remain stuck on the road to disaster, such are the forces of social and economic inertia. In my sort of cultural warfare, the science is entirely on my side. But modern ‘spirituality’ is, for the most part, the sort of delusive, self-centred humbug I have to fight every step of the way.


Odd Nerdrum has been a big influence on many contemporary figurative painters, and – correct me if I’m wrong – I seem to see his influence in your painting as well, especially the single-object still lives. I’m particularly fascinated by your painting ‘Big teeth eat little teeth’, as it appears to be an in-part appropriation of Nerdrum’s painting of dentures. It seems to be a painting with many levels and reminds me, in a way, of Luke Hillestad’s ‘Acolyte’ which also appropriates a Nerdrum. Could you tell me something about this, and about your engagement with Nerdrum’s work and that of the Nerdrum School (if any)?


I discovered Nerdrum’s work in the late 90’s and it had a big impact on me, both stylistically and philosophically. The hostile reception he received from the Modernists and Optimists certainly rang a bell! He articulated better than any one else the capacity of painting to be counter-cultural, to powerfully embody precisely those truths that our civilization is most at war with. Particularly his work from the 90’s seemed to conjure a post-apocalyptic world that resonated strongly with the fears of our generation. I hugely admired his freedom, his ability to create his own subjects, his own myths, and his frank willingness to play the prophet and genius to the hilt. I visited him several times and perhaps would have studied with him, but the arrival of my first child set me on a different path: at that point my student days were over. He was also embarking on his Kitch crusade, which I found much less interesting, along with his later work. And while I still greatly admire him, my own work has taken a different path too. Some influences are still plain to see, though.


Big Teeth Eat Little Teeth, 2005


Your ‘Burning Man’ that was on show in the Catherine Hammond, strikes me as an ‘image-beyond-narrative’, that is an irreducible visual enigma, that may elicit any number of narratives, each a product of the viewer’s own musing. Could you tell us something about ‘Burning Man’ and the series of which it is a part?


The idea for this image originated in a project to paint personifications of the classical elements. The element of fire was the only one that, rather literally, took legs and ran. Doing justice to the subject has become an obsession, leading me through several versions; standing to begin with, but becoming ever-more dynamic. I’m rather proud of the compositional strength and dynamism of this version, built so firmly on the diagonals of the square, and centred on the groin – the fulcrum of the figure’s energy As for the disturbing, demonic character of this figure, I’ve had very mixed feelings about it. Sometimes images emerge that are compelling but that leave one at a loss to understand the source and nature of their power. He may be an image of human evil, or perhaps an expression of our modern zeitgeist with its apocalyptic nightmares of global warming. I thought of calling him Lucifer – ‘Light-bringer’ – but became wary the moral judgements such a title might inspire. More recently I’ve come to see a perverse joyfulness in this figure that, in truth, I admire. Perhaps, for me, certain aspects of painting itself are bound up with his incandescence. He has to spread his flame, to set others alight.


Burning, Burning, Burning, Burning 2008


Interview by James Waller:

Images courtesy of Conor Walton:




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