Access to Incandescence: The Paintings of Conor Walton
[Editor’s note: The following is the first entry by our new contributing artist-journalist, Andres Orlowski, whom I interviewed this January for “In the Apex of Love and Suffering: Interview with Painter and Photographer Andres Orlowski.“ We are very pleased to welcome his voice and vision to our Combustus family here.]
onor Walton’s art is layered with deeply thought-out metaphors executed brilliantly. They burst forward, embodying humanistic themes in exuberant color. His body of work is both prolific and poignant, inviting the viewer to reflect on art and life.
INTERVIEW WITH CONOR WALTON, FIGURATIVE PAINTER
Wicklow, Ireland ~
Andres Orlowski: I see a strong iconic feel to your representation of nature and sexuality, as a symbol of ecstasy.
Conor Walton: I want to paint images that are, in some sense, ‘icons,’ that represent something I feel I can believe in. I want my pictures to carry conviction beyond technical competence.
Conor Walton: This is difficult because we lack images today that embody high ideals, shared ideals, in the way religious images did in earlier periods. My training as a painter is very much based in realism, which is a necessary crutch in an age when traditions and links with older forms of wisdom are weak or lacking.
Conor Walton: I think to get good as a painter you have to paint a lot of pictures, and still lifes and pictures of modest ambition have been a way to build up my painterly muscles. But I still want to paint icons.
Andres Orlowski: In your painting of Marsyas you make a direct interpretation from Titian’s work. Am I right in saying such direct reference is rare in your work?
Conor Walton: My Marsyas was my last straight take on a classical subject. [quote]I was really interested in the idea of ‘tragic painting,’ of being able to deal with death, suffering, cruelty, head-on and yet embed these within a scheme which retained a sense of a higher order, a sense of nature’s glory, despite the unfairness.[/quote]
Conor Walton: I was thinking of Bacon’s screaming heads as much as Titian, and of the Greek tragedians. Oedipus could say “notwithstanding the extremity of my sufferings, I am led in my old age and the greatness of my soul to judge that all is well.” I wanted to paint something in this spirit, an alternative vision of human suffering.
But Marsyas marks a turning point in my development. I found so few knew the story and were able to interpret my painting, even though I stayed true to the original, that I found myself questioning the point of painting illustrations of a dead religion, a mythology nobody really takes seriously anymore. I decided to invent my own subjects, classically inspired perhaps, but no longer assuming my audience has or needs a classical education to understand the images.
Conor Walton: There’s a term anthropologists use called, ‘repaired indexicality.’ When an idea is indexical, culturally speaking, it is so central that a hint is enough for someone to fill in what is not spelled out, not obvious. [quote]‘Repaired indexicality’ is what happens where the audience fills in the missing pieces, but not necessarily as was intended by the speaker or artist.[/quote] An example from art history would be viewers looking at an image of a Saint Erasmus, patron saint of sailors, and was shown with a windlass, assuming that the windlass was the instrument of his martyrdom.They imagine him being manually disemboweled using a windlass; this becomes a new story and is depicted by Poussin, for example.
Painting images that are strong enough to withstand interpretation contrary to my personal philosophy and intentions is part of my aim: where traditions of embodying meaning and significance in images are impaired, I think it is important that the image can withstand a lot of misunderstanding and reinterpretation. What I think important is that the images are striking and powerful enough that the viewer is drawn to internalize and ‘make sense’ of it some way.
Andres Orlowski: A strong example of finding one’s own subjects may be found in The Great Amphibium. Tell us more about this painting. It is the painting that first introduced me to your work.
Conor Walton: Sir Thomas Browne described man as “that great and true amphibium.”
Andres Orlowski: ‘Thus is man the great amphibium whose nature… divided and distinguished.”
Conor Walton: “…That lives not confined in separate elements but moves freely between them.’
Part of the point is that the fish is out of its element and has to get back to it, whereas man, having no ‘proper’ element, is free to go where he pleases. [quote]But that heroic notion of humanity as essentially free is one I find myself questioning more and more. [/quote]My more recent Phaeton is in some ways a less optimistic reworking of the idea.
Andres Orlowski: This contrast between systems of knowing and a more organic view is reflected in the The Lesson, perhaps?
I see shades of Nerdrum on the background.
Conor Walton: I came across Nerdrum’s work in the late 90’s, and it had a big impact on me. [quote]The old notion of artistic influence was really like ‘influenza’, as when some aspiring artist would enter the Sistine Chapel in malaria-infested Rome and come away delirious and in high fever, infected both by Michelangelo and the mosquitoes.[/quote] It felt that way with Nerdrum for a while, although I never found time to study with him (and was almost afraid to) I did study his work intently from a distance. He was a great example to me of how one could deploy the language of the old masters and speak convincingly to a modern audience.
Andres Orlowski: I think he has that effect on many painters, although it’s the first time I’ve heard it described that way.
I want to talk about your painting, The Key, which is one your son posed for.
Conor Walton: [quote]My son was diagnosed with leukemia when he was four, and we had two desperate years where we battled to save his life. When we finally got him home after his bone marrow transplant, I started this painting, which I had for so long wanted to paint. We still weren’t sure if we’d keep him. The picture would either be a memorial or a celebration.[/quote]
I wanted to bring him as close to the picture plane as possible, to make the illusion of life, of access, as strong as possible. The key dramatized the issue of access, with a keyhole planned for the frame, to complete the illusion.
As it happened, he recovered fully, and the painting, done from life over the following year, evolved as he returned to health.
I was able to give a copy of the picture to the hospital, and it hangs at the entrance of the bone marrow ward. Those who enter will note the scar on his chest that marks were the hickman line entered, and understand that this child is like those inside, but an escapee, a success story. I hope it gives them hope.
At a public level, at the level of someone ignorant of the back-story, it’s still about access. A boy at the threshold of two worlds, with the promise of access, with a key. That’s what I try to offer in all my paintings.
Andres Orlowski: Share with us something about your beginning influences as painter.
Conor Walton: As a teenager, I looked at a lot of stuff from the Renaissance. I remember being given a book of Michelangelo drawings and copying them endlessly, often adding sci-fi style skin-tight suits, and making comic-strips out of them.
I wasn’t a very arty kid. I loved drawing and painting but I was more into science and science fiction than ‘fine art.’ Most of my teenage work looked like sci-fi illustration. I had little interest in contemporary art and was very unprepared for art college.
Conor Walton: I read Kenneth Clark’s Civilization when I was seventeen. This was a major turning point for me in terms of explaining what high culture could teach. My personal curriculum of study from this point on was really based on studying philosophy, history, music and painting, to try to embody the ideal humanistic culture that I found in Clark. I also took a joint honors degree in painting and art history. I had such a difficult time in the painting department that getting a degree in art history seemed a wise policy. I half expected to crash out of painting and end up teaching art history.
Andres Orlowski: Was this because of the philosophy of the college?
Conor Walton: What I wanted was to be given skills to express myself as I saw fit. Those in charge largely opposed the teaching of skills and criticized the validity of my aims, which were seen to be reactionary, not ‘contemporary,’ paying no heed to the discontinuity with classical or humanist concerns that modernism embodied. Although I managed to survive art college, I left feeling I had not been taught how to paint and feeling that my thoughts and instincts were at odds with the modernist/postmodernist agenda.
Conor Walton: The following two years were an attempt to make up for this by doing a masters in art history where I explored the foundations of modernism, During my time in Florence, I grappled with the traditional techniques of oil painting and tried to learn the ‘secrets of the old masters.’
Andres Orlowski: Tell us about this painting:
Conor Walton: The original idea was to produce a set of pictures embodying the classical elements, but the ‘fire’ image was the one to really take off. 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 of 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 certain aspects of painting itself are bound up for me with incandescence.
Andres Orlowski: At first he reminded me of a Promethean figure, consumed by the fire he brings. A synthesis of one who destroys and one who attempts to understand.
Conor Walton: He has to spread his flame, to set others alight.
Andres Orlowski: You use strong color saturation and contrast in tone, mainly warms and cools. I have not seen this in too many painters in this way, perhaps Assael. How did you arrive at this aesthetic choice in color use? Do you use it symbolically?
Conor Walton:[quote] If I were a pianist, I’d want to be like Chopin. I want to play all the notes. [/quote]I want to use all the colors. My basic palette is based on earth-colors; most of the paint I lay on my palette are black, white and brown ochre. I don’t ‘do’ the impressionist palette, don’t do blue shadows or mix prismatic colors to make neutral tints. But if I need a saturated color, I’ll use the strongest, purest color I can find. My approach to color is more instinctual and based upon observation than explicitly symbolic, although I am aware of conventional color symbolism. I’ve struggled with color more than any other aspect of painting. My instincts are lurid, so treating brown and grays as my base is an important discipline.
Andres Orlowski: In your work, we often encounter a contrast in size between the human and the animal, which is something you appear to be intentionally weaving into your narrative.
Conor Walton: It is something I find lacking in a lot of contemporary painting where the reference is often a photo and the artist is drawn to exaggerate the scale to achieve a greater impact. Most of my painting is done from life and is life-size in terms of the scale of objects.
Conor Walton: Setting up relationships and comparisons of scale between human and natural elements is, I suppose, my way of addressing a deficit. I don’t think we relate very well to the natural world these days. We don’t see as much continuity between ourselves and nature as perhaps we should. I’m trying to establish relationships, to keep perspective, to be objective. But these pieces are also framed by the ‘vanitas’ idea. I think there’s an elegiac feeling to some of them.
Andres Orlowski: Allegory of Knowledge, which, as with work of yours in this vein, seems to deal with ‘Poesis’ in Heidegger’s sense of the word, a sort of reconciling of thought, matter and time. Actually the particular painting I am thinking of is Allegory of Wisdom.
Conor Walton: ‘Reconciling’ is perhaps too strong a word, but yes, finding a balance, an equilibrium between opposing elements. I originally called it ‘Knowledge,’ and the word seemed safer and more objective, but wisdom is what the painting is about.
Andres Orlowski: I get a sense in your paintings of this search for balance even when depicting difficult or painful events.
Conor Walton: Well, maybe I’m not the most well-balanced person to begin with! It helps me to try to work things out in images.
Conor Walton lives and works in Wicklow, Ireland.
He is represented by CK Contemporary (San Francisco, USA), Beaux Arts Bath (UK), Galleri Nexus (Denmark), Galleri Pan (Norway), Gallerie L’Oeil du Prince (Paris, France), The Peppercannister Gallery (Dublin, Ireland).
To view more of his work please visit his website,
Poet, painter and photographer Andres Orlowski describes his method of work as entailing four major areas: Life, Knowledge, Memory and Imagination. He sees an artist as a participator in a dialogue through time. At the center of his aesthetic is the human presence.
From his interview in Combustus magazine, “In the Apex of Love and Suffering: Interview with Painter and Photographer Andres Orlowski“: “I think when one is in the apex of love or suffering it is difficult to understand the ride. Patience. And then perhaps the reward: the value of solitude.”
To view and read more about his photography: ISSU: Andres Orlowksi ~ photo catalogue
To see more of his paintings and read about his artistic process: Andre Orlowski’s artist blog
For Spanish-speakers interested in reading Andres Orlowski’s poetry: Andres Orlowski’s poetry blog
My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.
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