Interview: Paul Piercy | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Loujain al Hathloul oil on canvas

Newcastle based artist, Paul Piercy painted his first portrait in 1970 and has since exhibited his work in London, Bristol and Newcastle. His latest exhibition, The Black Portraits, remembers and celebrates the lives of twenty modern human rights champions who have been imprisoned or killed defending human rights. Each painting tells the person’s story and their head is painted only in thick black paint.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition is now online and so we caught up with Paul to find out more about it.

How would you describe your artistic style? Who are your artistic influences?
I’ve always been a figurative painter but my style and subject have changed considerably over the years.  For the last 14 years, I’ve focused on portrait painting.

My first influence was my mother who was a watercolourist. After that, I have been consciously influenced by the cave art at Les Eyzies in France and the Haida and Kwakiutl cultures of North-West America. Other than that I’m not consciously influenced by any one artist, however, I do know that my favourite painters are Rembrandt, Francis Bacon and Banksy.

What inspired this exhibition? Was there a specific incident or event that made you decide to take action with your work? You paint the head of the human rights champion in thick black paint. Where did this idea come from and what were you trying to convey to those viewing it?
There is a specific moment that set me painting The Black Portraits. In 2010 while watching the news on TV there was a piece that caught my eye on the Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, writer and poet having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I’d never heard of him but thought “I’d love to paint that face”. Quite prosaic really until you remember I’m a portrait painter and tend to look at peoples faces from that perspective. Not as people as we all mostly do but as art.

Then in a flash, I wanted to know more about this person. Why was he a Nobel Laureate? What is his story? Why had I never heard of him? And more importantly, Will we ever hear about him again once this news item has run its course? That last question set me thinking about painting his story knowing that once painted the story would somehow be permanently ‘out there’ for anyone to see and understand not just when it’s on the news. Question was, how to paint his face? Even if he permitted me. I couldn’t because he was in prison. Now I have been using black paint without any colours on a number of projects over the past forty years so am familiar with its particular properties of reflection so I set about painting this story using thick black oil paint to capture all Liu Xiaobo’s features. With the moments of his story in colour and his face entirely in black, I was assured it ‘worked’. During the research on Liu I fell upon other human rights activists, none of whom I had heard of, but whose stories I felt equally compelling and so started The Black Portraits.

This exhibition records, remembers and celebrates the lives of twenty Human Rights Champions, with so many human rights atrocities in the world. How did you go about selecting them?
All the human rights activists that I have chosen are brave, very brave, individuals who have consciously and routinely put themselves at risk in order that the society in which they live can be more just, fair and safe. They are all in prison or have been killed. After that, the choice is a personal one. For no apparent reason, I’ll be drawn to one person rather than another. I tend not to go for anyone that is very famous as their story is already well known. I do take into account exhibiting the paintings so there must be a wide variety of stories to ensure the paintings will ‘work’ together.

Do you feel art currently does enough to shine a light on social injustices?
There is a vast amount of brilliant art and painting done onsite by activists in every different part of the world. It is part of activism in whatever dictatorship or democracy needs to be called out. You only have to see the Amnesty Magazine to see their variety, quality and importance; yet most is not seen outside its setting. An exception is Banksy. There is however much social comment in Western art and probably the finest currently comes from Grayson Perry.

There can never be enough art that exposes social injustice and what there is is not properly supported. I do know that the Art’s Council doesn’t support it, in my experience, as it is interested in art for art’s sake not art for human right’s sake. Also, it is impossible to make any money from it and some publicly-funded venues baulk at the idea of showing anything controversial. For instance, showing a Chinese dissident in a city that relies heavily on Chinese students and Chinese investment. Famous artists excepted.

How did you feel about putting the work online? How can those who are moved by your work help?
Corvid 19 pandemic and lockdown means no public exhibitions but I’m fine about showing The Black Portraits on the internet. It remains the case that to see the actual paintings is an experience of quite a different order. For one thing, the paintings are large, 110cm x 160cm. The intensity of the pigments and their shapes and composition excite the eyes and so the subconscious. The three-dimensionality of the thick black paint of the faces changes as you move in front of the portraits. Then there is the experience of seeing twenty of them gathered to make one alarming perspective of a world often not seen and yet one of great hope as the stories of each of these brave human rights defenders emerge.

The prime purpose of The Black Portraits is to inform. Without information, democracy will fail. So this information about how governance works in different countries is vital lest we ever forget. It is information carried like a Trojan Horse. The carrier is Art. Art is a powerful tool if you want to spread information.  The renaissance Church knew that and employed the finest painters to get their information across. Of course, dictators have used art for their purposes. And cave painters. But yes if people are also moved by either The Black Portraits or their stories then I will not be surprised and I leave it to each individual to respond in whatever way is mindful and meaningful to themselves and beyond.

Once a level of normality returns after the pandemic do you have plans to exhibit this work again?
There are no immediate plans for an exhibition though there are many possibilities which I will pursue once I’ve completed all the paintings. There is also a book in preparation but not yet complete. It has many notable Guest Contributors who know personally the human rights defenders featured and it will be fully illustrated. It has yet to find a publisher.

Portrait of Liu Xaobo

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