Celebrated British artist John Kirby is known for his enigmatic portraits that depict figures gazing melancholically from symbolic narrative scenes, set against sparse dream-like backgrounds, almost as if within a parallel universe. His work tackles themes that are not only personal to the artist but also pay tribute to contemporary sociological themes covering the complexities of identity, religion, race, gender and sexuality. English writer and critic Edward Lucie-Smith has said that “There are few artists who give such an unsparing and intimate account of what it is like to be living in western society at the beginning of the third millennium".
Born in Liverpool in 1949, Kirby was raised as a Catholic and served as an altar boy before spending time as a shipping clerk. He then travelled to Calcutta to work in a children’s home run by Mother Teresa. Upon returning to England, Kirby settled in London where he found employment firstly as a social worker and later as a probation officer. It was not until the 1980s, when he was already in his thirties, that Kirby decided to attend art school, enrolling at Central Saint Martin’s School of Art and going on to the Royal Academy of Arts. John Kirby has been exhibited internationally and his works are held in several public collections including the Tate Gallery, London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the private collection of David Hockney. A major retrospective of the artist’s work was held at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, the city of his birth, in 2012.
This viewing room brings together selected unique prints created over two decades in collaboration with master printmaker Pete Kosowitz (of Hope (Sufferance) Press and Thumbprint Editons) and more recently with master printmaker Rob White.
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Often cited as being sublimated self-portraits, John Kirby's characters, whether depicted alone or in disquieting tableaux with a counterpart, illustrate the conditions of isolation, loneliness, and repressed emotions. In works that feature multiple characters he often uses imagery such as doppelgängers, surreal miniature characters, puppets, and ghost-like children that look as if they belong in the past, often with an uncanny resemblance to the adults that they accompany. These works render Kirby’s feeling of possessing a divided self; for example Talking to a Stranger, which depicts two almost identical faces in profile under the moonlight, creating a paradox with the works title. Likewise in The Ventriloquist, a smartly dressed man with almost no distinguishing facial features manipulates an identically dressed dummy.
Ambiguity is often at the core of John Kirby’s evocative images. Each image is subject to a long period of stripping away any detail of individuality, distilling humankind into a single figure, taking away everything that might be extraneous to the meaning of the painting. Edward Lucie-Smith argues that the best way of approaching Kirby’s oeuvre, now elaborated over three decades, is to see it as “theatre”, the “generic stiffness of his figures is deliberate. It springs from the fact that they function as signs, actors wearing generic masks of a person, rather than representations of any specific person or place". Lucie-Smith believes that this allows the viewer to read the images as they would read written communication, rather than simply looking at them.
The seemingly mundane activities and clothing seen in Kirby's work only enhances the sense of unease which pervades the images. Gender is represented as equivocal, as boys and young men explore gendered motifs. This can be seen in Days Like These, where the familiar male figure, dressed in a black gown, stands in the centre of a vast and empty landscape.
British journalist Robert Heller has spoken of John Kirby's "essential humanity", describing his work as "moving and mysterious...an art of paradox, of deep contrasts, at once simple and profound, powerful yet engaging, surreal yet realistic, symbolic yet clear...the emotions that so permeate these works are mainly negative, but studying John Kirby's paintings is a decidedly positive experience. The troubled mind lives side by side with the sympathetic heart".
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