Flush with meaning: John Kindness finds the epic in the everyday
Kindness cites James Joyce as his greatest influence, and he shares the writer’s fondness for building layers of meaning. His exhibition in Galway tells Homer’s Odyssey via decorated toilet seats and other mundane objects
He cites Joyce as the single most important influence on his development as an artist. The writer’s example was decisive in showing him how epic and mythological narratives were ultimately grounded in the everyday experiences of ordinary mortals. It was a lesson he took to heart: his dexterous, humane and witty art has consistently explored the way the big questions and issues lurk in the seemingly inconsequential details of daily life. In doing so, he has dipped extensively and inventively into classical myth, and his work sometimes takes the form of a kind of archaeology of the present.
His Galway International Arts Festival exhibition is called Odysseus, not Ulysses, because “it’s based on Homer, not Joyce”. The one thing he was never going to do was make a series of illustrations for the novel. At the same time, in a Joycean way, his multimedia treatment of Homer is definitely filtered through a contemporary lens, with all manner of references to the world we inhabit today, from 9/11 to Trip Advisor.
Kindness has devised an extraordinary patchwork visual language to deal with episodes from Odysseus’s 10-year detour on his way back to Ithaca following the siege of Troy, including a rather gory account of the dispatching of Penelope’s suitors when he finally arrives home.
Every image is a Transformer-like composite constructed from myriad sources, including collaged fragments of advertisements, commercial brands and the detritus of consumer culture. Kindness is an inveterate, ingenious recycler.
“I tend to look at rubbish tips wherever I am,” he notes. “I’m curious about what we choose to discard, what’s classed as junk and what that says about us. I had a whole drawer of items from rubbish tips as source material.”
A load of rubbish
Hence we find car bonnets, panels from electrical goods, toilet seats and old clothing pressed into service as supports for images painted, engraved or printed. The suitors meet their grisly end in an image painted on to what looks like a worn piece of plain linen. “It’s actually a mangle cloth,” says Kindness. “Something they used to protect clothes when they put them through a mangle.” Odysseus and his son Telemachus wear butchers’ aprons, a grisly joke, although the stripe pattern differs slightly on each. “The distinction is between master butcher and apprentice,” says Kindness.
The more you look at each scene, the more nuances you find. That goes back to Joyce, Kindness says. “I love the way he builds up layers of meaning.”
That’s what Kindness sets out to do himself, visually and in other subtle ways. When he uses a toilet seat as a canvas, for example, it alludes to the fate of the seafarers who fall foul of Scylla and Charybdis – the latter was identified as a whirlpool. The imagery is not drawn or painted on to the sanitary ware, however; it is engraved and inked in the manner of the sailors’ art of scrimshaw.
Odysseus set off with a group of compatriots but is the sole survivor. “Although they play significant supporting roles, it occurred to me that they are never really identified as characters, so I set about filling in the blanks. I thought, what’s characteristic of sailors? Tattoos, of course.”
He has made four stylised figures, each embellished with elaborate, thematic tattoos including such staples as the signs of the zodiac and the four elements. A leg is truncated on one of the figures. Immediately above it, a shark circles ominously. Another poignantly displays a motif popular with sailors: a ship’s sail emblazoned with the legend “Homeward”. “None of them make it,” Kindness says drily.
While the Odyssey is a series of large-scale adventure stories that covers a lot of ground – or water – there is another way of reading it. One work features a melancholy Odysseus mulling things over.
“The Jungian interpretation is that the whole thing happens in his head. He’s having a kind of mid-life crisis, suffering all sorts of doubts and difficulties.”
Kindness seems to be reasonably sympathetic to that view, and committed to the idea that we can take his work as being symbolically representative of the lives of everyday people rather than superheroes.
Every piece he makes, and the precise way he makes it, repays attention. Each is richly layered with a lot to offer, in terms of jokes as much as insights – and often jokes that are also insights. A couple of his sketchbooks are on display and a slideshow scrolls its way through the individual pages. They are beautiful in themselves and give an indication of the level of detailed work that has gone into the project.
There is also some earlier, relevant work on view, including a car bonnet painting of a modern-day version of Hercules slaying a lion. “Ah, Hercules,” says Kindness. “The Greek Desperate Dan: very strong, but not the brightest.”
Kindness was born and grew up in Belfast. When he attended Belfast College of Art in the early 1970s, he became disenchanted. “Not many people realise this,” he wrote subsequently, “but you don’t actually learn anything at art college any more; however, you do have to go there to find that out.” It was an experience that “nearly knocked the art out of me”. Finding the staff disassociated from “the mayhem” of the Troubles unfolding around them, like many of his contemporaries, Kindness looked to other ways of addressing the world in which he found himself.
Humour against bigotry
He worked as a graphic designer and he wrote and drew satirical comic strips, including a guide to telling the differences between Catholics and Protestants. Black humour and some latitude for creative manoeuvre were a means of coping with terrible events and a climate of bigotry. When a graphic-design assignment led him to research mosaic, it triggered an interest in using alternative media to create relevant, durable artworks.
Convinced that fine art had become disengaged from the lives of the vast majority of the population and the pressing issues of the day, he began to look for a way of making art that tackled both of those problems. That is pretty much what he has done since, with considerable success.
He has many public-art projects to his credit, including major works in Belfast and Dublin. One exceptional example is the Labor Monument in Elmwood Park in Philadelphia, which pays tribute to organised labour in the US and to “Philadelphia’s working-class history”. Kindness based the work on metal buttons from workers’ clothing. His seven 1m-diameter “buttons” commemorate milestones in America’s labour history. “When I visited the site originally, it was so run down I said that art was about 10th on the list of what was needed there. What’s great is that the project became a catalyst for the renewal and regeneration of the park.”
In 1994 he wrote that, when he finished art college, “I knew deep down that art couldn’t really change things”. By the time the Labor Monument was unveiled in October 2010, he could be forgiven for thinking that he had managed to demonstrate, through his own efforts, that art can contribute to real change.