Out from the crowd

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INTERVIEW:What’s interesting about painter Sam Horler is not so much that he comes from a long line of artists that goes back to Maud Gonne – it’s the quality of the work, writes GEMMA TIPTON

THE ART WORLD has its heroes and its villains, and for every artist who becomes a financial, critical or social success (or maybe even all three) there are many more working away, with varying degrees of talent, waiting for that certain something to happen that will bring their art to the wider world. That particular “something” can come in a variety of guises, such as being picked up by a gallery, selected for a prestigious exhibition, being written about in the art press, or attracting the attention of influential curators and collectors.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what it is that makes some artists a success, while others remain unknown, and sometimes, watching the real pros at work, you see how every move is part of a carefully orchestrated plan to achieve their goal – and this doesn’t always have any relation to the quality of an artist’s work. Most people have their own opinions about the relative merits of the work of artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, but every now and then an artist comes to your attention, and you think: this person’s really got something.

That’s what I thought when I met Sam Horler. Horler graduated from the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (DLIADT) in 2007. Since then he’s been in a number of group shows, though he has yet to have a solo exhibition. He hadn’t intended to go to art school immediately, either – the initial post- Leaving-Cert plan was to travel around Europe, and see how things turned out, but a summer job (which sounds like the summer job to end all summer jobs) looking after Noelle Campbell-Sharp’s house in Kerry made him think more favourably about training to become an artist. “It had a huge banquet hall with a piano, a pub inside, and I had it to myself for about three months,” remembers Horler. Occasionally artists would come to visit while they were working on residencies in Cill Rialaig, around the corner. “For two weeks the singer John Martyn and his high-pitched terrier came to stay, so you’d have these piercing barks and this thick Scottish voice belting out at each other around the house.”

Horler listened to Martyn play. “He would sing some seriously personal songs. I think he sang his prayers.” Another visitor was Annie Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s daughter. She was small and dark, rather like her father, though without the moustache, recalls Horler. Chaplin saw Horler’s sketchbooks, and was “very enthusiastic”, inviting him to paint the stage sets at her theatre in France while staying at her and her partner’s house. “I never took up the offer,” he says. “I went to art school instead. I just wasn’t confident enough and felt I needed a lot of training.”

Horler’s love of art hadn’t simply come from a summer job – he’s from one of those families where art is, if not in the blood, at least in the dinnertime conversation. His several-times-great grandmother was Maud Gonne, making Iseult Gonne and Francis Stuart his great grandparents, and the sculptors Imogen Stuart and Ian Stuart his grandparents. His own parents are Ken and Aoibhi Horler. “My mother was artistic too,” he tells me, “but then she had seven children, which sort of puts a stop to that.” They didn’t have a TV for a long time when growing up, “which was good,” Horler remembers. “And then when we did, my father was really tough about what we could watch. If he caught us watching Home and Away there’d be war.” His father is now living in the Sierra Nevada in Spain. “There were too many cars for him in Ireland,” Horler explains.

So, without a television, did he grow up instead steeped in the literature of Francis Stuart? “He was actually a definition of boredom for us kids,” Horler admits sheepishly. “There’s a book called The Abandoned Snail Shell, and I tried to read it. I thought, ‘brilliant, this is my great-granddad’s book’, and I brought it to school to show off, but then I started to read it and it was so boring. But then,” he hastens to add, “when I was a bit older, I read Black List Section H, and that’s really powerful.”

The quality of his work is impressive. When we meet, at his basement studio in Dublin city centre, the work on the walls is an odd mix. On two sides are black-and-white pencil drawings of faces disfigured by disease, while on the other two gaily coloured pastel sketches of people smile back, or stare into the distance. Horler tells me he did the latter to “cheer myself up” after doing the former. Meanwhile, on the floor, are photographs of Audience, a collection of larger-than-life figures, painted onto cardboard, which had formed the basis of his degree show.

Audience came about through Horler’s experiences playing music and busking. Sometimes there wouldn’t be a crowd, and sometimes what crowd there was wouldn’t be paying attention.

“So I thought I’d make my own,” he says. We look at the different figures, they all have different attitudes, different expressions. “This one, she’s checking you out, he’s bored over there, this girl is saying ‘impress me’, and this one here – she’s the muse.” Where are they now, I wonder, as we leaf through the photographs of the installation. “In a suitcase,” Horler tells me. “They fold down very small.”

Following his degree, he had been working on making Audience into a larger exhibition for the concourse exhibition space at Dún Laoghaire County Council’s offices. It would have been absolutely brilliant there, but the project fell through. “I thought they were really on for it, but it didn’t happen,” he says with a wistfulness that makes me wonder how the hard knocks of the art world will suit him. “I wanted to go round Europe, and paint the people I met. All my peer group: paint them immediately onto cardboard,” he says, enthusiasm for the idea returning. “Then, I’d bring them back, a suitcase of people, a ready-made audience.”

While waiting for Audienceto find a way of happening, Horler, now 24, has been turning his mind to Picasso and to the theory that some of his Cubist and abstract masterpieces, including Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, weren’t the results of a mathematical attempt to depict an image from all sides simultaneously, but were instead driven by Picasso’s fear of having contracted syphilis during his misspent youth. Horler’s reworkings of Picasso’s art works (and others) are disturbingly exact drawings of the ravages this disease once caused to the faces of its sufferers. As we chat in the studio, I notice that I have instinctively turned my back on these images, instead facing Horler’s “cheering up” sketches of colourful people. “You don’t believe art is just a thing to hang on the walls, do you? Just decoration?” he asks me when I point this out.

I don’t, exactly, I reply, but I do recognise a human need to have more pleasing pictures around us.

“I’m often asked why I don’t stick to one subject matter,” he says. “There is the idea that artists should hold to a core theme. But look, Stanley Kubrick did sci-fi, comedy, romance, horror. Bob Dylan – he’s just got heavy metal left to do! I admire those kinds of artists, the ones full of too many ideas.”

We walk across the studio. “It’s very hard to judge your own work,” says Horler. “I’m not mad about this one,” he points to a particular image, which I rather like. “My friends like it, but to me, I get agitated looking at it.”

Sam Horler teaches courses at the Rossnaree Art School in Slane, Co Meath a few times a year, and is having a show in his own studio in October. It’s not about the money, he tells me. “I don’t spend much money, I like to buy coffee, but that’s about it. That’s the main thing you should learn in school – not how to get money, but how to live without it.”

For information about courses at Rossnaree Art School, contact Aisling Law at 041-9820975

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