Bringing home the bacon


PROFILE:Remember Rasher? His latest work captures the scent of runaway Ireland and he hopes it will cause a proper stink, he tells RÓISÍN INGLE

‘SOCIETY STINKS. We live in a world tainted with corruption, bribery, terrorism, racism, sexism, genocide and abuse. The stench is unavoidable; yet we are conditioned to ignore it. Rasher thinks we should know.”

The Rasher mentioned in the above extract from his bombastically worded press release is standing in his garden shed in Wicklow town putting the finishing touches to a foul-smelling potion that will be sold alongside the more conventional artworks in his upcoming exhibition, Womb to Tomb.

The name of this anti-perfume, this “pigfume”, is Stench of Society. So far the mixture contains cabbage leaves, Brussels sprouts, horse tail, Houttuynia plants, iris root and a few other secret ingredients he doesn’t want to mention “in case Britney Spears or someone else tries to steal my fragrance”.

“I was going to go for fish heads and other stuff – it’s amazing what you can find in fishing tackle shops,” he says.

“Have a sniff,” he offers, sticking a small bottle under my nose. It smells exactly like your common-or-garden stink bomb. The endeavour was partly inspired by Edvard Munch’s The Scream. “That was the artist wanting to paint a sound so I thought, why don’t I make up a stench for our time? It’s the artist’s job to observe society and make sense of where we are.”

His friends kept telling him that his work was too expensive so he wanted to create an affordable piece of art. The “pigfume” will come in a box signed by the artist with a limited-edition print of a painting that depicts Rasher and his wife Gillian, a stained-glass artist, as Beckhamesque perfume-obsessed characters. It will cost “around €150 or €200”.

In the image, Rasher is holding a pig in his arms, the pig is doing a wee and a heavily pregnant Gillian, as Posh, is clinging to his legs desperate to get her hands on the pig-wee potion.

“I’m fascinated by the cosmetic industry, the Botox, the lotions and potions, the extent we go to in order to say young, but it’s all an illusion,” he says. As part of his research he has been reading a biography of Madame Rachel of Bond Street, a con artist who used to mix up goat urine and snail gel and charged society ladies small fortunes for her bogus “youth enhancing” products.

He anticipates the fragrance will function as a neat party trick in years to come. “The idea is that 10 years from now, you’ll be having a dinner party and you’ll ask your guests ‘do you want to know what the world smelt like in 2010?’ then you will take down the bottle and give them a sniff,” he says. “It will smell like the time when we wanted so much stuff, when we didn’t care who we stepped over, building houses, buying houses, it didn’t matter how much it cost, it was desire. I look at it now and we have ended up as scavengers, scavenging for jobs, for money – that’s where the desire brought us.”

The project was also inspired by the work of Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni. “When I told my brother what I was doing, he said, ‘nobody is going to buy that’. But I told him, it’s a statement, an observation of society today. It got him thinking when I told him about Manzoni, who put his own excrement in 90 small tins. It is called Artist’s Shitand those tins are worth €3 to €5 million and are kept in the Tate Gallery. But this is what art should be, it’s to make you think about things and provoke you. It’s a show. Go and see the show.”

Rasher, born Mark Kavanagh, got his nickname as a six-year-old playing on the council estate where he grew up. Skinny and pale skinned, he caught a bit of sunburn one day and the name stuck. He is one of those Irish celebrity artists, such as Graham Knuttel – both artists are represented by celebrity agent Noel Kelly – who made a splash as much for their highly polished, hyper-real paintings as for the tabloid-friendly fact that their work was reportedly being hoovered up by Hollywood names. Colin Farrell was a collector of Rasher’s work and there were Late Late Showappearances – one when he was launched as a bright new talent for the millennium and another when working with Ali Hewson and Adi Roche on the design of a card to raise money for the Chernobyl Children’s Project. Then there was the exhibition in LA’s Chateau Marmont, where there were sightings of Cameron Diaz and lot of talk about potential Stateside projects, which never came to anything.

He was well known for his poppies. Pretty red blooms swaying under poetic cloud-strewn blue skies. They flew off the walls of Dublin galleries, such as BlueLeaf, in more buoyant economic times. There’s a YouTube clip that shows the self-taught artist with scraggly hair and an earring at his first Dublin exhibition at the Apollo Gallery in 2000, marvelling at all the money sloshing around, allowing people to buy his paintings to hang in their restaurants or hotel bars.

The hair is neater now. “I had to grow up,” he says. “I was losing the fight against the receding hairline. I colour in for a living, I play with paint in my shed, so it doesn’t feel right growing up but Gillian said I was starting to look like a crusty.”

Sitting over coffee in his kitchen, Rasher says that this latest exhibition represents two and a half years of work. He’d like to sell enough paintings to keep paying the bills; enough to support his wife and their two young children, Lucas and Mischa; enough to be able to keep painting.

“I want the same as anybody else, especially in these times. This is enough, it’s all I need,” he says, gesturing at the house and the family photos. “I lead a life of uncertainty . . . my friends say ‘how are things going for you’ and I tell them I won’t know until November when the exhibition is up. I will put this stuff on the wall and you don’t know what will happen, people might come in and say ‘brilliant, beautiful but I have no money’. I might be looking for a job in Tesco in a couple of weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’d be lucky to get a job in Tesco.”

There were times over the past couple of years when he found himself envying his bin man. “I remember standing watching the bin lorry drive past, and I was jealous of him: you’d have a guaranteed wage, wind whistling through your hair, hanging off the back of a lorry, I used to do that when I was a kid.”

He hasn’t had an exhibition for five years. Womb to Tombshows his darker side, which emerged when his mother Sheila was diagnosed with cancer. She died two years ago at the age of 62. Watching his mother’s health deteriorate caused a shift in his world view. “It made me think about life in a way I hadn’t before. I remember saying to myself, before this, I can’t be a controversial painter because I don’t think that’s who I am but in some ways I’ve been pushed into this.”

He opens the patio door to a small back garden to illustrate what he means. His studio is in the shed. He part dug the foundations himself with a snow shovel until the builders working on a nearby housing estate took pity on him and finished the job with their digger.

Inside, the ambient strains of Sigur Rós can be heard. He painted the whole exhibition to the soundtrack of the Icelandic band’s albums. The night of his mother’s funeral, he slept in the same bed as his father and came to the shed the next morning to work. The music was a motivator. “When I think about it, I never really grieved, I just got stuck into work so in a way these paintings were my mourning period,” he observes.

The family, he says, “nursed our mother until her death at home which is a very difficult thing to do”. She had always supported him, allowed him to use his bedroom and later a shed in their garden in Bray as a studio. She didn’t give out when he wasn’t able to hand up money for his keep the way his brothers and sisters did; she told him to be happy, to follow his passion.

The first painting visible in the cramped studio is a huge work called Dead Man’s Bells. The colours, brilliant blues and pinks, and the swirling endless sky is pure Rasher. The skeleton curled in a foetal position underneath the soaring foxglove or Dead Man’s Bells as they are known in America, is something of a departure. “I like the idea that when we go to our tomb we go back into the earth and when we decompose we feed new life, flowers bloom and then bees feed off the pollen and repollinate,” he says. “I find that cycle of life very comforting.”

Just to the right of this is an alarmingly authentic pig’s head with a bunch of flowers in a glass box, a work called Embalm and Calm. Another painting on the wall is a picture of his mother who used to tell him that self-praise was no praise, all the while quietly supporting her son’s dreams. “I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to do it if it wasn’t for my mother’s death because I’d have been afraid what people would think. I don’t care any more, it’s about expressing how I feel.”

Since she died, Rasher has been preoccupied with the ephemeral, the quicksand of life, the “here today, gone tomorrow” of existence. In this exhibition, the beautiful and the rancid sit side by side, like a disgusting perfume presented in exquisite packaging. “I just see beauty and tragedy hand in hand in everything I look at,” he says. “I see flowers and I just think in the next couple of weeks they are going to die. Everything I do now seems to be a reflection of that.”

Womb to Tomb will be at the Treasury Building, Mespil Road, Dublin 4 from November 10th to 19th