Colourful artist drawn to the great Irish writers and inspired by Nietzsche


KIERAN MCGONNELL:KIERAN McGONNELL, who has died aged 43, was an artist whose work was extravagantly colourful and vibrant, and whose short life was lived to the full.

An advocate not just for his own work but for art and life in general, he adhered to the German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche’s dictum that “we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh”.

Kieran McGonnell was born in Cork in 1967 and went to school in CBC, an institution more renowned for rugby players than artists. His aptitude for maths saw him, with some parental encouragement, take a science degree at the Cork Institute of Technology before heading off to New York – the budding artist looking for fertile soil.

Initially, he took an IT job on Wall Street while pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Hunter College. He always maintained that being an artist is a life choice and that it cannot be done part time. After some initial success and recognition in the highly competitive New York art scene, he abandoned Wall Street and began to paint full time. He was helped to make this decision by the support of his long-term partner Gregg Driben.

From 2000 until his untimely death, he exhibited in a wide variety of galleries and museums across the US. These included the Jackson Junge Gallery in Chicago; the Haggerty Museum, Milwaukee; Axel Raben Fine Art, New York; Jan Larsen Fine Art, New York and the Kennedy Centre Festival in Washington.

His work was less well known in Ireland although he did enjoy a successful one-man show in the Cross Gallery in Dublin in 2001.

At first glance his work seemed linked to pop art. However, admirers see in his work an expressive quality that is far from Warhol’s flat affectless style. His Shroud Diptych is a powerful and haunting work while his diet Coke bottle image Happy Days seems positively sinister.

He shied away from anything too portentous, preferring the lighter touch of irony. Later portraits of Lincoln, Van Gogh and President Obama are where the Warhol influence is most evident.

A lot of McGonnell’s early works were large-scale water colours. In more recent years he moved to oil and the work became more rigorous and structured. Many pieces feature a series of concentric circles around which he built his images. These added movement and depth to the work and he liked to relate these swirling vortices to Yeats’s concept of the gyre.

McGonnell never left Ireland fully behind and kept in touch with affairs in Cork through his adored mother Carmel, his brothers Paul and Aidan and his sister Karen. He was also drawn to the great Irish writers, especially Yeats, Joyce and Beckett.

He and Driben lived a nomadic life in their 17 years together, moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Santa Fe and finally to Chicago where they had just settled with their beloved dogs.

James Kieran McGonnell: born August 13th, 1967; died Chicago, January 11th, 2011