Art and religion. Abstraction and logic. Seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet brought together in ways unimaginable. Art that explores the real, the spiritual and the metaphysical using tactile, tangible materials demands passion and a certain insight that only a few are gifted with. With his latest exhibition, Devotio Moderna, almost ready for public viewing, Contemporary Canadian artist Farhad Nargol-O'Neill discusses art as only he can.
Tell us about your latest exhibition Devotio Moderna.
The title of this show was created by Father Gilles Mongeau, S.J., a professor at Regis College at the University of Toronto, where the exhibition is taking place. It sums it up very well, an exhibition of modern devotional art.
Modern works, whether traditional or abstract in approach, function as aids to devotion within the canonical traditions of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox faith. I'm Catholic myself, and the artist I am showing with in this exhibition, Galina Oussatcheva, is from the Byzantine tradition. This show has represented one full and very challenging year out of my life, and I'll be showing a series of abstract bas-relief sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross. The work in the show addresses issues of perspective and inverse perspective, covenant, and the personal.
The opening is on March 17th, which for me is also a special day (aside from being St. Patricks Day of course) as it will be 15 years to the day when I left Toronto on an Air India flight to London to get my connecting flight to Belfast in order to open my sculpture studio and "go pro" as they say.
What brought about this interest in theology and how did it become part of your artistic identity?
I've always recognized the link between art and spirituality but I don't know if I can say that my interest actually came from anywhere. I have travelled and seen things, but I am too convinced that I am part of God to worry about finding God in me. I would have made a great Bedu! All joking aside, truly accepting that there is a relationship between Art and God in your life brings it own challenges and rewards, if one is prepared to accept them all. I'm going to quote my own artist statement here that is indicative of what I am doing and where I am going: "The practice and growth of my Art has been informed by many and varied influences, not only by the visual but also by the unseen, the interior, the inexpressible, or the musical. I include my Catholic spirituality, mnemonics, a mixed Irish/Zoroastrian parentage, knowledge of justice and community, music, and observations regarding the relationship between object and place. I believe that all of these things find their truest representation, in a sort of reverse Platonic fashion, in the physicality of created Art. Art, therefore, is for myself the means by which all those things that exist in human nature and the natural world find their truest expression".
Growing up, what drew you to art?
The recognition of randomness inside of overarching structures as present in classical Gaelic illumination was one of the first major influences to me as a child. That pure creativity and abstraction could go hand in hand with structure and logic was a very liberating concept to realize at the age of 6 or 8. It encouraged the development of an individual, line-based style. Music as heard and played in our house while growing up enhanced my feelings towards things visual, as I was always listening for structure and free expression in sound at the same time and wondering "What would a Duke Ellington song look like?" in 3-D.
How much of an influence has your family played in your development as an artist?
When I look back on it, I can see that we were completely spoiled in terms of being steeped in a dazzling amount of culture. The music and art, literature and poetry, dance, architecture and history, politics and religion from my parents’ background were always part of our upbringing.
My father is a Parsi from India, and my late mother a native Irish from Belfast. In terms of what part that played in how I approach my own art, I would say that the focus on the single line in my art stems from the vocal traditions of both cultures. The impetus towards creating work which places complexity and a sense of freedom side by side with visual structures which are themselves creations of logic stems completely from my upbringing as a Monotheist who never really experienced Religion as a form of control. For me, a very positive religious upbringing as a Catholic who was also taught about Zoroastrianism from my parents and our family from Pakistan left me with an openness to consider, in time, the notion that things spiritual might also be represented in the visual world, in the metaphysical world, in the world of ethics, and logic, and in the real word (for me at least) that exists in Memory. I think that whatever I was imparted with culturally by my parents existed in me from the beginning as a newborn; I am just discovering it all in reverse, and in real time.
Tell us about your creative process.
It is personal. I don't think I could explain it, and if I could I'd be afraid and reluctant of doing so. I think that sometimes burrowing into something to find out what it is destroys the very Thing you are talking about.
How do you find a balance between your own creative expression and the demands of creating art for others?
I have complete freedom to create whatever it is I want to create; I've worked to get it. In terms of public commissions I am of course very interested in the culture of the country and community I find myself within, and I try very hard to create a visual response to that culture by learning much about it and living with it.
If you look at my public works in Belfast, and Cyprus, and Tunisia and in Aurora, you will find that to be true. Absorption into a different culture is for me something entirely possible. Such a relationship negates the negative and frankly rather controlling arguments about "appropriation" so common in art and academic communities in the West. It's a real conversation. True communication is possible through Art, if both artist and subject (for want of a better term) approach each other with an open mind and heart and of course it also depends on the maturity and artistic process of the Artist in question. Not all artistic processes lend themselves to cross cultural conversations, and I'm talking about culture here.
Private clients are different. The work in question will speak to them or not. I don't do commercial galleries. I've never been accepted into the mainstream public galleries either, in any country. My work is not commercial, but I also have no desire to ape the intellectual stagnation of the so called avant-garde, which for me is just as elitist as and nothing more than the cold Upper Canadian Protestant hegemony culture of 100 years ago. Talk about artists and art communities being co-opted, it makes me sick. My projects are all artist run, or I'm picked by someone who knows my approach. That's just how it's all worked out thus far.
How do you deal with criticism?
My experience with criticism is quite enlightening in that for me it usually tells more about the person conducting the critique than my art work in question. Since there is no difference in terms of the look of or approach to my art between my public and private works, I really don't care what anyone says as long as I'm satisfied with it.
You’ve worked with young artists for a long time now. How can art affect a young person’s life?
I have worked at Columbus Boys Camp in Orillia on and off from 1989 to the present day. "CBC" is a camp for underprivileged boys from Toronto, Barrie, Orillia, and Midland. It was probably the best working environment I have ever been in, and certainly among the top five summer camps in the country. I learned a lot about people, their needs, and organization and leadership skills there. In fact, if had not been for CBC, I would not be where I am now.
Art provides a focus for young people - especially those who are troubled - like the kids I dealt with at the camp and with the youth clubs in Belfast later on. This focus creates a calming effect for these kids and makes them happy. It takes their minds off of other things, and it helps with their self esteem when they realize that they have talents, other than causing mayhem, that will be praised by others. I continued working with youth through the arts in Belfast and my mural commissions in Cyprus and Tunisia involved the apprenticeship of emerging artists which was more of a professional relationship than anything else, but all the experiences were good. Most of the time you just had to give the kids materials, and away they would go, at least in the beginning. It never failed to amaze me when one day along would come along some kid who would blow you away with their talent. It was impressive.
For more details on Farhad Nargol-O’Neill, please visit the artist’s website. More details on his upcoming exhibition can be found at MyBindi.com.