From an early age, I have been a huge fan of comic books of all kinds. It might have something to do with the fact that I have dyslexia – and comics, with their illustrations and structured panels, were helpful aids when learning to read. Comics had such an impact on me that when I self-published a book about my dyslexia, I did it in the form of a comic – for me, it was the only way I could explain something intangible like the experience of living with dyslexia.
The comic medium is such a useful tool for conveying information, and Harry Walsh Foreman is keenly aware of that in his practice. The humour can often belie the intelligence behind his work, and getting to talk to Harry revealed the amount of theory behind his practice. It was an eye-opening (not mention hugely enjoyable) experience sitting down with him to discuss.
Talk us through the construction of your pieces.
My practice always starts with drawing. Since lockdown, I have mostly been drawing from home. During my 2km walks, I would walk to the park and get a coffee, and try to absorb the personalities of the many people that I come across. I like to think of myself as a flâneur or a man about town. I like to wander. I’ll often see somebody with an interesting face or walk, or a hunch or something. I’ll then try to recreate that later from memory.
I draw en masse. When I have an idea of which drawings I want to include in an installation, I stick them together in a very rough zine. That helps me to decipher an order and see how it reads. From there, I take the figures out of the drawings and redo the illustrations, maybe change the background somewhat, and print them on large stickers.
I used to make and publish a lot of zines. I mostly make them for myself now. I like reading and collecting zines but there is something very insular about that experience, you know? I wanted to make work that people could experience together. That’s why I started to take narrative elements from my zines and expand them into installations. I like that the stories can be interpreted together by a group of people at the same time.
There is an American comic book artist I’m kind of obsessed with called Scott McCloud. I love this piece he did with [American comics artist] Stephen R. Bissette back in 1990 called a 24-hour Comic. Each of them would create a frame, and that frame would capture an hour in their life. Scott would do a frame, then Steve, back and forth until they had 24 hours of their day captured. Drawing is also like a visual diary for me. I can see a sort of evolution of the people I’ve documented over the years. These are people I come across regularly but because I’m drawing from memory, only snippets of their personality come through.
Your work utilises text quite deftly. Does the image or text come first for you?
The imagery comes first. The text is gathered separately, and I then incorporate it into the drawings. From there I improvise on the fly, really.
I’m constantly taking notes. If I overhear conversations on the bus and I don’t have a notebook, I try to remember them from memory. And when I get to the studio, I recreate them. I might expand on things, make them more a bit more linear and digestible. Sometimes I edit the text around the drawing. For example, there was one large black and white drawing that I did in the Futures exhibition at the RHA. It featured a conversation I overheard at the coffee shop on Francis St; one woman was giving out about the fact that her daughter who worked at the post office couldn’t afford to go on strike for a day. I had this drawing of an elderly woman and I thought, “You know what? This is perfect.” So, I reworked the text as if it were something she was saying. If I was carrying around a notebook and slavishly drawing these people in real life, I don’t think I would feel as comfortable changing what they are saying or bringing in something I overheard somewhere else. I’d feel like I would have to represent precisely what had happened.
I don’t like to be too enslaved to reality. I want to draw my own interpretation of reality. I like to include some humour and background into my work, to create an atmosphere. I want to capture a specific temporality, so that you can look at the drawings and think, “Oh yes. That’s really of the now.”
These characters play an important role in your work, don’t they?
Sometimes I get people saying that one of the figures looks kind of like their aunt. I love that mingling of ambiguity and familiarity. They are familiar figures but the work also leaves a lingering question: is it really who I think it is? Did that guy really trace down my aunt in Tallaght? We all go down the post office and see the stereotypical old man with a walking stick, weighed down with his pension. They are the people I’m obsessed with. I like to play with shared knowledge and provoke questions in the viewer to get them to spend extra time with the work. You know when you’re at an opening with your glass of wine in hand, and you walk past a beautiful painting and think “I’ll come back another day and look at that?” I want to create a situation for people to inhabit together and talk about what they see – to live in that space for a period of time whether it be a moment or a day.
As an art student, I was always obsessed with portraiture and The New Objectivity movement in Germany (Neue Sachlichkeit). I loved how Otto Dix captured post-war Germany with a paradoxically beautiful kind of gruesomeness inherent to that time. You can tell that he was walking those streets and immersing himself in their social life. Some of his figures are people who had lost their limbs in the war but there is still something beautiful about them. I’ve always been preoccupied with artists like that. Artists who attempt to capture the time they are living in and the foibles of humanity. George Grosz is another direct inspiration for my drawing. Just before World War Two, he published hundreds of very immediate drawings created from memory. This is probably where I got the idea. He drew businessmen and women that you would see just walking around German streets and published them in big tomes. One of them was called Ecce Homo. Other lifelong obsessions of mine are [New York School painter/printmaker] Philip Guston and [Californian-punk-influenced artist] Raymond Pettibon. I love Pettibon’s ongoing drawings of American figureheads, like his mad sketches of Trump, and the zines that he did with [Canadian artist] Marcel Dzama. I enjoy going through those collections and piecing together a sort of narrative.
Narrative is very important to me. I use geography as a narrative in my work. For my masters show, I used a day trip we took to Glasgow as a basis for the exhibition. One of the rooms was Dublin while the other was Glasgow. You walked through Dublin into Glasgow and back again.
I then pulled that idea into the Futures exhibition and focused on deliveries around my studio at Pallas Projects in Dublin. I was born near there and educated around there, so the area is very familiar to me. The narration followed a route from Francis Street to Thomas Street and further down. I tell my stories through geography, by moving through space.
Your relationship to Dublin is central to the work. Do you think that geographical approach would work in other cities?
I think it would, granted I was in the area for a long period of time and had properly absorbed the people and the space. I’m well acquainted with London for example, from frequent gallery visits or what I call “sketch-cations”. More and more, I find the characters there influencing my work at home. There is a more magnified diversity in London which I find very appealing. I honestly feel I could work anywhere, provided I understand the dialect of the place. I wouldn’t feel comfortable going to Paris for a week and drawing those people but if it were six months, I would feel better. Plus, there is a language barrier!
That element of familiarity in my work is important. People can then come to it and know that street, and almost recognise that building. They might even think, “Maybe I’m that person?” Still, I want to be able to expand on that and have people question whether they actually know that place.
Let’s return to the Futures exhibition. That was an important exhibition for you.
It was a very important exhibition for me. If time allows, I love to paint the work directly on to the walls. That kind of tactility is great. For my masters show in NCAD, I was able to do that. I was fortunate enough to keep my studio room and the adjacent room for that show; Futures was a different beast entirely. There was a fashion show the weekend before. So, there were only two days for install once the space was ready. With that in mind, I decided to use stickers instead, which worked beautifully. That meant it was just a matter of placing my wooden figures in the space. I was done installing in about a day!
I wanted to utilise the panel aspect of comics in designing the stickers. Again, Scott McCloud and his theory around the comic narrative was a massive influence. The wall had that sense of narration and movement, and the wooden figures created another dimension for people to move through. Some of my favourite photos from Futures were of people moving around those wooden pieces like they were mingling with the characters. That kind of interaction is important.
Will you develop that interaction further?
I did come up with an idea recently. In my drawings, I often have things like packets of crisps blowing in the wind. I was thinking of painting them or sticking them down onto the floor, so that the audience can walk over them. There is an immersive quality to the work when drawings are flat on the wall, emerging from the floor and standing up within the space. I could also add more elements to the figures themselves. Like a wooden figure of an old woman with her purse constructed as an interactable part of the sculpture. I had this idea before of a wooden figure of an old woman, and having her purse be an intractable part of the sculpture. The purse could hang from the sculpture, and you could open it up to see the contents – Mentos mints or whatever else I can conjure from the depths of my mind!
You can find out more about Harry Walsh Foreman work through his Instagram page and website, links below