VAN November/December 2015: ‘Humour was the Key’ Alan Phelan Talks To Caroline McCarthy About Her Career

Career Development:

Small CMC
Caroline McCarthy, detail of work from the Humbrol series, 2002 – 2008, found packaging, humbrol enamel paint, shelving , 495 x 137 x 38cm

Alan Phelan: You studied in NCAD but soon moved to London for a Masters at Goldsmiths. What made you remain in London?
Caroline McCarthy: It wasn’t a conscious decision. Studying in London, I had made a lot of new friends and everyone was organising shows, so it kept me busy. The next thing you know two decades have whizzed by. To be honest, these days you can be based anywhere.

AP: You have always had a footing in Ireland through exhibiting here regularly and with Green on Red Gallery. Why does this matter to you?
CM: My formative years as an artist were in Dublin. It’s where I established friendships and working relationships that have continued, and which I value very much.

AP: You have worked with many international galleries. Have any of these represented you or were they just for exhibitions (I am thinking here of Parker’s Box, Hoet Bakaert or Bugdahn and Kaimer)?
CM: Parker’s Box and Hoet Bekaert represented me for 10 years and 8 years respectively. They both had a very experimental approach to things. Shows were always a place where new things could happen, rather than the work being shipped in and out again. This model is extremely difficult to sustain, given the increasing dominance of art fairs and the pressure placed on galleries to go there and sell in order to survive. Some galleries just don’t want to play ball, and rightly so.

Caroline McCarthy, Paintings, 2008, oil on canvas, 53 x 36 x 15mm
Caroline McCarthy, Paintings, 2008, oil on canvas, 53 x 36 x 15mm

AP: Galleries often preoccupy artist chatter. How neurotic do you get about this?
CM: I don’t get neurotic about galleries and I rarely participate in chatter. I think artists sometimes have unrealistic expectations of galleries. Equally, galleries expect miracles from artists. It can all be quite destructive. I go into things thinking “What can we do here?”

AP: How important is it for you to show outside of London or Dublin?
I think it’s important, although it’s not something I set as a goal. It’s healthy to consider your work in different contexts with new audiences.

AP: What was your favourite group exhibition to be involved with?
CM: Definitely ‘Cabin Fever’ with artists Lindsay Seers and Mairead McClean, where we made all of the work for a show on a 22-hour boat and rail journey from London to the host gallery in Bremen, Germany. It was hysterical but amazingly productive. We made a year’s work in under a day, and we filled the gallery with sound, video, sculpture and paintings. We need to do more of this kind of thing! (For photos see

AP: Are there any lost opportunities you wish you had pursued, as in a Hans Ulrich Obrist unrealised-project type question?
CM: There aren’t any glaring missed opportunities I have regrets about. Although recently I had a big sort out and came across some very old (last millennium) proposals I made that were rejected, and they really made me laugh. One was to install a life-size cactus on the west coast of Ireland. Another was to do a cookery demonstration video for a restaurant in a new art venue. Another was to add a portrait of a woman in the Dining Hall (amongst all the men) at Trinity College Dublin.

Caroline McCarthy, Promise, detail, 2003, readymeal packaging, plantpots, timber, 366 x 185 x 122cm
Caroline McCarthy, Promise, detail, 2003, readymeal packaging, plantpots, timber, 366 x 185 x 122cm

AP: Do you prefer working with private galleries or public institutions? How do you navigate the different expectations they have as places to sell or show work?
CM: I don’t have a preference. You never have complete freedom with either. What I have learned over time is to think of it as a collaboration of sorts. It’s really important to have a conversation about objectives on both sides – ‘creative versus practical’. Far from being restrictive, I have found that constraints can be very constructive. They can push out a new body of work that wouldn’t otherwise have been created. For example, I once did a solo show where I had to fill the space – with zero transport / production / storage costs – and produce something they could hopefully sell. I came up with a series of paintings of matchboxes to scale, which addressed all the criteria, and I was actually really happy with this new body of work.

AP: In 2001 you won the first AIB Annual Award for Artists of Promise worth £15,000. How important was this for you?
CM: The AIB Prize was very important at the time. Indeed, it paid for lots of toilet paper and kept my leopard-skin obsession going for a year. But much more significant was the studio rent and thinking time it afforded as well as photography and catalogue costs, without which this work definitely would not exist. Prizes do a lot to encourage optimism.

AP: Painting has surfaced more and more in your work recently. Often these works don’t look like paintings as there is a strong tromp l’oeil factor, such as in the matchboxes or hazard tape paintings. But this also goes for the screwdriver or the detergent bottles. There seems little difference between 2D and 3D. Why do you not want to be discussed as a painter?
CM: Painting has always informed my work; this seems obvious when you bring canvas into the mix. Actually I don’t feel comfortable under any heading. I think the work is always trying to escape its own skin too. I’m sceptical of everything: paint, canvas, packaging, toilet paper, bronze, twigs, postcards, performance, politicians, sculptors and painters. (For photos see

AP: What is it like showing your installation work ‘Promise’ (2003) at the Banksy Dismaland project?
CM: The invitation to show Promise came as a total surprise, as I haven’t shown it for 10 years, so it was just brilliant to install it again. I couldn’t have imagined the breadth of audience it has drawn, and I have found references to my work in unchartered categories of the press such as travel, gardening and news, not just art, which is refreshing. It has been a unique and interesting experience.

AP: Did you find this project in any way different, given the huge publicity (mainly for Banksy) surrounding it all?
CM: In some ways it wasn’t any different. There was a lot of planning, attention to detail and communication about practicalities. When I first looked around Dismaland, I was reminded of the Bank exhibitions or similar collectives / art provocateurs in London in the 1990s, which were held in high regard within art circles. The difference here is the huge hype and popularity surrounding Banksy, which throws things into a different stratosphere and therefore perception. I think it’s a great show. Through all the Banksy hype, there has been a lot of attention and generosity to all the other artists too, and it’s brought a whole new audience to our work.

AP: Do you juggle several jobs to keep your art career going or do you support yourself from sales, commissions and awards?
CM: I mostly survive on sales, commissions and awards. That said I’m usually broke. Money in goes out just as quickly on the basics. Has anyone got a job they can offer me? Preferably with annual leave and a pension?

AP: Is your work about appropriation, or have you come round to a different way of discussing it?
CM: This is a kind of ‘artist statement’ question, which makes me break into a cold sweat. I appropriate art materials for what they represent in themselves as well as non-art materials. It’s all on the same palette. It’s not about appropriation so much as my interest in the language of absolutely everything, and how this language, however unassuming, is used to create meaning, whether practical or ideological. This is a starting point, but the conversations for me are best played out in the work.

AP: When did you realise that having a sense of humour was more valuable to you than adopting apparently more serious approaches?
CM: When I was a (painting) student at NCAD in the early 1990s, the art world seemed to be all about muscle: Schnabel, Scully, the Glasgow Boys, Richter, Baselitz, Kiefer, etc. I really struggled with how I could relate to all of this pomp. A very significant moment for me was seeing the Janine Antoni exhibition in IMMA in 1995 ( It was the perfect response and the perfect language. Her humour was the key. As a tool, I could see that it was both powerful and serious. Humour in its very essence is about questioning, and a lot of artists now are using it.

AP: Has this held you back from being taken seriously?
CM: No I don’t think so. What do you think?

Alan Phelan is an artist based in Dublin

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