Photos by Tom Farrell

The works that line the walls of the Axis Arts Centre, Ballymun combine the ancient and the modern, the faraway and the familiar.

The aim of the show, The Secular Icons, is to bring the concept of Orthodox and Byzantine icons into 21st-century Ireland, says Kilbarrack artist Paul Mac Cormaic as he pauses by Madonna and the Cordless Phone.

“Traditional icons are all about ideal things – the family, saints, Madonna and Child. You can fast-forward to today and we’re not taking our lead from the church, we’re taking it from advertising. So the secular icons show that,” he says.

The image of the laughing mother with her baby and phone is set within the kind of gold-arch frame that any visitor to Greece or Russia would recognise. But the images are not of saints and saviours. They are of contemporary life, often with added social commentary.

In One Size Fits All … Me Arse, a woman struggles into a pair of jeans. While in Lose Weight Without Moving, a Miracle, another young woman struggles with an attached electrical gadget, designed to burn away the pounds. The works offer a comment on the way in which the imagery of “perfect women” in magazines and movies puts pressure on contemporary women to live up to an ideal.

“I’ve shown the poverty line being drawn in space,” says Mac Cormaic of another work, with a suited man drawing a green line in mid-air. “People who are in power decide who is in poverty and who isn’t and this affects people, affects their entitlements.”

The works, mostly in oils and acrylics, have been in preparation for eleven years. “Most material is inexpensive. I’m an atheist, so I don’t want to be too reverent. Some people actually do spend money on gold-leaf paints and all that. I’ve used inexpensive imitation gold paints and gold cigarette papers for the interiors,” he says.

Mac Cormaic was born in 1961 and grew up in Finglas. In the 1970s, he played with a Dublin band called The Next Five Years, an experience that has stuck with him.

“The raw energy and basic melodies of punk influenced the style and content of my work, particularly the use of collage,” he reflects, on his website.

A self-taught painter, he has been exhibiting work since the age of 17, and read History of Art at University College Dublin, before graduating from the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology in 2006. He now teaches painting at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) and gives classes in art history in various schools.

Mac Cormaic’s work “is informed by a sharp sense of humour, an off-centre perspective and a sense of commitment to others”, said Gary Granville, a professor at NCAD, as he launched the exhibition on the first Tuesday in November.

The show is informed by an Ireland that has disappeared, an Ireland informed by religion, said Granville. “It’s a subversive take on what the icon is. It is taking us to a contemporary world that is questioning the values we live with.”

A concern with the marginalised in society has been a regular theme in Mac Cormaic’s work over the years; his 2013 exhibition On The Road depicted the effects of road building on small-town life.

The stark realism of the paintings presented scenes of change and often abandonment in suburban areas and small villages, brought in the wake of new bypasses being built.

“I like to bring art to working-class people and this space is lovely,” says Mac Cormaic, of the Axis Arts Centre. “It’s purpose-built and there’s always activities going on.”

In one icon, two Mac Cormaics can be seen: one forlorn-looking and tubby, the other slimline and laughing. “People say, ‘How much weight did you lose?’ Nil. The pictures were taken at the same moment!” he jokes.

Not all of The Secular Icons are wryly humorous: one icon depicts the horror of a bomb blast in Iraq, a traumatised young man charging from an edifice of flame-choked windows. The colours are lurid and stark, conveying what Mac Cormaic calls “Hell on Earth”.

Mac Cormaic says he hopes to tour with the exhibition, although he hasn’t had any offers at present. “I won’t exhibit anywhere. I want to have them shown in a nice venue,” he says.

The Secular Icons will be on display in the Axis Arts Centre, Ballymun during November.

Tom Farrell is a freelance journalist based in Dublin who has written extensively on Asian politics for various publications in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere.

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