“I might be flicking through a magazine or a newspaper and I’d be drawn to someone’s eyes,” says artist Eoin Mac Lochlainn, over Zoom on a recent Friday.
For Mac Lochlainn, eyes are a portal to people’s deepest emotions. During the early days of the pandemic, he began to meditate on the growing relevance of expression through the eyes, as mask-wearing spread.
The result of this is the Covid Eyes exhibition, at the Oliver Cornet Gallery in the north inner city.
The project started online. Each Tuesday over the summer, Mac Lochlainn posted up one of his old portraits, only showing the eyes.
There are some new paintings in his exhibition too. Like a self-portrait he painted as Dublin was coming out of a strict 5km lockdown.
In the portrait, his eyes look wary, worried even. What was he feeling?
“We are not out of the woods yet,” he says. “Half the world doesn’t seem to care and the other half is living in fear.”
At 36, Mac Lochlainn worked in advertising and did graphic and calendar design. But he loved painting and going to art classes in the evening.
Eventually, he took the plunge, quit his jobs, and trained as an artist full-time. “I thought I could make a living out of painting,” he says.
At first, he experimented with abstract colourful paintings. They’re therapeutic, he says.
“You are in a different space, altogether,” he says. “It is kind of like creating a mood or atmosphere.”
But pressing social issues – war, emigration, homelessness, and climate change – drew his attention. His art began to follow a more realistic bent.
He had protested against the war in Iraq in 2003 and an anti-war theme wove its way into his work, he says.
“What I’ve Seen” is a portrait of a foot soldier, he says. “They are the ones that suffer. They are traumatised at the end of it. It doesn’t matter what side they are on.”
When former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced a deck of cards of the 52 most-wanted men in Iraq, he made a series of paintings of people with battered heads, bloody mouths, bruised, and their eyes often swollen closed. “Caoineadh/Elegies”, he called it.
Still, his style was abstract. Broad brush strokes and bright colours. “I was reluctant to leave the abstract painting,” he says.
Later, he began painting scenes of homelessness, including portraits of homeless people. “Why is it only bishops and politicians that get portraits?” he says.
Media outlets often tell a homeless person’s story and then move on, swiftly, to the next story, he says.
By painting a large portrait of a homeless person, it signifies the importance of their story, he says. “Compared to a photograph in the newspaper, an oil painting is big and permanent.”
In one of portrait of “Paul”, featured in the exhibition, a man looks up to his right. His eyes show sadness but also resilience, perhaps determination.
During the Celtic Tiger era Mac Lochlainn painted cityscapes of division.
In “Home”, high-rise office blocks tower over makeshift homes around an open-air fire.
Then during the recession, Mac Lochlainn started looking at emigration. “I was on an artists residency in Donegal I started to notice there were so many empty houses.”
His Covid Eyes exhibition – which features some of Mac Lochlainn’s anti-war portraits, the elegies series (of battered heads) and portraits of homeless people – is available online.
But he hopes some people will also get to see it in real life, he says.
He went to couple of exhibitions recently and it is something you can do safely, he says. “It is free. It’s a simple thing. It is a bit of a diversion.”
Covid Eyes is running in the Olivier Cornet Gallery from 11 to 25 October, by appointment only.