Neil Shawcross met Tony Strickland in 2000. It was at an exhibition in the Peppercanister Gallery in Rathmines, since closed.
“Suddenly this very elegant, tall gentleman walked in,” says Shawcross, over the phone from Belfast.
Shawcross made a beeline across the room, he says. “I immediately wanted to do a painting of him. I hadn’t met him at all, didn’t know him from Adam.”
It’s rare that Shawcross will have this reaction to someone he wants to paint, he says. “The painting was started at that moment. It was so strong, the image in my head.”
Strickland has since sat for many many artists, he says on Saturday, leaning back on an office chair by the red curtains that drape over the window of Gallery X on Hume Street.
Eighty-six portraits of himself hang in Strickland’s Sandymount house, which Shawcross estimates may be a third of the total ever done.
Strickland, an independent curator, says he showed 72 of them at an exhibition for his 60th birthday.
Not all of those were by strangers who had spotted him from afar.
Giovanni Giusti, who owns Gallery X, says artists love Strickland. “They want to paint him, because they love him. Then, they give his painting to him as a token of their appreciation.”
Hanging a Show
A silver gate in the doorway opens, and a couple tentatively step into Gallery X.
“You’re welcome. If you need anything, just let me know,” Strickland says to them, his voice carrying around the room.
Strickland has curated the gallery’s New Years Group Show, pulling together artworks from 31 artists.
Giusti asked him to do it. “I just drew up a list of 35 artists, thinking 20 of them would come back. 31 of them came back,” says Strickland, with a laugh.
Hanging this show was a bit of a challenge, he says. “Especially with all the different styles.”
Strickland gets up from the chair, his grey suit jacket swinging open, revealing a matching waistcoat, buttoned smartly over a blue tie. His height is elevated by a tall wide-brimmed fedora.
The exhibition starts with the artworks lying on the floor, he says. He starts grouping them, based on what goes together. It takes about four hours.
“You start on one wall. It’s like a jigsaw, except it’s all different pieces,” he says. “It’s really what works together.”
Quick instinct tells him what to marry, based on texture, or subject, or method, and he trusts this, he says. “I do get complimented about the hang from people in the business.”
In the second room of Gallery X, there is a hard-to-miss canvas of Jim Morrison pointing a gun directly at the viewer on the right hand wall. The canvas is framed by other paintings of faces, or of bright colours.
“It’s all about the big piece, obviously. So everything goes around that,” he says.
That placement on the grey wall pleased painter Glenn Matthews, who called into the gallery on Saturday. “I love seeing the contrasts.”
One painting beside his was particularly bright. “It’s similar in style, and there’s bold, bold colours being used,” he says.
On the wall opposite there are four paintings by two artists, of bodies done in warm colours with wispy paint strokes.
“You can see why I put them together. Bodies,” Strickland says, and turns on his heel counter-clockwise towards a collection of six mainly blue landscapes, lined up symmetrically.
He considers how his design of a show has developed over time. “Sometimes I could be guilty of having too symmetrical a hang,” he says. “I try to get away from that, but sometimes it still works.”
But mainly, what has changed is the length of the list of invitees to the exhibition, he says.
The visiting couple step silently, staying for a long time in front of each piece, before leaving.
Becoming a Curator
Strickland kind of fell into independent art curating, he says.
First, he worked in the music business for a music management company called Upfront, which had Irish rock bands Sacre Bleu and Clannad in its stable.
But then the music business changed. Artists got less support from their record companies. “It just changed, I needed a change,” he says.
Strickland got a job in the Hallward Gallery on Merrion Square, where a recent graduate asked him to do a show.
“I did 10 shows that year in the Crowe Gallery in Temple Bar,” he says. “It was good fun.”
It felt like the same kind of work as in music, he says, knowing people, booking events, helping people understand the industry.
“I got to know the art crowd and artists,” he says. “I’ll introduce myself, take contact details, all that.”
Slowly building a network of artists he could curate for, galleries who would host, and the art-interested who would come to the shows, he says.
Giusti says a curator’s role is to help the artists practically with their art. To support them, sometimes with a bit of hand-holding.
“They make sure it arrives on time or is picked up on time, they deal with the buyers, that’s their role,” he says.
Strickland will select work from the artist’s studio for a solo show, help them decide prices, hang the show, and organise the opening night, he says.
“Everything that goes from the artist’s studio to the exhibition is me,” he says. “They have a body of work and I get it to the people.”
The New Year’s show was Strickland’s fourth show in Gallery X in 2022. Giusti offered him four 10-day slots over the summer.
“I filled them within a week,” says Strickland. “Always got artists that are interested in putting shows on.”
Matthews says it can be lonely to be an artist and it’s hard to get your work out there.
Meeting Strickland was a stroke of good luck, he says. Strickland walked into his pop-up show in Gallery @ No. Six on Anne Street South in December.
“Tony was kind enough, on that night, to invite me along to this,” he says. “And I was thrilled.”
Gallery X was packed on the opening night, says Matthews. People trust Strickland’s taste.
“You couldn’t move. I filled the place twice over,” says Strickland.
Giusti says he’s in awe at Strickland’s ability to be so involved in the art scene in Dublin, which can sometimes be exclusive.
“He really seems to be doing it for the love of the art. With others, you have the impression they are doing it for the money,” he says.
He welcomes new artists in, too, he says. “He really supports artists at every stage of their career, and he’s really generous with his time.”
Aileen Le Brocquy, who was on the committee of the Ranelagh Arts Festival the same year as Strickland, says he used his contacts to find smaller artists for the show.
“He helped to keep links with the local and national artists,” she says. “Small, up and coming artists. It was easier for them to take part if they knew someone. He knew a lot of people, had a lot of links.”
Strickland, at the desk, pulls out his phone, to show another portrait that has been done of him, which is on the background of his home screen. “She’s done five, six portraits of me.”
He keeps getting asked by artists, he says. “See, I meet a lot of artists, obviously. Because once you know artists, you meet loads more. And I go to openings, and I’ll speak to the artists.”
Shawcross has painted Strickland seven times, he says.
“The latest one was done in December. It’s eight feet tall,” says Strickland, showing the painting, a long, navy silhouette against a grey, wintery background. “It’s so expressive and unique.”
“Whatever it is about Tony, I could nearly paint blindfolded,” says Shawcross.
Some of these portraits come about strangely. He was having a pizza in Lucky’s bar on Meath Street in October, he says. “And unbeknownst to me, there’s an artist sitting at another table, who does a small sketch of me.”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 17.29 on 18 January to correct Neil Shawcross’ surname. Sincere apologies for the error.]
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