When descending the small flight of stairs leading to the gigantic room at Studio Voltaire. About 25 to 30 art works hang on the wall, laid on pedestals in the form of sculptures. John Sheehy appears to be, at first glance, an artist who produces incommensurable amount of work in a striking and a colourful manner. Although the works seem at first disparate, the characters they portray and their symbolism relate a story. In Sheehy’s world, death, women, animals, and travel interact with one another to create a chaotic language defined by large brushstrokes and filled canvases. The artist paints on traditional canvas but also on furniture, boxes, cups, paper, and sculptures. Overall my first impression is a messy one, an information overload, which stirs up a sense of confusion and panic. My cardinal rule when visiting a gallery is to avoid reading the press release prior to viewing the exhibition. This way, I can search for a direct connection with the pieces I am looking at, instead of being influenced by the weight of outside opinions. My sensations are justified, as later on, I learn that Sheehy is an autodidact who dove into art at the age of 51 and hasn’t stopped producing for 18 years.
His work tells a story, his story. In a descriptive manner, he represents himself riding a horse, encountering other people, living in different places, and facing moments during which he felt a multitude of emotions. The works translate the chain of tumultuous life events, and although they all appear disorganized, they are oddly reunited in harmony on the surface of each work. The text inscribed on some of the works seems to be a written expression of the key events that have punctuated Sheehy’s life. Amongst the many characters, horses and cats present in the life of the artist, women (or perhaps she is the same woman) appear sporadically, holding a singular presence throughout the exhibition. She is always depicted naked and wears a sad expression. Are these people part of Sheehy’s life or are they part of his journey? From the chimney, ladders, houses, tube, boats, tractor, and the lighthouse, I assume that his travels have taken him to numerous places, broadening encounters and interactions.
Studio Voltaire has compiled a large series of art works which in fact makes up/accounts for a small fraction of the artist’s entire collection. It is an extraordinary ensemble of pieces which recollect memories and snapshots of his life. Although I appreciate the colours and the presence of the artist through his use of so many mediums, I wondered throughout my whole time facing the artworks, why I didn’t feel moved by any of it. Like anyone else I suppose, I have aesthetic preferences, but I am always keen to push my exploration a bit further. I honestly feel that although experience lies underneath the brushstrokes of a man who has lived quite a hectic life, there seems to be a lack of maturity when it comes to communicating his emotions. Revisiting old memories by using art as an outlet is a formidable approach, I just wish the artist would have taken an extra step and engaged his audience with deeper emotions.
John Sheehy at Studio Voltaire (5 May – 18 June 2017)