Focus on Karl Hagan - Interview

Curator Francesca Biondi interviews the artist about his work and his online solo exhibition ‘Detonation’ at Gallery 545

Karl Hagan is a young accomplished painter on the rise. He creates unique pieces exploring the atrocities caused by conflicts and the use of dangerous weapons. In his captivating figurative or abstract paintings these atrocities are not explicitly represented, but are subtly evoked or even hinted, thus leaving the works open to different interpretations.

Can you introduce yourself and your practice?

I am a painter based in Belfast at Queen Street Studios. I obtained a degree in Fine Art and completed an artist residency at the Ulster University. When I was there, I was awarded by the Royal Ulster Academy and Queen Street Studios. This gave me a great boost and encouraged me to push my work further. Following my graduation, I have created paintings for several group exhibitions and for my solo show ‘Detonation’.  I feel fortunate to have had some great opportunities to get my work exhibited and recognised at such an early stage in my artistic career.  

I use mainly oil on canvas. Oil paint is so flexible with how far I can push it and experiment with it. I get a lot out of the alchemy of painting, from mixing up new mediums or glazes, to finding the right technique and consistency for the pigments. This is all very exciting because it is always providing constant shifts and fresh challenges when working with the imagery in my work. For example, in some larger paintings I have used screen printing alongside oil paint, also influenced by the work by Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. This allowed me to introduce a contrast between the graphic quality of silkscreen images and the organic softer ones achieved with oil paint.

Are there important themes or references in your work?

Through my work I reflect upon the dual nature of our human existence, at times of conflict or change where there can be devastation there is always hope and even rebirth. I work with images that I have taken myself in cities and towns I have been as well as historical photographs from specific moments in history that interest me. I searched and looked in particular at images of weapons tests in the 1940s and 1950s, WWII, plane crashes and places that have been affected by war disasters.

Art history is also a fundamental reference. It has always had a considerable influence on the way I approach my work, both on how I develop my ideas on what I am addressing in my paintings and how I organise them compositionally. I have been especially influenced by Francisco Goya.  I was able to see his Disasters of War etchings (1810 -1820) in the Ulster Museum, and they had a profound effect on my work since. The etchings showed the horror and realities of wars instead of depicting them as great battles. These and some early paintings I created exploring war devastations, brought a lot of my feelings and thoughts towards conflict and the evils that people face in their lives, which I believe, looking back in history from the moment we are now in, are unfathomable.

How You Fall Doesn’t Matter (2019) oil on canvas 160 x 190

How do you develop your themes, thoughts, ideas and imagery to create your paintings?

I plan my paintings using collaged images. I integrate photographs, drawings and collages into the process before I start to paint on a canvas. Researching particular themes or historical events often leads to having a vast amount of photos. I also explore ideas in my own drawings. I therefore go through a process of selection, choosing images or part of images and collaging them together to convey the themes and ideas I focus on. I always work with fragmented images in my paintings. This process can be evident in some of them, as in How You Fall Doesn’t Matter (2018) and Containment (2018), both having fragments of images of a WWII bomber. On the other hand, this process can be hidden in others, especially in the semi-abstract or abstract works.

Containment (2019) oil and silk screen on canvas, 160 x 190 cm

‘Detonation’ showcases a series of paintings inspired by images of nuclear explosions, and your reflections upon the destructive power of dangerous weapons. Can you give us an insight into the artistic process leading to their creation?

Images of U.S. atomic bomb tests from the 1950s were the real starting point for making these paintings. The Bikini Atoll underwater bomb tests took place nearby to islands in the Pacific and Nevada bomb tests in the barren landscape of the desert. I feel that these weapons of mass destruction are still very much a threat. Tests with hypersonic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads having been carried out as recently as 2017.

As I did not have any access to my studio because of the lockdown and I have a limited space at home, I could only work on small canvases. This format determined the immediacy of the work.  The ocean and the desert provided a huge area to be contained on the small-scale paintings. I therefore created compositions focusing on a few important elements. I started with some preparatory work collaging photos of bomb tests. I then brought these images together on canvases through layers of paint and working into the layers with squeegees and palette knives.

Land Test II (2020) oil on canvas 50 x 40 cm

In this series figurative images of nuclear explosions are alternated with semi-abstract or abstract compositions only evoking them. The effect is a gradual lessening, at times almost disappearance of the sense of threat and danger posed by these explosions. Did you intend to create this effect?

The danger and threat of the nuclear explosions in some of the paintings seems to come and go. Much like the mushroom clouds, the lightness of their dissipating vapors presents us with the unfathomable weight of the power and destruction the bomb possesses.  This idea of lightness and weight has been intertwined in the process of making this series of paintings. During this process I drew parallels to lightness as discussed by Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985-86), as the quality that literature searches in order to present life bearable without denying the weight of living. The writer uses mythology, Perseus and the head of Medusa, to illustrate this control of lightness and weight: ‘Perseus masters that terrible face by keeping it hidden, just as he had earlier defeated it by looking at its reflection. In each case his power derives from refusing to look directly while not denying the reality of the world of monsters in which he must live, a reality he carries with him and bears as his personal burden’. Similarly, I intended to visually diminish or almost hide the devastating power of nuclear explosions, while asserting its reality.

Desolate Land (2020) oil on linen 25 x 30 cm

What are your future plans?
For now, I am moving slowly back into my studio in Belfast. I will be swapping the brushes for a roller for a while to tidy up the walls and prepare for new large paintings. After completing a series of small pieces for ‘Detonation’, I am now excited at  the thought of working on big canvases again.