Ian Kirkpatrick

Ian Kirkpatrick by Ian Kirkpatrick by Ian Kirkpatrick
by Ian Kirkpatrick
by Ian Kirkpatrick

Canadian artist Ian Kirkpatrick re-works traditional ceramic forms to make contemporary artworks. His current preoccupation is Ancient Greek vases, and he uses their familiar monochromatic style to decorate cardboard sculptures worked with an intriguing mix of ancient and modern images. He says, ‘I like looking for the commonalities of things in the past and seeing how they relate to things in the present.’


Why are you so interested in ancient Greek art?

I like emulating Greek vases for both stylistic and symbolic reasons. Stylistically, their simplified colour palette unifies the different images I put into my artworks, no matter how different they are in subject or form. Symbolically, I’m attracted to Greek art because (rightly or wrongly) it always seems to come at the beginning of art history books - so by using this ancient style I feel like I’m bridging the gap between the ‘beginning’ of Western art history and where we are now.

What made you decide to work with cardboard boxes?

Originally I was painting my images on canvas, but I felt there was a gap between what I was doing and what I wanted to do – the images didn’t really make sense on canvas. And then I submitted a proposal to an archaeologically-themed art exhibition, which forced me to think about the material culture underlying my process. It struck me that cardboard boxes are our modern-day amphorae – like ancient Greek vases they’re functional objects designed for carrying and storing objects. So I started painting my images on boxes and recently I’ve begun making the actual boxes themselves.

You have just finished a residency at Andover College organised by the Making as part of the Festival Makers project. What did you work on while you were there?

The brief was to make something connected to next year’s Olympic Games, but my work is normally based heavily on local research - so the piece is a meeting of the two themes. It’s in the form of a giant, waisted wine box which echoes the shape of ancient krater vases - I didn’t want to make just a simple cube, I wanted to reference older forms. It’s a fully functioning wine box with taps and drawers which you can re-fill and will contain three types of wine. The different wines echo the different Olympic medals, with red being the most popular (gold), followed by white (silver) and then rosé (bronze).

How have you decorated it?

The subject matter is based on research into local history which the students and I did at the Andover Iron Age Museum. I wanted to link Andover into the larger issue of globalisation (which ties into the Olympic theme). We looked at how Andover was originally quite isolated and self-sufficient during the Iron Age, but then became part of a bigger network under the Romans, the Vikings and the Saxons.  All of this points to the fact that globalisation was an on-going process two thousand years ago, despite the fact we like to think of it as a modern phenomenon.

So how have you translated these ideas into actual images?

I used some Celtic patterns and themes as my starting point, and then tied them into the larger historical picture. I became interested in how the Celtic god Lugus was merged into the Roman god Mercury, which has parallels with other ancient European myths. For example there are parallels between Lugus and Odin, who are both associated with ravens.  This led me to a myth about Odin giving mankind mead for inspiration, which ties back to the wine box idea. The work draws a great deal on archaic imagery, so I’ve counterbalanced this with contemporary images - all done in the same black and orange Greek style. I like creating big networks of images that find links between past and present, and western and non-western themes.

What is the inspiration behind the imagery on your other pieces?

I use lots of found images, sometimes from the internet and sometimes from art history. I try to use easily identifiable images, like the Hello Kitty logo, which have a public resonance. It’s important that people can recognise some of the images, as it gives them a starting point and a way into the work. I’m interested in popular culture and so my knowledge is based on this as much as art historical sources.  When I do use art historical images I try to use ones that are fairly well known, like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or the Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel.

How easy to ‘read’ do you want your work to be?

I don’t want my images to be obvious, but if the work is too impenetrable it wouldn’t interest people and they would walk right past it - I don’t like being purposefully oblique. However you can’t always make your art deliberately accessible as you have to go where the ideas lead you. I think it’s dangerous to force the art into being too easy.  I want it to be intriguing, and for the audience to have to work at it – a bit like figuring out a giant puzzle - in the same way that archaeological remains are difficult to work out. I want people to enjoy the work and to find it funny; I don’t want to be heavy-handed. Humour isn’t my first concern, but I’m happy for it to be a by-product of the work and I do enjoy visual puns.

How important a part does research play in your work?

It’s very important. I generally start off with a brief, rather than a set of images, and then go where the research takes me. The trick is to convey your research in a visual form that makes sense, using the images you find along the way. For example, I recently did a project based on Wedgewood porcelain, so I spent a long time looking at the history of blue and white china, tracking it from its origins in Iraq to China, then Holland and then to Britain. Using the popular ‘Willow Pattern’ as a way to connect everything together, I incorporated this research with images relating to contemporary politics. I like finding unexpected connections between the past and present, and using the images I find during the research process to express these parallels. I want the work to be as tight as possible with lots of interesting relationships between the visual elements.

Much of your work is painted on quite ephemeral materials – paper plates and cardboard for example. Does the fact that the pieces won’t last that long worry you?

It is a bit of a weird issue as they are quite fugitive pieces and will disintegrate much quicker than the artefacts they are inspired by. And the cultural life-span of the images I use (especially the contemporary references) is fairly short too, meaning they’ll become less relevant and less easy to remember. So in both of these senses my works might be quite short lived. But this gives them an archaeological quality, like puzzles that get harder to solve over time, as more and more pieces go missing. And eventually, I suppose, there will simply be too little remaining to understand anything at all.  But I quite like the idea of that process, which is an important – and inevitable – part of my artistic practice.

Interview by Diana Woolf