Merida Gets Realism
As a child, Harold McAnaney would get called up in front of his father's friends after a bit of drinking and told to "Draw something!". Apparently he performed well enough each time that this became a regular activity. In an Irish pub after a few pints, a young boy who could draw your likeness as you watched was good fun, and worth a few pennies. At that age for Harold, it was all about the money. Money for doing something he loved and something that came naturally... what could be better than that?
Before he reached 16, Harold McAnaney took his talent on the road. Through an apparent combination of talent, luck and having nothing to lose, Harold traveled from Dublin to London to Boston and got himself accepted to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on a full scholarship from the Ford Foundation. Though he majored in Painting, Harold was interested in much more than painting. He was accepted to George Kepes' Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, a famous and early think tank known more for its participants than for any results or accomplishments. He played music with the New England Conservatory of Music's Annex Players. He was one of the early performance artists in the Sixties; one of his pieces involved musical scores written on a deck of playing cards, with each player in the performance playing the music he was dealt. With so many opportunities tugging him in so many different directions, he actually stopped painting (for the first time, but not the last) to explore other areas of creativity. When he graduated in 1974, it was with a degree in Performance Art and Conceptual Art, not Painting.
In pushing the envelope of expectation in the Fine Art scene at the University and in Boston, he had grown disenchanted with the public's unwillingness or inability to exercise discrimination and good taste. The more outrageous his performance ideas (and those of others) had become, the more the art world ate it up. He was fed up, and as his last hurrah, upon graduation, he won the Clarissa Bartlett Traveling Fellowship, an award of money to travel, no strings attached, to stimulate the artist's mind and soul. With his new found cynicism and his scholarship money, he set off for California to work in commercial art, which he believed was the only honest art left.
At this point in our interview, Harold leaned in toward me with a twinkle in his eye. "You know what Kandinsky said, don't you?", he asked.
"When they asked him 'What do artists dream about at night?', Kandinsky answered 'Money!'"
Money and Art will always maintain a complicated relationship; it was Money that dictated Harold's activities during the next stage of his life. He started a graphic design firm in San Francisco, a going concern from the mid-70's into the 80's. Wineries, perfumeries, and other businesses were his clients and he and his company were successful beyond his imagination. His luck and talent grew the business until he found that he had become an executive, with employees, tax returns and accounts payable. When he found himself spending his days overseeing printing in a box factory, he decided he was done. He sold the company and started his third career as a freelance illustrator.
During our interview, Harold produced an illustration of flowers (not shown) that he had done from that period. It was precise, detailed and quite beautiful. A piece of work any artist would be proud to sign. But not apparently enough for Harold.
He moved back to painting. Harold got his second B.F.A. in San Francisco, but this time in Painting. He then attended Oakland's College of Arts and Crafts and got his second M.F.A., also in Painting. He taught school for years, and then left that too. Left it all and moved to Hawaii.
There, he and his new wife Carolyn lived on 8 acres of tropical paradise, where Harold spent all day every day for seven years NOT painting, but landscaping... painting and choreographing with plants and leaves and flowers and paths and stones. He labored to create a work of art that appealed to all the senses... a work that the observer could not just see but also smell and hear and touch and taste. After ten years, he looked up to notice that Hawaii, though a beautiful place, had become culturally vacant. An idyllic paradise overrun with tourists and traffic. So, in December 2007, Harold McAnaney landed in Merida, where he sits today brushing off the polvo as he begins yet again to paint, while his and Carolyn's turn-of-the-century colonial villa is renovated around him.
We were lucky enough to be invited into Harold and Carolyn's home, and by Harold, into his studio. Perhaps the most striking thing about his studio is that there isn't much art there. Harold is not a messy or expressive artist. There were no paint splashes on the wall, no strange constructions of found objects in the corner, no stacked drawings or sketches. In fact, we had to look around to find evidence of art in the making. Because Harold's approach to art appears to be methodical and studied and quiet. In fact, the room had a monastic feel to it as if herein was a place for sacred contemplation. His work table was clean and orderly, his painting-in-progress laid out in pencil on a canvas, and the beginnings of paint applied.
Harold McAnaney is a realist painter. One of his earliest influences was the artist Francis Bacon. He loves everything that David Hockney has ever done. And he greatly admires the work of Lucian Freud.
Bacon was born in the same hospital as McAnaney in Dublin, Ireland... 40-something years earlier. No doubt his Irish upbringing and Harold's would allow them to become fast friends were they to meet one rainy afternoon in that Dublin pub where Harold used to draw for pennies. Lucian Freud escaped Nazi Germany, becoming a British citizen in 1939 and went on to formal art studies in London. He too was a traveler and an illustrator before he settled into painting. Since the Fifties (he is now 85 years old), he has painted mostly portraits of nudes and semi-nudes, including those of fellow artists like his friend, Francis Bacon. And he is arguably one of the highest paid and most famous painters alive today. And then there is Hockney, also British, and also a wanderer. Curiously, Wikipedia refers to Hockney's earliest works as similar to Francis Bacon's before he moved on to California where he made his name painting swimming pools, making photo collages and designing opera sets. Some of his most recent works have been portraits.
This Rubik's Cube of influences creates a series of fascinating insights into McAnaney's work.
Harold told us that he likes to take a mundane subject and show the viewer the beauty in it by painting it. His first body of painting that was well received was a series of twelve large canvases whose subject matter was different views of a sun-drenched staircase in an early 1900 era Spanish revival building in Northern California. His realistic paintings captured moments in the day when this particular confluence of wood and color and form and light created such beauty as to stir the emotions of the artists, and in turn eventually, of the viewer. Mundane staircase, beautiful painting.
His next body of work is represented in his studio by just one piece that still remains. This series of works were interpretations of Russian icons, expanded in size (icons are usually rather small) and "decorated" with realistically painted iconic objects from the 2oth Century. McAnaney explained that after all his education, he was overfed on Renaissance painters, and found himself looking through history for new inspirations. His attention was arrested by the precious Russian icons, each one a jewel. He explained that the style of painting during this period was flat and without perspective in order to draw attention to the difference between the 3D world we live in and the spiritual plane. McAnaney added dimension to his paintings by realistically layering on a smattering of mundane modern icons, represented by photos torn from the pages of fashion magazines or small spiral notebooks with meaningless notes written with yet another pencil... all painted to look real. The rare spiritual experience contrasted with the everyday ordinariness of consumer culture. These works, too, were well received in their day and as with everything Harold paints, sold to his growing cadre of collectors.
These days Harold is painting portraits, paintings which show most the influence of Lucian Freud in their style of brush stroke and color. Each painting takes him the better part of a year to finish, and he only works on one piece at a time. His latest works are realistic portraits that capture a moment and a perspective that are both thought-provoking and emotionally arresting. And though there is always something unknown gnawing at you when you gaze at these large and masterful portraits, you cannot deny they are filled with light and a lightness of spirit that has graduated from the darkness of Francis Bacon's Ireland into the sunshine of David Hockney's California. And perhaps even beyond, to Harold McAnaney's Hawaii.
There were three and a half other paintings of note on display in Harold's studio; three paintings to do the talking, to express what Harold McAnaney the artist is trying to say. There was a portrait of his wife Carolyn, painted as a gift. Her face and shoulders swim out from a sea-green depth in arresting clarity, not as realistic as a photograph but with an honest life-likeness. Her gaze is piercing, but there is a softness. Honestly, the painting conveys no less an emotion than love... what a wonderful gift, and a wonderful painting.
The second painting, Paul Weisman, portrays a middle-aged man, healthy, tanned and barefoot sitting on a couch in his living room. Mundane, certainly. What is striking about this painting is the pair of feet, which precede his face in your view. You could sit across from this man from exactly this position and not notice his feet in real life, but in this painting, his feet are front and almost-center. They are beautifully rendered feet, with healthy curves and wrinkles and toes... feet obviously strong and able to support this man, who does indeed seem confident and well-heeled (sorry... couldn't resist!). The feet draw you on to the man's face, which is craggy and worn, wrinkled and multi-faceted as if from a lifetime of sun and experience, and maybe with just a touch of sadness. The painting conveys a feeling that there must be sun and water somewhere nearby. Perhaps it is the towels covering the cushions on the couch, or the blue-green colors, or even the glassy service of the coffee table beneath his bare feet. And though we see the whole man, everything else in the painting is portrayed in parts. We only see corners of tables and chairs, lamps and windows, hints of staircases and maybe a tripod. We can see the man, but we are not privileged to be admitted to his world.
The third painting is Harold's self-portrait (in the banner at the top of this article). One would expect a self-portrait to reveal something about the artist who painted it. But how are we to know, without knowing the artist better, who we are really looking at? In this photograph of Harold and his self-portrait, we can see the consummate skill of the artist in reproducing reality. The exact likeness of Harold stares out from the canvas beside him. The Harold in the painting is more serious than the living version we met, his eyes hardened in anger or concentration. The version of Harold beside the mirror is only half-seen, but he is the 'real' Harold. The Harold facing us is a reflection. And then, we have to ask, if all that is true, who is painting the picture? This self-portrait is a study in tricks of perspective, and perhaps a commentary on the way that art reflects but doesn't portray reality.
The last painting we were privileged to see was only half a painting... it was a work in progress, and we weren't allowed to photograph it, understandably. The next year of Harold's painting life will be caught up with the portrait of a man and the handles of his motorcycle. It is a painting of power and thrust, another message about perspective in fact, and yet another commentary on how our perspective paints our reality.
Occasionally, Harold McAnaney has exhibited his paintings here in Merida. Because he works so precisely and slowly, and because his collectors are so eager for his works when they are finished, it isn't likely that we will be seeing a lot of his work in the future. Still, the art community of Merida is fortunate to have gained a member with such a rich and diverse background, and we anticipate with curiosity how both Harold and Merida will be changed by being in each other's presence.