Long before he discovered the works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a painter whose portraits are assembled from objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish and books, John Kindness was aware of many composite figures in the world of package design, comics and advertising. The 'Liquorice Allsort man', 'Brassneck' and ‘Bibendum', the Michelin tyre man, were all part of a parallel world of people and animals made from inanimate things. Over time he became fascinated by the works of Arcimboldo, along with intricate animal paintings of India’s Mughal and Deccani courts - assembled from images of other creatures - and the eclectic compositions of Salvador Dali.
‘I wasn't tested for myopia until I was about 12,’ the artist says, ‘so my childhood vision had never been pin sharp. I feel that this must have fed my creativity and my imagination as I didn't always see things as they actually were, but had to mentally assemble un-focussed objects and make sense of them.'
Fast forward to 2019, when Kindness was asked to make a work for the new Clore learning centre at Hillsborough Castle in Co. Down. ‘I was given a free hand in composing a work based on a theme of 'hospitality'; of course to me that said 'food', not just the consumables but also the utensils and accoutrements associated with eating.’ The result was 'A Mummers Banquet', a seven panel painting now installed in the centre. In this exhibition we present the gouache studies for the figures, composed of the ingredients for a banquet and of the china, silverware, glass and linen that was once made in Ireland.
As the Kindness point out, the act of sharing food is one of our most important social rituals: ‘When Senator George Mitchell was asked what he felt the turning point was in the Northern Ireland peace talks, he said it came when he asked the participants to eat lunch together, with the caveat that they could discuss anything except politics.’
The exhibition also features other food-themed works, among them a trifle couple, salad being courted by pasta and a fish & chip baby. While making the work was mostly fun for the artist - and in this we can draw a line from playfulness of Arcimboldo - he couldn’t resist slipping in a few social and political references along the way. But like that mythical banquet, they are also there to be enjoyed.
John Kindness is one of the most outstanding Irish artists of his generation. His career to date includes solo exhibitions at the Ulster Museum, the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, the Douglas Hyde Gallery, while his work is the collections of The National Gallery of Ireland, IMMA, The Hugh Lane, The British Museum and The V&A Museum.