This project reflects on new works by Richard Meaghan, an artist based in Liverpool, England. Describing his work as ‘paint[ing] what it feels like to be human’, his current work, ranging from small, delicate works on paper to large canvases, is deeply autobiographical, and interrogates, among other things, tropes relating to masculinity, love and illness.
Looking at these works has summoned thoughts on the abject, i.e. the othering of that which the body or psyche rejects, but which nonetheless screams its existence. Those thoughts, which I haven’t fully resolved yet, may relate to the othering of that which has invaded the body by translating it to image, and thus ejecting it – the process of defying that which threatens.
My initial explorations have focused on the delicate, exquisitely rendered works on paper. Composed in ink, watercolour, graphite and pastel on paper, they reflect on the artist’s recent diagnosis of prostate cancer and his psychological navigation of its consequences. At first glance, looking at these works simultaneously, they exude jouissance; colour, often riotous, and sensuous line cause to eye to travel excitedly at first, before eventually, and only very gradually, absorbing a complex, deeply personal dialogue on confronting the threat to one’s masculinity and life as a sexual being.
These are extraordinarily brave pictures, that oscillate between rage (e.g. Black Widow, Patient Advocate), pleasure (Temptation of a Saint, Spring Bathers, The Luminaries, Misogynistic Prick) and sardonic humour (The Bone Collector, see image and accompanying text below) but they are never resigned. There is wit in almost every one of them, that signals triumph, a resolute ‘fuck you’ woven into the act of making them.
The artist’s approach to making the penis a central motif, apart from its relevance to confronting a diagnosis that threatens to make him impotent, has also worked to normalise it (for the viewer) as part of masculine experience. The penis has often been seen as threatening, – as, for instance, symbolic of testosterone-fuelled militant masculinity, whose sexual virility equalled mental virility in facing down the enemy on the battlefield (as traced in Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies), or in the powerful gay sexuality portrayed in Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book or Tom of Finland’s intricately detailed drawings of male nudes with outsize erect penises. (Tom of Finland, real name Touko Valio Laaksonen, has even admitted to the sexiness he saw in Nazi military uniforms, which brings some of Theweleit’s ideas of homoeroticism in military fraternities full circle). As the artist outlines in his reading of Picasso’s drawing El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz (to which The Petri Dish responds, see image below), the meaning attached to the penis is determined by context; in the Make Love or Live drawings, it is not there purely to ‘shock’ an audience, some of which remains affronted by it. The works are experiential, in which the motif of the penis becomes that of challenging or coping with a threat to one’s wholeness as a sexual being.
The Bone Collector
The artist describes this work thus: “My Bone Collector is my nemesis, my dark half, he hides in the shadows always with me, watching and waiting.”
The ‘Bone Collector’ is at once nightmarish and witty. The Bone Collector represents in part the artist’s consultant (stripy socks, and a medical mask dangling from his neck), who sits in his claustrophobic practice, behind whom are proudly erected vials of harvested phalluses. The latest addition to his collection lies on the table, the owner of which has been castrated with a cleaver. The bone collector-consultant is literally a dickhead, suggesting perhaps his indifference to the emotional and psychological impact of his diagnosis and treatment. His small penis contrasts with his erect, monstrous ‘dick-head’ and the huge phalluses that surround him– suggesting intellectual rather than sexual virility. The fact that the patient/victim’s head or even his hands are not visible robs him of his identity; he is reduced to offal. The figure who peers through the doorway is possibly the artist, whose scale compared to the central motif suggests that the entire scene resides in the artist’s ‘mind’s eye’, wherein he dwells upon the loss of masculinity/sexuality.
This text will be updated as the project develops. To view works by Richard Meaghan, visit the artist’s website.