Artist profile - John Rattigan
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 March 2019
Mike Smith discovers a fascinating array of monkeys, vultures, owls and angels peopling the studio walls of artist John Rattigan.
Monkeys are the most anthropomorphic of animals. Because their facial expressions can reflect a whole range of humanlike emotions, from anger and fear to naughtiness and puzzlement, they are one of the favourite subjects of the painter John Rattigan, who is particularly fond of creating compositions comprising multiple images of facial expressions. And by exaggerating the length and flexibility of the limbs of the monkeys he depicts, John is able to interconnect the individual animals illustrated in each picture by a baffling entanglement of arms, legs, feet and hands. In fact, as the artist admits, he often gets so carried away with creating these entanglements that he ends up with some monkeys being shown with extra limbs.
Summarising his aims, John says: ‘My monkey pictures are just one example of my paintings where animals take on human characteristics, with some of them looking angry or melancholic, whilst others look joyful or mischievous. I try to produce images that can be both playful and serious, abstract and figurative, complex yet simple. My pictures also have strong geometric or decorative elements.’
Some of those decorative devices are contained in grids of multiple images in pictures that have more than a passing resemblance to those paintings containing repetitive portraits that were produced by Andy Warhol, whilst others have a circular format. One of John’s pictures comprising images of skulls arranged in a sort of vortex seems to rotate before the eyes in a manner that brings to mind Matisse’s famous abstract painting called ‘The Snail’. It comes as no surprise to learn that the artist cites Warhol and Matisse as major influences.
John studied for a BA in Fine Art at Manchester College of Art, followed by a Post Graduate Certificate in Education at Manchester Polytechnic. Although his motive for taking up teacher training was to provide a back-up if he could not make a living as an artist, he was surprised to find that he loved the teaching practice he experienced on his course so much that he decided to embark on teaching as a career. After spending some time in the state sector, he moved to Abbotsholme School, where he headed the art department for 23 years, from 1984 to 2007. Because the school placed a great deal of value on creative subjects, he was given excellent facilities and enough financial resources to mount annual exhibitions of the work of his students.
Although full-time teaching limited the hours John could spend on his own work, he continued his studies in art at Staffordshire Polytechnic, obtaining a Diploma in Art History in 1984 and an MA in Fine Art in 2000. Since retiring from teaching in 2010, he has been able to devote all his considerable energies to the production of his own work, as evidenced by the large number of paintings displayed on the walls of his home and studio in Doveridge.
The many monkey works on display on his walls include an amusing picture of a single monkey whose manual dexterity has been so exaggerated that the animal is able to hold and read four books simultaneously. An equally striking work depicts a group of vultures where the expressions on the faces of the birds illustrate emotions ranging from haughtiness and sadness to menace and aggression. Another picture of birds depicts no fewer than 20 owls perched on the branches of what could be a monkey tree, with 40 eyes staring out at the viewer. By way of contrast, a painting called ‘Mesmerised Crowd’ is one of a series of pictures featuring a sea of faces in a football crowd in which John makes clever use of the stripes on the replica football shirts worn by the spectators to interlink the faces.
With so many images contained in a single picture, it is often difficult to know where to focus your attention when looking at a Rattigan painting, but the need to constantly shift your gaze is the result of a deliberate ploy of the artist, who says, ‘I like viewers to get inside my pictures and explore them, almost as if they were trying to find a route through a labyrinth.’
Some works on display on the walls of John’s home are on the theme of Adam and Eve. Explaining their origin, the artist said: ‘I have always admired the way medieval art combines decoration with narrative, especially in illuminated scripts, stone carvings or stained glass, particularly in depictions of Adam and Eve. My versions often include anthropomorphic birds, used as a form of commentary on Adam and Eve’s plight, and images of owls, which are a reference to a tale from Jewish medieval folklore in which Adam’s so-called first wife Lilith took on the form of a ‘screech owl’ when she was banished from the Garden of Eden for refusing to make herself subservient to him.’
John’s most recent works include examples from The Angel Project, a touring exhibition which he has curated and includes his own paintings and work produced by nine other artists based in Derbyshire and the East Midlands: Michael Cook, Maggie Cullen, Elizabeth Forrest, Rebecca Mercer, Duncan Pass, Sue Prince, Sarah Sharpe, Anna Thomas and Michelle Holmes. The artists were invited to submit a personal response to some aspect of the time-honoured visual conventions or narratives associated with angels. Paintings from The Angel Project have been exhibited recently at the Manger Gallery, run by Michael Cook and housed in a former stable attached to his family home at Kings Newton.
Describing his own contributions to the exhibition, John said: ‘The angels in my work are often visualised as messengers grappling with the practicalities of being earthbound. As fallen angels or falling angels, they sometimes find themselves getting entangled in trees or practising flight manoeuvres in a school for angels. In other versions I envisage them in playful or mischievous moods, dancing or cavorting in their free time or even painting their own halos!’
Over the years, John’s work has been exhibited in a number of art galleries in the North and the Midlands, and even at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Washington DC. Various awards to come his way include the Lichfield Art Prize, presented to him in 2015, and Visitors’ Choice Awards made at the Stockport Open Exhibition and at Brampton Art Gallery. Whether they depict Adam and Eve, football crowds, angels, monkeys, owls or vultures, John’s images are always eye-catching and entertaining.
Paintings and drawings by John Rattigan can be viewed on www.johnrattigan.co.uk. The artist can be contacted on 01889 563702. The Angel Art Trail, based on the Angel Project, will be a feature of the Ashbourne Festival from 21st June to 7th July 2019.