Colin Pennock

In Issue 45, Kevin Wilson visited Colin Pennock in his Noosa Hinterland studio to chat about the Irish-born artist's incredible life – from lying in a trench on top of an IRA booby trap of dynamite to moving to the remote Queensland countryside and devoting his life to painting.

Fresh from a successful exhibition in London, Colin Pennock has quietly settled back into his creative life with partner Katrina in Queenland’s Noosa Hinterland. I can’t help thinking about the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song lyrics – ‘our house is a very, very fine house with two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard’. With three cats and a beautiful secluded little house perched on a hill at the end of a road, Colin’s journey has been interesting and, indeed, at times hard.

I visit on a day of intermittent rain and hear stories of an early life as a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ migrant in Sydney, a return to Belfast, a love of drawing, joining the police at seventeen years of age at the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the lack of encouragement from those around him to be an artist. He tells me of the time he found himself laying in a trench on top of an IRA booby trap of dynamite, which had not yet been ‘connected’.

Eventually he made his way to St Martin’s School of Art in London and, like many art students, had no concept of being an artist and making money. There were many other connected careers after art school, including working with the Harbour Police in Ireland. As always, inspired by his environment he produced coastal paintings and portraiture. His next move was to New York where he made a successful career in storyboarding, while continuing to paint at night. It was this experience that honed his drawing skills but also left him disenchanted with the commercial art world and the world itself. He left New York just after 9/11. It was the next move that started the trajectory he is on now.

In Sydney, he was in full flight painting and drawing but whenever he drew he was reminded of New York and his time there. The early works reveal a sense of collapse, of form and structure starting to erode. These works became watersheds in his development, as he combined graphite mark-making with oil paint, creating vigorous structures interspersed with quiet spaces that he treated with delicate glazes.

One of these paintings, Warehouse, won the Mosman Alan Gamble Memorial Art Prize in 2005. Nick Waterlow OAM was the judge. Later in his career Pennock bought this painting back on the secondary market, as he considered it a key step in his artistic development. It prefigured his later work in that it was not only a structuring of 3D space but to him ‘played with the sense of movement inside a building’, and in a way captured Pennock himself moving within the structure. The challenge was to somehow join together the artist’s own mental perambulations with the physical act of painting.

The spatial element in his work continued to be explored using both subtle and deep impasto to the point where paint became the structure. Thick swathes of paint, sometimes mixed with mica, swept across the canvas or simply sat like layers of hardened soil, again leaving spaces, gaps and holes of flatness below. At other times the layers of paint piled up one below the other in colourful celebration.

The idea that his painting was essentially about himself kept coming up in all of our conversations. He tells me he ‘doesn’t want to draw a tree but how the tree makes him feel’ and when discussing his landscapes he says ‘a work is a stage set to talk about myself’.

Many artists talk about a form of anthropomorphism – linking a human feeling to a landscape, but l feel that Pennock’s take on his connection to nature is something else. He didn’t want to paint a landscape per se but more a landscape of his own emotions, journeys and ideas. Even the use of a horizon line was not employed as a device to create three-dimensionality in the landscape but more as a marker for his life. According to Pennock, ‘Putting in a horizon line, I can either go forward or go back.’

As we continue to talk I want to know more about his initial ideas of movement through structure and place and how that translates as an exploration of his own life in his painting. He mentions how he had walked the fields on his father’s farm and drew both the animals and the landscape or how he even drew while on duty as a policeman.

He also talks about other forms of movement such as the structuring of movement when in the police force; being dropped into a landscape to patrol with field men located ahead on either side of the patrol group, and the feeling that they were going somewhere, a movement forward. Even standing in supposed stillness on the farm, ‘You were always watching the horizon and things were always moving’.

Our discussion returns to mark-making, now more about paint than line, and his fascination with intrusive marks that seem to be a disruption and yet, as he says, ‘find their way’. Or how ‘an accent can be an intrusion but also works like a welcome interruption’. From there we move onto colour and its ability to connect space. He refers to Monet, saying that you can use any colour as long as it is used across the surface. Pennock takes it further and suggests that the use of colour is akin to music; that there are ‘harmonies in the punctuation of colour’.

He marvels how in nature colour is connected no matter how discordant the colours are. As we are looking at a work currently on the easel, the garden seems to burst into the studio through the large open roller door, and he tells me how he will catch sight of a hint of colour, for example of flowers in a tree or bush and how it finds its way into his painting. In a way his two palettes – his paint palette and nature’s palette, both serve to express a higher need.

We turn briefly to some bigger issues in the world and the religious perspective of good and evil, light and dark, and his own background in a torn religious society. He says he has always been drawn towards beauty but he recognises that the shit is part of the beauty.

And now for me I am starting to see Pennock’s paintings as revelations of the man himself and him actually not constructing any specific landscape but various studies of himself embedded within his environment – not just generic nature but also that little house on the hill and his loving relationships.

As he says, ‘You can mix it up and look at it from a number of aspects – how you feel, how there is harmony, how there is discord, how there is light and dark. All become part of the orchestra that plays it’ and Pennock is certainly both that orchestra and its conductor.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 45, 2018

Colin Pennock: The Modernist
14 May – 6 June 2020
Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne – viewings by appointment

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