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Lot 46
Price Realised: €125,000
Estimate: €70,000 - €100,000
John Shinnors b.1950
Oil on canvas, each 36" x 36" (91 x 91cm), each signed SHINNORS verso and numbered 1 of 18

18 canvases, painted as one work of art act as dramatic stages for the visual artist use of dark a... Read more
Estimate: €70,000 - €100,000
John Shinnors b.1950
Oil on canvas, each 36" x 36" (91 x 91cm), each signed SHINNORS verso and numbered 1 of 18

18 canvases, painted as one work of art act as dramatic stages for the visual artist use of dark and light, shade, colour and texture. Visual clues lead the viewer to different variations on the subject matter of the scarecrow.

Graham Greene famously asserted that "childhood is the bank balance of the writer". For certain artists the same holds true. Edvard Munch owes his eerie and disturbing images to the premature deaths in his family, and to the stories of Edgar Allen Poe that his father liked to read him. Francis Bacon's childhood also provided him with the collateral that resulted in a body of work imbued with sexual violence.

The scarecrow has been a recurring motif in the work of John Shinnors for many years. It too can be traced back to childhood events. This most unprecious of artists likes to quote Monet when asked about influences: "what I see around me is my guide".  This is true for his magpies, kites, lighthouses and Friesian cattle.

However, his scarecrows have a more subterranean source. The artist himself traces the scarecrow motif back to childhood summers spent in rural Clare on his uncle's isolated farm. Wandering on a neighbour's land one evening he came upon a life-size mannequin dressed in woman's underclothes in a small copse. This alarming encounter became associated in the mind of the impressionable child with the banshee stories his uncle liked to recount while sitting around the fire at night.

Those summers left an enduring mark. The artist still remembers the prolonged loneliness and isolation felt, and the frequent terror. These childhood traumas marinading in his subconscious began to emerge many years later in the form of his dark and disturbing scarecrow portraits. These are not scarecrows as we normally picture them - ragged clothes on a rudimentary frame in a field of corn. They have eerie and nightmarish quality - faces from an ancient gallery. Amidst the dark and tortured visages on display a playful note is struck with a painting of contemporary sign-post indicating that no birds are allowed (Scarecrow Portrait 2).

The painting of a sheaf of corn  (Scarecrow Portrait 4) also seems out of place until you remember a scarecrow's role. It is also a reference to the scarecrow-like Wren Boys of his youth who favored costumes fashioned from corn. A number of them (Scarecrow Portrait 3 for example) also invoke Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly paintings - those metal masks with holes for eyes. Shinnors, unlike many artists, tries to dispel any air of mystery in his paintings and will cheerfully point out the figurative elements that a viewer may have missed. However, an artist, no matter how prosaic his intentions, cannot escape the interpretations that viewers will visit on his, or her, work. And these mysterious and evocative scarecrow portraits have a dark resonance that is prone to drive speculation.

Shinnors is very much an outsider figure in contemporary art. While he doesn't bite the hand that feeds him, neither does he bother too much about giving it an occasional appreciative lick. He has remained loyal to his Limerick roots and would prefer a pint of Smithwick's in the Spotted Dog in Roxboro to a glass of claret at an art soiree. Like any good scarecrow he's most at home in a rural field. It's tempting therefore to see this recurring scarecrow motif also as a sly essay in self-portraiture. Anyone who looks at his self-portrait (a masterful exercise in chiaroscuro) in the National Self-portrait Collection in the University of Limerick will spot the connection. Check out the sharp, triangle of the nose and spot. The resemblance in Scarecrow Portraits 9 and 10.

These eighteen Scarecrow Portraits were first exhibited in the Limerick City Gallery of Art in 2002 as part of a major exhibition of the artist's work. Each of them measures a substantial 91 x 91 cms and although any one of them would pass as a stand-alone painting, the artist stipulated that they be hung together as a set - in two rows of nine. When asked why 18, given the problematical logistics of hanging such a number together, Shinnors replied that 18 is his lucky number.

John P. O'Sullivan, June 2021
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