A list of Colm McCarthy’s works sounds like a vigil. Each screen-printed metal plate bears a terse, no-nonsense title: “Anthony McDowell, aged 12, shot by British soldier, Belfast, April 19th 1973,” “Breda Devine, aged 1, killed by RIRA car bomb, Omagh, August 15th, 1998.” On display at the URI-EICHEN Gallery in Pilsen, McCarthy’s exhibition “Killed” is a series of portraits of children who died during the Troubles, an open conflict in Northern Ireland lasting from 1969 through the turn of the century. McCarthy’s work is apolitical. He’s trying to pin down and focus these otherwise anonymous young faces for posterity, almost in memorial. Working from Wisconsin, exhibiting now on Chicago’s South Side, he’s looking to take his art back to Ireland, the country of his childhood holidays. The Weekly wrote McCarthy to learn more about his show and his larger challenge to fix in time a fraction of the 200-plus slain youth.
“Almost all of these kids are just lost to history—except to their friends and families, obviously,” McCarthy said. “So, I wanted to bring them back, larger than life and in color, so that people could look at them, and know their names, and know what happened to them.”
Each plate features its titular child, set usually against one of two types of backgrounds: a local cityscape or landscape, or the tessellated logo of a football club. The kids themselves dominate the foregrounds, amounting to half or two-thirds of every composition. Their wide, open faces smile hugely in a disarming direct address to the viewer. McCarthy juxtaposes their candor, however, with the sketchily-rendered silhouettes of military helicopters buzzing matter-of-factly on the horizon.
McCarthy recounted seeing such army hardware growing up: “They are in there because I always remember them when we would be driving through Fermanagh and Tyrone on our way from Dublin to Donegal…It was just incredibly eerie to me as a kid. The army towers, the barbed wire, and the fear that something could kick off at any second.”
The Westland Gazelles, the Boeing Chinooks, the armored personnel carriers and the inevitable shrapnel and bullets don’t simply exist as representations. They also find their way into the very media on which McCarthy worked. He executed the majority of the works in “Killed” on thin metal rectangles cut from aluminum, steel, and zinc.
“It’s a cold, hard, and insensitive material.”
The choice of metal began with what McCarthy discredited as a “nonsensical technical consideration.” He’d hoped that the show would be easier to pack and transport if done on metal.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “they weigh a ton and are immensely fragile…I don’t even know what magical force causes paint to cling to metal!”
The sheer material isn’t striking as a denunciation of the implements of war. It does much more to drive home the regularity and mundanity of encounters with potential violence. Aluminum, steel, and zinc are the substances that support the images of “Killed.” They are the art’s underpinning elements—an unavoidable fact about its creation that the figures we see cover up, get in front of, or move away from. The physical citation of armaments is as seemingly natural and essential to the making of “Killed” as McCarthy’s own ominously mythical experience of the machines themselves.
“We’d be driving along these country roads and you’d just see a Gazelle hovering in the distance. They were just a part of the landscape.”
McCarthy’s reintegration of “Killed’s” happy children to this bleak and divided landscape required painstaking work and research.
“It’s been incredibly difficult to find good background information about the vast majority of these kids,” he said. “Information on the more recent ones can be found easily enough, but the further you go back—and most of them are from the seventies and eighties—the less information there is. Often there is nothing at all. History doesn’t record ‘unremarkable’ people.”
McCarthy has thus been working mostly from tiny, poor-fidelity captures. “I mean, 1.5 inch by 1 inch, 72ppi images made from the –nth generation of copies of original snapshot photographs that weren’t very good to begin with.”
Mainly a photographer by practice, he’s committed himself to what he admits is a “rather ridiculous” process of printing, retouching, scanning, enlarging, and reprinting. The goal is to correct and clarify the images he can reliably source into a result that’s big and sharp and ready for screen-printing.
“I felt obligated to each one I worked on to do the best I could for them, and find out as much about their lives as I could.”
In elaborately repairing the images, McCarthy attempts much the same thing in the library as he does in the studio. While not a metaphor outright, the difficulties behind tracking down graphical materials, finding articles and literature about the subjects—finding the time and money to stay in Ireland—map in resonant ways onto “Killed” as a finished product. The staticky stories and historical fog McCarthy has pushed through can be read in each face. The kids are still slightly blurred and mussed; cheeks and brows become oblong fields of color or darkness. They’re present and arresting, but still indistinct—carefully, exhaustingly reconstructed echoes.
“Killed” is more than a collection of portraits. It’s an ongoing grappling with the record for a very recent tragedy. The politics of the Troubles, the documentary apathy that some 3,500 total deaths can inspire, made McCarthy’s endeavor to find the grins and the sparkling eyes strenuous. The project genuinely pivots the audience’s gaze back onto the real costs of the crossfire by meeting it halfway with thoughtfully researched, sympathetically recovered snapshots of hope and growth.
“These children were blameless innocents swept up in something that was entirely beyond them,” McCarthy said. “I wanted to do right by each of them and give each of them a portrait that I felt did them justice.”
URI-EICHEN Gallery, 2101 S. Halsted St. Through April 3. By appointment. (312) 852-7717. uri-eichen.com.