John Rainey is a young Northern Irish artist whose work I first saw in 2016, when I marked him down as “one to watch.” Unlike many Irish artists, he was largely trained in England, at Manchester Metropolitan University and at the Royal College of Art in London. Three areas come to prominence in his sculpture: an interest in digital technologies; a fascination with body parts; and a serious exploration of the ways in which copies of Greek and Roman classical statuary have accrued different meanings over the centuries. Rainey might be called a post-Troubles artist; although references to those events exist in his work, they are not foregrounded. He is also among those artists eroding the distinction between craft and fine art—a skills base is key to his work. In a world where sculptors often hire technicians, Rainey resolutely does it all himself.
Brian McAvera: You were born in Omagh in Northern Ireland in 1985. Were your parents instrumental in terms of your decision to become an artist?
John Rainey: My parents both worked in education—they met as teachers in Belfast in the 1970s. I see them both as creative people in different ways. My father makes furniture in his spare time, so I had physical, three-dimensional making in my environment. My mother taught mathematics and computer studies, so there were computers at home for as long as I can remember, before it became the standard. That’s significant because technology plays an important role in my work. I was quite an introverted child, with a rich interior life that spilled out through art-making. I remember being very encouraged and supported.
BM: The Troubles were slowly winding down when you were born. How did growing up in Northern Ireland shape you, and were you aware of Irish art?
JR: I’m able to reflect on that shaping more as I get older. I remember being aware of feeling a disconnect between the images of Northern Ireland in the news and what otherwise, on an everyday experiential level, felt like an unremarkable, safe place. It was a surreal experience, which intensified in my teenage years. One of the defining atrocities of The Troubles happened in Omagh in 1998, so I have a clear memory of the media spotlight descending on that sleepy and relatively unknown town. That’s one of the traces from the period present in my work—a focus on the relationship between mediated events and “reality” has been hugely influential in my motivations as an artist. I see it as underpinning my preoccupation with copies, with secondary things, with representation and reproduction.
I studied and visited a lot of Northern Irish public sculptures while I was at school; most of them were memorials or commemorative in some way. I was aware of F.E. McWilliam, who was important for me; I’ve often visited his studio reconstruction in Banbridge. There is a kind of playfulness with materials and casting in his work that I still feel energized by when I see it.
BM: You attended Manchester Metropolitan University between 2006 and 2009 and did a BA in contemporary crafts. Why Manchester?
JR: After A Levels, I did an art and design foundation course in Limavady, near Derry. It was a year for sampling different art forms. By the end of that year, I was making quite representational, hand-sculpted work in ceramics. I had a facility for processes and a fascination with how things are made. I knew I wanted to learn skills. That led me to the course at Manchester Metropolitan, where I trained in ceramics, wood, metal, and textiles before choosing a combined ceramics and material culture option for my final year.
BM: That move was also a shift from the rural to the urban. What impact did Manchester and its art world have on you?
JR: It wasn’t urban initially, because my course was based at a campus in a small town outside of Manchester. It was good for focusing on work, a bit like a bootcamp. Once I graduated though, I had a strong sense of needing to be in a city, so I moved into Manchester. I loved the scale of it, the diversity of people, and the ability to be anonymous. I remember deciding that I’d never be able to go rural again. I worked as a technician in some galleries, including Yorkshire Sculpture Park, while I was there. That taught me a lot about the practicalities of displaying artwork, using space in unconventional ways, and viewing exhibitions as experiences.
BM: From 2010 to 2012, you were at the Royal College of Art in London, doing an MA in ceramics and glass. How did London compare to Manchester, and did your work change?
JR: London was much bigger, but I was ready for that. I had been encouraged by the head of my previous course to apply to the Royal College. It gives you access to lecturers and guest lecturers working at the forefront of their disciplines. It felt like there was a constant flow of inspirational people moving through the place. I also learned from my peers. I owe most of my mold-making skills—a keystone of my work now—to a friend from my course, designer Solomia Zoumaras.
At the RCA, I started to use digital technologies such as 3D scanning and printing. They were just starting to enter mainstream consciousness, but the RCA already had a dedicated facility. It was the ideal place for me to introduce these elements into my work since interdisciplinary approaches were encouraged.
BM: How useful, career-wise, was the Royal College?
JR: It was transformative. I felt intimidated initially, but those moments of feeling out of your depth, when you have to sink or swim, are the times that result in the greatest progress, both personally and in terms of the work.
BM: Within a year of leaving college, you had a solo show at the Project Space of London’s Marsden Woo Gallery. “Hyper Activity: Scenes from an Other Reality” seems to have set a template for you—there was an installational aspect, a sense of working in series, and a Hans Bellmer-like preoccupation with the uneasy rearranging of body parts and their mutations. What were you trying to do?
JR: The exhibition was, in a sense, an elaboration on the work in my final MA show. A lot of it was inspired by digital interactions and activities—“living through platforms” and how that could be represented through physical form in a physical space. The series-based works acted like freeze-frame sequences, so there was a sense of progression or evolution, moving between states. The installational aspect was intentional. Previously, I had exhibited only in group contexts; with a space to myself, I had an urge to create an immersive environment. I wanted it to be a “staged experience” with a deliberate inference of theatricality, drawing parallels with performances of self in an online space.
BM: By the time of “On Visibility,” your solo show at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast in 2016, 3D printing technology was looming large, and you described the work as exploring “recent (increasingly digitized) changes to our cultural, personal, and social ways of living and communicating.” Can you explain how these changes are reflected in your sculpture?
JR: In the time between those two shows, I had perceived, and experienced, a marked shift in the role and scope of online social platforms. Previously they were used to interact in new ways with people you already knew, then their capacity for meeting new people seemed to soar in popularity; it was a developing online dating and hookup culture that’s now firmly rooted. I was interested in the evolution of vernacular photography that ensued, with a surge in private acts of representation. New tropes appeared, from the selfie taken from an elevated angle, to the headless torso and other disembodied body parts. It felt like the perfect material to explore through sculpture. One of the major themes that emerged had to do with what is shown and what is hidden when it comes to representing ourselves in those contexts.
BM: You did a residency in Stockholm in 2013 and another at the British School in Rome in 2019. I would guess that the British School in Rome had the most dramatic impact on you, reinforcing your interest not only in classical sculpture, but also in the whole notion of copying and thereby creating a tradition. Could you talk about these experiences?
JR: In terms of transposing my practice to a new location, Stockholm was more straightforward because the residency was based in the ceramics and glass department at Konstfack University. I had all the facilities I needed to continue what I had been doing at home, and I enjoyed seeing how approaches to the same materials differed in another country. I was there for three months, which is relatively short for a residency, but I’ve continued to visit. In a roundabout way, that experience led to my 2019 solo presentation at Berg Gallery in Stockholm.
Rome was probably more formative, in part because I was there for six months. It happened at a point when my work had begun featuring copies of existing sculptures. Since I had been thinking about the history and role of the copy, working in Rome had a sense of being a pilgrimage to the original, but then the copy is an integral strand in the fabric of Roman sculpture. I was bouncing around between originals and copies, printed versions in books, and digital scans of the same forms, accessed online—a constant system of referring that felt very representative of post-Internet experience. I didn’t have ceramic facilities, so I was working in more immediate materials like silicone and jesmonite. That was a challenge, but it led to some significant developments in terms of my sculptural language.
BM: “Flayground,” your show at the Berg Gallery, was dominated by a series of variations on the Doryphoros, a lost sculpture by the Greek artist Polykleitos, known only through Roman copies. What thinking underpinned the exhibition?
JR: That body of work was developed for the British Ceramics Biennial in 2019, but it had begun in Rome. I was working with a digital scan of a Doryphoros copy released by the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen with Creative Commons licensing. When I was in Rome, I visited another copy at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The silicone I was using initially to make molds evolved to become one of the principal materials in my explorations of the Doryphoros form. I was using it to think about imitation and façades, about removable skins and layers, but it was also referencing the tradition of flayed skins in sculpture. I was thinking about the layers of meaning that have been projected onto a form like the Doryphoros over time and in different locations, facilitated by its copies. It has obvious connections to ideas about the masculine ideal, and in that sense, I wanted to represent him undergoing a series of transformations.
BM: Artists often talk about disrupting expectations, of things not being as they seem. This aspect of trickery is a very old conceit, going back at least to the Greeks—for instance, the story of birds pecking at painted grapes. What is your take on this tradition?
JR: My impulse to use those devices comes from my experience of Northern Ireland. People here have experienced a lot of social control, whether through politics, religion, or just dogmatic social conservatism. It was still very much the case when I was growing up. As a result, there is a strong sense of having to extract yourself from that, of having to question existential things in a really profound way, of not accepting how things are presented as fact. That aspect of my work is about giving people pause; it’s about the discrepancy between representation and truth.
BM: Eduardo Paolozzi was fascinated by technology. Indeed much Pop art could be seen in this light—Richard Hamilton, for instance, or David Hockney with his iPad. There are really no new themes, just variations and recombinations of elements. What do you think you can achieve?
JR: Initially, when I was studying, technology was a useful way to generate regular outcomes, thinking about multiplicity and ease of reproduction. It was also a way to bring physical form into digital space with scanners. Ultimately these technologies are tools that I use as part of a sculptural lexicon. I feel inspired by artists like Paolozzi and F.E. McWilliam because they were communicating through three-dimensional form in a way that doesn’t need a lot of language attached to it—that’s what I’m trying to achieve. I’ve visited Paolozzi’s studio reconstruction at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh on multiple occasions. It’s stacked with molds and models. It demonstrates his consumption of manufactured form, his rethinking of existing material. I feel very connected to that at the moment.
BM: How do you view color?
JR: It’s another aspect of the sculptural lexicon I’m describing, and an increasingly important one for me. Color communicates, and I feel like I’m still learning to employ it. I used to have a very limited palette, but it’s recently expanded. I did a lot of testing during the Covid restrictions. I usually use color in a flat, uniform way reminiscent of the freshly cast base color of a manufactured object before its final paint job. I’ve also started to print on the surfaces of ceramics, which allows me to think of ornamentation and disguise—a form of trompe l’oeil that expands my ability to play with material deception.
BM: You have talked about “staged environments.” What exactly do you mean? Isn’t any exhibition, especially of sculpture, staged?
JR: What I am doing bears an obvious connection to exhibition design. The Marsden Woo show was definitely about theatricality; the sense of staging related to the themes about the performance of self. In my work for the Ceramics Biennial, that design aspect merged with the work itself. I like crossing those boundaries, loosening the distinction between craft and art and design. The whole debate about craft versus fine art feels less entrenched than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Skills-based practices have re-entered art spaces. I’ve enjoyed seeing that happen.
BM: I see your work as surreal though not Surrealist.
JR: Maybe it’s the unconventional presentation of bodily form, the biomorphism and anthropomorphism. I think my inclination to approach things in anthropomorphic ways comes from my education in a craft context. For example, I can remember being in a seminar at the RCA with Emmanuel Cooper, who talked about the gendering of pots.
I understand the distinction you’re drawing. One point to make is that it’s hard to disconnect Surrealism from charges of misogyny, whereas my work has been heavily underpinned by feminist theory. Texts like Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1985) were influential in my earlier work, and my new work has been largely inspired by Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism manifesto (2020).
BM: Could you talk about the works in “SLIP TANK,” your current show at the Naughton Gallery in Belfast?
JR: I’m working with some new forms and source sculptures. One is a copy of Myron’s Discobolus. Like the Doryphoros, its copies have been receptacles for projected meanings over time. In the 20th century, the Discobolus form went from being co-opted as a symbol of the Aryan ideal in Nazi Germany to reappearing on posters for the London Olympics in 1948 as a symbol of triumph over fascism. Skip to this century, and imagery of classical sculpture has again become popular in the far-right movement in America, as attested to by Donna Zuckerberg’s book Not All Dead White Men (2018).
In this context, I’m adopting Russell’s use of the term “glitch” in relation to successions of copies. It’s a word that’s been attributed to my work in the past, particularly in reference to a 2014 series called “Interlude,” but I’m approaching it now through Russell’s lens of the glitch as a “slip,” a “tear in the fabric,” and a useful act of resistance.
John Rainey’s solo exhibition, “SLIP TANK,” is on view at the Naughton Gallery in Belfast through December 22, 2021.