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HomeFeaturesFeatured ArtistFeatured Artist: Tony O’Connell - Part of FIVE at Kirkby Gallery, 2024

Featured Artist: Tony O’Connell – Part of FIVE at Kirkby Gallery, 2024

Tony O’Connell says he can’t imagine separating his art from his beliefs and that he only really considered himself an artist once he’d come to terms with who he truly was.

Having been raised as a catholic, the biggest fear Tony had about coming out was telling his mother that he was gay. That news was delivered at a time of great change, both in the artists life and in the country as a whole. Tony was studying for his foundation in art and was becoming increasingly active in standing up to oppression, such as section 28 which affected the lives of gay people across the UK. Tony’s social conscience is still a driving force in his life and is always present in his work.

Tony speaks about coming out to his mother with fondness, saying he should have always known his mum would always accept him for who he is explaining, “we shared an unconditional love and that never changed”. It was that same love that was equalled by grief at his mums passing and instantly coloured his art with sense of loss and grief.

Stories such as these reinforce Tony’s belief that his artistic practice is intrinsically linked to his experiences and that in order to produce meaningful art, it has to matter to him.

After graduating from university in fine art and sculpture, Tony returned to Liverpool City College to teach the foundation course he’d loved so much as a student. He still feels passionate about being in that environment and his enthusiasm is contagious. He also teaches weekly life drawing classes, so it’s a wonder he’s managed to find the time to produce new pieces for his next exhibition, which features his largest scale work to date. 

The exhibition takes place at Kirby Gallery from the 22nd of January and features five other artists alongside Tony including, Sophie Elsden, Natalie Gilmore, Paul Gatenby, Alun Roberts and Roger Owen. The collection is very varied in style and Tony has used the opportunity to step outside of his own comfort zone.  

Anyone who’s seen Tony work may be familiar with his ability to deliver quite complex ideas via mixed media, in pieces that often feel like shrines. Although the artist is now a Buddhist, the works on show at Kirkby are clearly influenced by his Catholic upbringing and his fascination with religious iconography. The results are a series of striking paintings depicting what at first glance look like Christian freezes representing bible stories but he’s actually used a style many people will be familiar with to remind us of the conflict, despair and social injustice that is still present in modern day life. Despite years of teaching art, Tony remains humble saying, “I’ve never really thought of myself as a painter, so I’ve had to learn a lot to achieve what I imagined for this project”.

The images were composed months before the recent events in Israel and Palestine, yet the tensions pictured remind us that the relationship between power, religion and oppression have always been present in the world. Despite the brutality of the image, hope is still present and in the largest painting, a central panel of a life size triptych, there is a famous face, deliberately dating the piece, making the viewer question why that person is there.

If you want to see who makes a cameo in Tony’s painting, you can see his work and the others being exhibited from the 22nd of Jan until the 30th of March, on the first floor gallery of The Kirkby Centre.

Opening hours are Monday to Friday 10am-5pm and Saturday 10am-1pm.

Entry is free and last admittance is 30mins before closing. For more information contact, galleries@knowsley.gov.uk

Words & images, Laura McCann

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