Richard Hearns was born in Beirut in the late 1970s in the midst of fierce fighting in the Lebanese capital. Since then, the 38-year-old artist has become one of Ireland's finest contemporary painters, working and living in the surrounds of the heart of the Burren, a beautiful national park in the southwest of the country.
“I was born in Beirut during the civil war, adopted by an Irish army officer who was serving with the UN peacekeeping forces and brought to Ireland,” Hearns tells me. “The adoption was facilitated by an Irish nun from County Donegal and organised by a Monsignor from County Clare who were both working in war-torn Lebanon at the time.”
He says that in the early 1990s his father took him back to Beirut and the Middle East but travel was problematic due to the First Intifada. “I hope to return again someday,” Hearns says. “I would very much like to take in the culture and maybe have the opportunity to create a body of work there. That is a dream of mine.”
Talking to The London Magazine earlier this year, Hearns said that his dual nationality and adopted family had certainly influenced the way he works. "My father instilled in me a love of travel as well as a deep respect for and interest in other cultures. I was raised in Ireland from six weeks [old] so I am aware that nurture has shaped me to be Irish, but Dad tells me that I have many positive Lebanese traits, too, so nature must be kicking from inside. With regard to my art I believe that if those traits are coming through, whether I am aware of them or not, my dual heritage must be playing some part."
Hearns studied in Dublin, at The Institute of Art, Design and Technology and then at The National College of Art and Design. His early work was slanted toward observational painting, but in recent years he has turned his attention to Abstract work. His latest exhibition, Journey, showed at the Cadogan Contemporary Gallery in London in September, and he will make an appearance at Abu Dhabi Art later this month, where he will speak and exhibit his works.
“Many of the works displayed are large-scale informal abstracts, which are designed to be the size of my body or a space that my body could inhabit, he says of Journey. What is presented to the viewer is a colourful painterly surface where the energy that was transferred is now balanced and floating in meaningful ratios on the canvas”.
So, one might ask, does the title of the exhibition refer at all to the life journey he has taken from Beirut to Ireland?
“The exhibition title refers more to the life journey we are all a part of. The ebb and flow, peaks and troughs, joys and sorrows,” he explains. “It also refers to my developmental journey through the medium of painting.”
The abstract oil paintings in Journey are concerned with what Hearns calls the alchemy of painting, as if the base materials of his art come together to form something more exalted. He expands on this, saying, “James Elkins, a professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism, wrote, ‘Science has closed off almost every unsystematic encounter with the world. Alchemy and painting are two of the last remaining paths into the deliriously beautiful world of unnamed substances.’ I have come to realise that it is my fascination with the ‘stuff of paint’ that pulls me to the studio each day. It is the alchemy of surprise that keeps me suspended in this delirious dream that is painting.”
Of his style in general, Hearns says, “I explore painting by moving between figuration and abstraction. I create both representational and informal abstract paintings. The first is a more cerebral exercise where I use my eyes and hands to describe what I see. In these [latest] works a strong pictorial concept is present from the outset. The other is an altogether more instinctive action. The works come from deep within me. They are mostly unplanned and are often a surprise. Working this way is very exciting and keeps me engaged on many levels.”
And as for taking inspiration from the fierce and wild nature of the Burren, where he lives with his wife, Boo? “The west of Ireland and the Burren, in particular, offer a very healthy space in which to create. This physical space is key to my practice. I have come to call this place home and it offers me the opportunity to connect with other like-minded people who wish to explore the largely untamed landscape. I can simply walk out the door of my home and studio and explore a vast unspoiled Unesco park. What could be more inspiring?”
Abu Dhabi Art runs from November 14 to 17 at Manarat Al Saadiyat. For more, go to www.abudhabiart.ae