Latest Laois Event: Paddy Critchley Exhibition ‘Ragged Trousers’

Latest Laois Event: Paddy Critchley Exhibition ‘Ragged Trousers’

Paddy Critchley’s exhibition at Dunamaise Arts Centre, Portlaoise, ends on 11th November

If you haven’t already done so, go and see Paddy Critchley’s exhibition, Ragged Trousers, at the Dunamaise Arts Centre, Portlaoise, before it ends on the 11th November. This exhibition is a big deal for many reasons, not least because it is a homecoming for the artist. Portlaoise is where his ideas originated, and while the world is his country, Critchley is keen to acknowledge the formative influence of growing up in Portlaoise on his development as an artist. 

Paddy’s trajectory towards becoming an established visual artist, with a growing reputation, is a story already told, but worth revisiting. He began as a house painter, working alongside his father. The skills he acquired as a painter-decorator have served him well as a visual artist. As a student at Abbeyleix College of Further Education, he realised the value of what he had learned: mixing paint, thinning paint, applying paint, and so on,  and the relevance of these skills  to his work in fine art and painting.  Since graduating from Limerick School of Art and Design, as well as receiving a number of awards,  he has exhibited at the Hunt Museum, Limerick City Gallery, and had his first solo exhibition at The Dock Arts Centre in Carrick on Shannon, Co Leitrim, with Ragged Trousers. 

Critchley takes inspiration from working class traditions and culture, and the labour movement. Borrowing the exhibition title Ragged Trousers from Robert Tressell’s 1906 novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, the artist affirms his interest in class politics and the cause of labour. The novel, aptly, centres on a group of house painters, and explores how socialist ideas could be the answer to their exploitation by the bosses. Critchley believes that ideas the book espouses remain highly relevant to the situation of workers under contemporary globalised capitalism, with all its uncertainty and persistent inequality. 

Ragged Trousers in its totality, has a sensibility that is historical, harking back to a time, possibly sixty years ago, when there was a strong radical left and class politics dominated social discourse, and there was hope and expectation for a fairer world. Given the current state of affairs locally and globally, it is gratifying to see these ideas revived and given a new platform.  The artist acknowledges the richness and depth of working class culture, including its music, and the importance of keeping the traditions alive. It is no surprise that Critchley has close links with the current folk music revival. For some time now, he has been running ballad sessions in Limerick city, where he also has his studio.

The paintings that form part of the Ragged Trousers exhibition remain in the mind’s eye long after viewing. With understated colour, contrasting shadow and light, recurring motifs of ladders and wilted flowers, the influence of artist Alice Neel, whose work Critchley admires, is to be seen.  His art is essentially about people, and there is a sense of absence in these paintings: it’s as if someone has just left the room.  Beautiful and haunting, there is a lonesome air about the works that evokes a leave-taking, a moving on. Or perhaps a job done, a work completed, time to clock off. Ladders, drop cloths and a paint brush are exhibited alongside Critchley’s paintings, and have an aesthetic value of their own. A copy of ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist’ is placed on top of one of the ladders, thus becoming an intrinsic feature of the exhibition.  In the overall arrangement of paintings, tools of the trade, and literary lineage,  the artist succeeds in integrating elements of art and artisanal, and making the case for parity of esteem. 

Ragged Trousers has a theatrical quality, evoked by the lighting and the positioning of the objects, giving an impression of a stage set and creating an atmosphere of anticipation for the viewer.  In the paintings, Critchley,  like Warhol, employs repetition of motifs and images to reinforce the visual impact of the paintings. Flowers feature in many of the paintings, perhaps signifying the human desire for beauty and dignity as well as fair wages.  But it is the ladder that  is the exhibition’s central motif, symbolising as it does the value of labour and physical work, as well as artistic endeavour.  The ladder, as both objet d’art, and functional item, highlights the convergence of utility and beauty, an idea central to the exhibition.

The  larger ladder was given to Critchley by his father when he started out as a painter. It has remained a constant in his life since then.  Now repurposed as an artwork,  it is no doubt also usefully employed in the practical aspects of mounting an exhibition. The ladder has been through a lot, including surviving  unscathed a fire in a gallery space in Limerick. It still retains the smell of smoke. Could the ladder’s resilience be a message of hope for these precarious times?

What’s important about Ragged Trousers, and Critchley’s art in general,  is that it challenges the binary between the process involved in so called high art, and artisanal labour. Critchley, via his artistic output and in his discussions on aesthetic labour, blurs the line between the two. The convergence of art and the artisanal  comes through in the exhibition.  In interviews, the artist has spoken about the labour involved in producing art, work that involves the intellect and the body, and which is closely related to the craft of painting and decorating, or indeed any form of work.   Arguably, Ragged Trousers indicates that the artist’s labour has much in common with the work of the artisan or labourer. In this way, the exhibition addresses ideas about work, creativity, surplus value, and  the commodification of art, as well as the role of art and artists in addressing social issues.

Paddy Critchley, with his exhibition Ragged Trousers, has combined  beautiful artwork with important, politically conscious ideas, a valuable combination for our uncertain and atomised world.

Text by Mary Flanagan, Art Writer

October 2023