Curator's Choice: John Kirby's The Living and the Dead at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool

By Ben Miller | 13 January 2012
A photo of a woman looking at a colour oil painting of an entertainer in a suit on stage
Curator's Choice: In Their own Words...Ann Bukantas, Head of Fine Art at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, on The Entertainer, a work by John Kirby from 1989 from new show The Living and the Dead...

"In the context of the exhibition this is one of the most understated of works, but for me one of the most compelling.

"I have known most of the other paintings in the show for many years, but surprisingly it is this one that has really grown on me during the course of the exhibition’s installation period.

"It's one of John Kirby's earlier works, completed the year after he left the Royal College of Art – he decided to go to art school when he was in his mid-30s.

"It is therefore more painterly with deep, rich colours; his later works have a much slicker, highly-finished surface and a more restrained palette.

"As with many of John's paintings, there is an autobiographical element behind it.

"His mother was from the Isle of Man and after her death he went there with his father.

"They went to one of those second-rate variety shows – a juggler, an old lady singing badly.

"He recalls that the show was really bad, but good because of that.

"That memory surfaced in this work, which John says took him about half a day to paint – one of the paintings that he says came easily to him.

"The Entertainer looks like a scene from a David Lynch film, with the creepy lighting and the red curtains occupying a third of the composition. The drop of the curtain folds creates a very strong vertical element.

"John seems to use verticals a lot in his work to construct claustrophobic interiors, some with partially open doors hinting at other spaces beyond.

"It's the same with these curtains – I’m intrigued by the idea of what’s behind them.

"The figure on the stage strikes me as being quite sad, making the title seem all the more ironic.

"Actually, he reminds me of the sinister ventriloquist's dummy in the film Dead of Night.

"The spotlight falls very heavily on the stage in front of him; it has a strong material presence on the canvas, quite burdensome almost – more like something to be avoided.

"It is painted on a very domestic scale and is still owned by a member of John's family.

"Despite its melancholy feel and its eeriness, I’d be happy to live with it."

  • The Living and the Dead: Paintings and Sculpture by John Kirby runs at the Walker Art Gallery until April 15 2012

Watch John Kirby talk about his work:

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