Stephen Conroy


Stephen Conroy is a young artist whose work evokes a strange sense of déjà vu. At first sight, walking into a show of his is like happening upon a show of 19th-century paintings . There, in plain black frames, are works showing elements of Georges de Ia Tour—the same limited color range and interest in lighting, but without the obvious religious content; a bit of Joseph Wright of Derby, right down to the depiction of archaic-looking scientific instruments; profile studies that recall Renaissance portraits; and cut-off figures emerging from bathtubs, which hint at Degas. There is no obvious indication that these are works of the 1980s; indeed, it is hard to place them in a contemporary context at all.

The figures in these paintings—save for one portrait of the artist’s sister–are all males, most of them no more than simplified rounded heads. Several of these figures, such as the man in blank circular glasses, recur in many of the paintings. Conroy shows an interest in formal arrangement; deceptively simple interiors in fact contain complex arrangements of figures. In Curves, 1987, several heads form a horizontal row across the center of a square canvas. Conroy uses pictorial devices such as the backlighting of heads by means of a simple, bright, cream-colored rectangle suggesting a window, or the inclusion of bright red areas to highlight the essentially brown and ochre hues.

A number of these works revolve around the theme of music. In works such as E Muoio Disperato (I die despairing, 1989—the title is from an aria in Puccini’s Tosca), some hint of mystery also enters the scene. Why is the conductor with his white baton wearing a hearing aid? The singer, seen in profile, is caught in the act of singing, yet the sense of silence is palpable. These are deeply serious works. Conroy’s Self-Portrait, 1987, which includes his reflection in the background, is a conscious portrayal of the artist placing himself within a tradition, yet working outside of one as well. Indeed, it may be this very quality of historicism crossed with introspection that places Conroy squarely in the present.

Natasha Edwards