Theatre as Studio, Studio as Theatre by Dr Claudia Milburn

Messums Emerging Talents Programme has provided a platform for artists at the early stages of their careers, enabling creative young minds the opportunity to flourish. Jack McGarrity’s resolute pathway exemplifies the merits of this programme. Originally from the West of Scotland, he trained at The Glasgow School of Art and The Royal Drawing School. While at Glasgow, his promising ability was acknowledged with the presentation of the Richard Ford Award for a two-month travel scholarship to the Museo del Prado in Madrid and the John Kinross Award for a three-month travel scholarship to Florence. At The Royal Drawing School, in further recognition, he became the 2021-22 recipient of the Sir Denis Mahon Award, a prize of £10,000 to an exceptional outgoing student. McGarrity participated in the Messums Emerging Talents Programme with a debut presentation in our Wiltshire galleries in July 2021. This new exhibition, his first at Messums London gallery, follows the success of that show and marks the commitment on both sides to McGarrity in terms of creative career and potential.

McGarrity’s work interweaves observations of the everyday, bringing life to the seemingly mundane. Many images derive from the immediate environs of his studio and home, which together with aspects of popular culture create multi-layered surreal narratives that reflect on notions of the uncanny and alienation in the modern world. An eerie stillness characterises the work. In some images enigmatic figures appear, while in others, human presence is evoked through absence. An Edvard Munch-like sense of claustrophobia pervades the work as disparate images combine to produce intriguing scenarios, often with an atmosphere of foreboding and an implied psychological drama.

McGarrity’s practice is deeply rooted in drawing. He makes rapid sketches whenever and wherever – while walking in London, within his home or studio, during visits to the opera, at galleries, from comic books, magazines, films and television programmes. Along with the stimuli of popular culture, he finds inspiration in both local and British History. Rich and varied, it is the process of drawing that enables this source material to be continually gathered in preparation for the development of ensuing work.

In the studio, images and ideas evolve and coalesce on the canvas. Considering ways in which different scenes can be depicted in the one image whilst retaining a cohesive whole, McGarrity employs collage techniques as a way of disrupting the idea of the picture plane. The collage medium offers a natural process for enabling fragments and layers to merge. Series has become an important factor in his work with familiar motifs reappearing in paintings over time. Personal memory, and the ambiguity of recollection, take on a significant role. Images and motifs from the area McGarrity grew up in Scotland, and which appear in previous drawings, pervade the work. Combining the familiar with subjects of mass culture, he blurs the line between public and personal. The assembled images reflect a variety of sources that infiltrate our lives, for example works featured in the exhibition contain stills from the British dating gameshow Love Island which prompted McGarrity to contemplate its voyeuristic nature and reflect on ideas of the philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham and his concept of the panopticon.

In recent paintings inspired by a visit to the Royal Opera House, McGarrity considers liminal spaces and transitions, emphasising the contrast between the illuminated stage and the audience submerged in darkness. This spectacle of the performance, with the drama of height and the focal point looking down and in from a distance, dominated his thinking and the resulting content of these works. Embracing the sense of vertigo as well as exploring the essential elements of mood, colour, light and contrast, stimulated ideas for McGarrity. On his return to the studio, he began to consider this more familiar working environment as a form of stage-set with the objects surrounding him presenting as theatrical props.

Engaging with intriguing spaces is a recurring factor in McGarrity’s work with the investigation of surface, space, and a sense of illusionary depth. The painting entitled ‘Papa’, for example, inspired by a drawing of McGarrity’s grandfather standing at his backdoor, is similarly characterised by the liminal space surrounding the figure, beyond the doorway and into the unknown. McGarrity references the influence of Edward Hopper’s painting in this regard with the creation of a powerful sense of presence in the work and almost a feeling of intrusion from the viewer on the scene witnessed.

Through the imaginative juxtaposition and collaging of imagery deriving from his experiences, McGarrity is delving into the essence of the issues that are embedded in today’s world. There is an element of searching in the work and a determination to discover, and rediscover, through the inventive language of his image-making. He embraces figurative painting and creates narratives that convey human experience and reflect contemporary concerns. McGarrity is a young painter responding with honesty to the complex reality of our times.


by Dr Claudia Milburn
Director of Programming at

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