As an artist and printmaker, Claire Curtin has a complex relationship with the nature of ego. A teacher at both Leeds College of Art and The North Wales School of Art, Curtin also develops her own practice in Manchester. She continuously divides her time and space; transition and a state of flux encourages her to consider more fully the changing and divided nature of public and social responsibility.
She describes her work as powered by ‘frustrations with social injustice, politics and current affairs’, thoroughly grounding herself in attending to a political ego that we as citizens living in a democratic state individually and collectively engage with. Curtin favours certain individuals and movements in her printmaking and these interests are repeated in a myriad of forms. She uses this optically motivated definition of ego to lampoon the hypocrisy and pomposity of those she holds up to scrutiny. Her artwork becomes her own little parliament in which she holds both real-life figures and artistic image itself to account. Curtin’s work repeatedly mocks the overly-inflated egos of politicians and celebrities, as well as the hyperbolic images used by the media to represent these figures to the dangerously uncritical public. She uses the historical importance of her art – printmaking as a form of news and publication – to mock what the industry has become, enhancing her work through simple design and traditional method such as working with rubber stamps.
Claire’s attention to her practical role as both an artist and a social activist allows her to understand that those who fight for social justice experience a different understanding of ego. She explains that her work places activists and voices on a metaphorical pedestal. Curtin admires figureheads such as Desmond Tutu and Dizzy Rascal for their contributions to social activism and holds a slightly romantic view to their approach. Curtin states, ‘I think of the social activists as not having big egos and as being quite humble but that is because I hold them in high regard and it’s probably not true!’. To some extent, when we give something of ourselves to society, we loosen our individual control and ownership over our personal ego, sacrificing ourselves for the development of a collectively enhanced consciousness. However, there is unavoidably a sense of the egotistical in desiring to be recognised and admired as an implementer of positive change.
The use of text in Curtin’s work appears to act as a truly good and anonymous force for change. The persuasive power behind political language is dispelled by collective printing practice and her invitations to others to join, both actively and artistically, in the act of voicing debate, both collaboratively and unanimously. This was the attitude Curtin found when she met Shaun Rider: ‘I gave him a print that I had made of him and he was so kind about it, he seemed genuinely humbled by the idea that someone had made a portrait of him and wanted to give it to him. I was very uncool about it and went very ‘fan girl!’.
Curtin co-founded The Short Printmakers’ Collective with a group of printmakers from Leeds College of Art, leading to the 20:20 Print Exchange with Hot Bed Press. This was a mass art sharing event and a collaboration with the Bristol School of Art. In much of this work, Curtin uses the portrait format to express her social activism. She states: ‘I produce portraits of people I admire because of their involvement in civil rights and peacekeeping or because of something they have done like producing great music or art.’ She begins by producing simple but expressive drawings that are later translated into large black lino prints. This process of raw initial impression and the subsequent translating of image encourages Curtin to develop her understanding of how the medium can be used to reproduce and therefore distort, and how our image of people and size can be manipulated depending on our allegiance to the person we choose to represent.
Curtin produces screen-printed placards and books for demonstrations, influenced by current affairs, politics, music and art. In combining portraiture with protest, she produces what she describes as ‘somewhat unflattering’ portraits and collages of politicians. As part of an artist residency at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, Curtin organised an event in which visitors to the museum could actively protest on an issue of their choice. As part of her work she explains, ‘I invited the public to take part in placard making workshops, opinion polls and caption competitions. The People’s Protest, which I had planned and organised, relied on the public to be a success; I had no idea if anyone would turn up until it was time to start the march. To my relief people did turn up, chanted and gave speeches – and they weren’t just my parents!’ In this case, the ego of the collective public won out over the individual. However, it is worth noting, it takes at least one virtuous individual to set something in motion. In order for society to progress, both the individual and the collectively-led ego must be present and active.
Curtin generally locates her work in spaces which are free and easily accessible. ‘The public play a huge part in my work; I am interested in public response to my protest works but I am also interested in public participation.’ She uses the hyper-modern urban environment as one that should encourage political activism and meeting. Curtin works autonomously on some aspects of her practice, but her collaborative projects and protest pieces involve much more conversation and interaction. ‘It is important to give as well as take – sometimes I find that I really rely on the help of others, so I always try to pay that back when I can.’ It seems that this philosophy of sharing and ‘trading’ artistic time, talents and skills, helps mitigate the pejorative effects of an overinflated ego that threatens to overcome artists.
Through social activism and discourse with her peers, Curtin keeps herself thoroughly grounded. A socially active and practically aware approach to the making of art has allowed Claire to combine her personal beliefs with her artistic practice. The printmaking medium, as both textual and visual, becomes the message. Curtin’s latest project explores folk artists and is, once again, influenced by figures she admires in reality. She states, ‘I decided that I wanted to draw these prolific artists because I have always had huge admiration for them, their drive and devotion. Their work is often not discovered until after they have died, it is not egotistical and neither are their reasons for producing it, it is purely personal. Their talent, refined through practice and experience to produce copious amounts of drawings, paintings and sculpture, is incredibly inspirational’.
The American author Herbert Agar wrote in 1942 ‘the truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth that men prefer not to hear.’ Curtin attempts to bring this truth to the surface. She continues to stretch the long shadow of history into the evening of our present, shedding light on current issues through modern, provocative and often amusing work. Through pertinent textual and visual prints, Curtin tackles debates around social justice both at home and abroad, including the recent abduction of almost 300 young women in Nigeria. She uses deceptively simple and disarmingly honest media, juxtaposing minimal yet crafted artwork with difficult and sometimes troubling subject matter.
Curtin believes dialogue and discussion encourages the forming of social and political selves. These collaborative and creative efforts ask for no individual recognition, but for the act of communicating as equals. If this results in a well-drawn political placard, then Curtin has accomplished – at least partially – the democratising and selflessly publicising of social justice she set out to inspire.
Ed. Lucy Cheseldine