There was a lot of controversy just before Paddy’s Day when the news came out that Eamonn Lillis would be exhibiting two paintings in a public exhibition. The news, coming as it did shortly after the announcement that he had helped to organise a play in Wheatfield Prison that would be viewed by Irish President Michael D. Higgins, caused a bit of a debate on whether or not convicted felons should be preening for adulation from behind bars.
When it was reported, after the opening weekend of the exhibition in the museum at Kilmainham Gaol, that one of Lillis’s paintings had been vandalised, with the word “killer” scrawled on the frame, there was a certain amount of righteous clucking. Why should a man who had killed his wife get to show off in public? He was in prison as a punishment for his crime, and certainly shouldn’t be building a portfolio.
It’s taken me a while to get to the exhibition. I hadn’t wanted to comment until I’d seen what was there and I was curious about how the art work would be presented in a venue as iconic as Kilmainham Gaol. But the sunshine this week was too much of a draw so I wandered across yesterday. I’d gone with certain preconceptions and my own views on the use of a notorious case like Lillis’s to sell the museum but when I got there my qualms were swept away.
While Lillis’s two rather insipid watercolours do greet you as you walk in the door The Crushed Bull exhibition actually has something genuine to offer. For starters it’s not just the work of one headline grabbing killer, but that of prisoners scattered around the country’s prisons and those who went to two support centres after their release. There’s a range of styles and levels of talent on show but some of the pieces are genuinely arresting and thought provoking. It’s a varied collection. Paintings in a variety of mediums hang above sculptures in clay or stone. There are mosaics, jewellery (mostly made by the women of the Dochas Prison – where Sharon Collins is serving her time) in all shapes and sizes.
But even if you didn’t come to the exhibition hoping for a glimpse into the minds of some of the county’s worst, it’s almost impossible to forget that this isn’t an ordinary group show. It’s a point that’s rather clumsily underlined in the first room of the exhibition where the Lillis paintings hang beside a collection with a distinct prison bar motif and the painting of the tabby cat staring intently at a goldfish hangs across the disturbingly surrealist grouping on a small chest of drawers in an empty room. A pair of glowing eyes stare out of the drawer in the painting by Eric B. from Portlaoise Prison (notorious for it’s gangland inmates), who signs his work with a pentacle. On top of the chest of drawers in the painting is a pocket watch, an empty wine bottle, a gun and two severed fingers with red lacquered oval nails. There’s a clay elephant across from that painting, which is right by the door into the exhibition. It’s wearing glasses and is next to a card proclaiming it The Elephant in the Room, by Anon from the Midlands Prison, home to the most notorious of them all, Joe O’Reilly. One thing that’s certain about this opening grouping is that the elephant is somewhat redundant – this exhibition is wearing it’s credentials firmly pinned to it’s chest.
It’s a shame though. You see, when you turn the corner and enter the exhibition proper, you begin to see a point beyond the voyeuristic. There’s some real talent here and some genuine insight. Some of the work might be a little to obvious in their influences but the cubist Female Addict No. 2 by Jason, from the rehab centre The Training Unit, makes a real impact. That’s why I used the image at the top of this post. There are some more aggressive pieces (though none as obvious as Erik with his severed fingers). Here and there there are skull motifs or devils but most of the landscapes are noticeably empty. Some of the most poignant works are from the remand prisoners in Cloverhil Prison, where many wait to be deported. A little girl beams up at an anonymous dad, a group work gives a patchwork of political protest. This isn’t really an insight into the criminal mind, just a glimpse at the attempted rehabilitation of men and women who made mistakes and are now paying for them.
I’ve covered the courts for long enough to see the number of people who’ve entered a life of crime because they didn’t have a hell of a lot of choice. Time and time again there are people who couldn’t escape from a hopeless existence, who wandered into a life of drink, drugs and violence because they couldn’t see another way. I’m not saying they were right. I’m not saying that those who commit crimes, especially violent ones, shouldn’t pay a price, but I do believe in second chances. If prison art classes or theatrical performances help to encourage people to go in a different direction, show them a better life, then shouldn’t they be applauded rather than condemned? Exhibitions like this one should never be about the freak show, they should be about redemption.
It’s unfortunate that the Crushed Bull was sold with one of the biggest circuses of recent years. Lillis isn’t the kind of person who can really benefit from this kind of initiative. He, like other middle class, headline grabbing criminals, doesn’t need to have his horizons opened – they should already be. People like Lillis threw away lives that many of those they now get to see on a daily basis could only dream of. That might make them attractive to news editors across the board but when it comes down to it, they should have known better. Lillis’s involvement in an initiative like this only muddies the water and distracts from the positive. Instead of talking about whether Lillis is having too much fun in prison the discussion should be about the value of the arts…except that’s a subject that doesn’t tend to make headlines in quite the same way.