A major exhibition has opened of images by an artist whose work has been described as “the best expression of what it felt like to be in Northern Ireland during the Troubles”.
“100 Works” by Sean Hillen – including some rarely if ever seen pieces - was launched at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast last night.
It focuses on the Newry-born artist’s work as a collagist with hard-hitting, striking and sometimes humorous images about life in Northern Ireland and the Republic dating back to the early 1980s.
The exhibition is the first major solo exhibition of Seán Hillen in Northern Ireland and probably the biggest ever in Ireland. His distinctive images have been circulating in Irish visual culture for over 30 years.
Hillen grew up during an intense phase of the Northern Ireland conflict, before studying in London at LCP and the Slade School of Fine Art.
His earliest works were fine art-documentary photographs, which quickly became source material for a series of paradoxically funny but politically charged photo-collages, created between 1983 and 1993, when he moved to live and work in Dublin.
The Irish Times critic Fintan O’Toole stated that these works “remain the best expression of what it felt like to be in Northern Ireland during the Troubles”.
Peter Richards, director of the Golden Thread Gallery on Great Patrick Street in the city centre, said it was a “great privilege” to host the exhibition.
“Remarkably it’s his first major exhibition in the north of Ireland, and it’s his most comprehensive exhibition to date,” he said.
“What Sean does as a master collage artist is he collapses a sense of time and place and allows you a starting place for a new narrative.”
Artist Sean said: “This is 35 years of work and it’s the first time it’s ever been collected,” he added.
“Because a lot of my work is in private hands and public collections, it’s like the biggest ever borrowing of the ‘babies’ from around the world – it’s like a family reunion.
“It’s actually deeply moving for me to see work that I haven’t seen in 20 years. I’m thrilled, it’s an honour and a delight.”
Images from Hillen’s series, IRELANTIS, have appeared on over 30 book and magazine covers, and were described in CIRCA magazine as “the most vivid and emblematic of the hopes and fears of ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland”.
Seamus Heaney, opening the first IRELANTIS exhibition in 1995, said: “I admire them very much, for knowing their place, in all senses.
“For knowing their place in our history, knowing their place in the world, knowing their paces as well as their place.
“For their light touch, for their great cultivated allusiveness, and for their technical aplomb. So, I feel so at home with them, I want to sign ‘S.H.’ under them, but it has been done already!’
Recently, a chance remark led to a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, which Hillen describes as “a life-changing catalyst” for a renewed personal understanding and professional momentum.
A major award from the Arts Council of Ireland has enabled him to create an archive of over 220 collaged works, spanning a 35 year period.
In 2016, the curator Erik Kessels discovered Hillen’s work at the FORMAT Festival and offered to design a new book of the collages, due to be released in 2017.
This selection by the artist of 100 works comprises a mixture of original collages, facsimile editions and prints, amassed from a range of public and private collections and the artist’s studio.