Art of choc and awe

Its inspiration comes from the “lost history” of pre-Reformation religious art and the execution is joyous and witty. Local artist Brian Whelan’s paintings are on view for the rest of this month in Norwich. He spoke to KEIRON PIM.

Brian Whelan's paintings have been likened to “looking at a stained glass window through the eyes of Bart Simpson”, which captures very well the East Anglian artist's approach to religious art.

His work is bright, bold and witty, combining vivid paint with mixed media such as sweet wrappers. This might sound comical - and humour is an important part of his art - but while the tone is far from austere it still retains the sense of power and ability to instil awe that we associate with fine religious painting. Until November 30 a selection of his paintings will be on view in Norwich, offering an enticing approach to the Christmas season.

The exhibition, entitled Holy Ground, is at the Crome Gallery, in Elm Hill, and features 70 works of art, for which he drew inspiration from the area's array of medieval churches.

“The work on the walls relates to the churches and has a lot to say about the history of Norwich, and the lost history of Norwich,” says Brian, referring to the religious art that would have adorned the walls of the city's churches before the Reformation. The birth of Protestantism in the 16th century and the move away from Catholicism saw religious iconography destroyed, with many Protestants at the time believing that such paintings represented idolatry.

“It feels like the work has been put together in relationship to the churches around the gallery,” says Brian. A visitor to the exhibition has commented: “It was as if all the medieval paintings that had once graced the walls of the surrounding churches had been sucked into one space.”

Whelan's work has attracted praise from many quarters - the poet Seamus Heaney has called his work “bold and commanding”, while the writer and critic Steven Martin made the comparison with The Simpsons. Joe Horgan, an Irish poet, adds: “He goes to dark, grim places, places that in the modern world we like to pretend don't exist and when he gets there he cracks jokes. This work is the work of the medieval jester.”

Most Read

And according to Sister Wendy Beckett, the art critic who lives at Quidenham: “This is very strong art: not for aesthetic wimps. His colours are strong, yet its power comes from no obedience to the merely material. His work amazes, and holds us in its thrall: what more could be desired of a religious painting?”

Whelan lives at Denham, in north Suffolk, but is originally from London. He took a fine art diploma in the early 1980s at the Royal Academy of Art. Although he has lived in East Anglia for 20 years, this is his first exhibition in Norwich. His work often draws on his London-Irish background - London mayor Ken Livingstone selected his work to feature in the capital's St Patrick's Day celebrations - and his themes include the importance of the church and the pub. Whelan's inspiration for this exhibition came from a visit to a church in Suffolk, in the village of Wenhaston.

“At the church in Wenhaston there is an amazing painting called The Doom, and that kicked me off,” he explains. Mediaeval 'doom paintings' show the final judgement of souls before God, where all stand equal and sins are weighed in the balance before it is decided whether the soul should go to heaven or hell. Wenhaston's painting is a rare survival and is highly esteemed for its artistic beauty and its degree of detail. It is easy to see the influence of medieval art in the Holy Ground exhibition: Whelan's paintings feature similarly frightening lively red devils and naked figures, trumpeting angels and the “shimmering crowns of the Magi” with “stars and planets of gold and silver”, to quote the exhibition's pamphlet. The effect is uplifting work that makes you reflect and brings a smile to your face; as Sister Wendy Beckett also said, it is “clear, strong, prayerful work, with joy at its centre”. Wendy Roseberry, who handles Whelan's publicity, explains how he achieves such vivid results.

“Well, have you ever wondered what to do with all those silver and gold wrappers from sweets and favourite bars of chocolate? Whelan is your answer. He can turn them into sublime images. He has not contrived to disguise his method either - Ferrero Rocher, Turkish Delight, Cadbury's Flake… their trademarks can all quite easily be seen. That is, if one looks.

“Otherwise, as we approach these dark and dismal days of winter, this spectacular exhibition will dance on your mind's eye for a long time. In the spirit of celebrations, this glittering exhibition is an inspiring way to begin the holiday season.”

Holy Ground is at the Crome Gallery, 34 Elm Hill, from 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday until November 30. See and for more information.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter