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Pete Dunne: the wild rover artist

Dublin-born Pete Dunne talks to Dan Carrier about the rose-tinted views immigrants have of their country

18 May, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Lady of the West by Pete Dunne

A WILD flower is a rebel who ignores the rules, says artist Pete Dunne.

“They grow wherever they can get a toe hold, and they are medicinal – they can cure a lot of things,” he says. “Flowers that grow in cracks between the pavements symbolise endurance and kicking against what is there already. This all adds to their charm.”

So it is no wonder they feature in many of his works in a new show starting this week at the Irish Centre in Camden Square. Called A Spin Around The West, the exhibition features a series of landscapes and studies he did when he returned to the west of Ireland to capture what he describes as the “rose-tinted views” an immigrant has of their mother country.

His work is described as social realism, drawing on influences such as Soviet propaganda posters and political street art. “I have two things I like to do and have on the go,” he says. “I like to make art with a social comment, and I like to paint land­scapes and wild flowers. And there’s a link be­t­ween them – wild flowers are pretty subversive.”

The works are spectacular, marrying a beautiful technique with a fascinating subject matter – and a reflection of the extraordinary career that has shaped Pete’s work.

Pete Dunne’s painting of Montbretia

Originally from Dublin, Peter moved to London in 1976 to escape from what he calls “The Frown Squad – the Catholic Morality Police”. “I was 19,” he says. “I’d come to London and Punk was just kicking off. It was exciting and seemed to be full of endless possibilities. The city was Godless, and fantastic.”

He lived in Stamford Hill and Stoke Newing­ton, where there were empty houses he could squat, and began to explore his talent as a painter. “I was born into a working-class family and to be an artist was considered to be a complete waste of time,” he recalls. “But I was always drawing, painting, doodling. I’d get a slap about the head and told not to do that – and that brought out a rebellious thing in me. I was told if I carried on I’d end up sweeping the streets. The funny thing was, when I arrived in London, my first job was a street sweeper around Padding­ton – and I loved it.”

At the end of the 1970s he decided to “go on the hippy trail to India for six months” – returning eight years later. And it was while trekking in the Himalayas that he was inspired to turn is hand to landscapes. “I was always a natural artist, and in India there was a guy who took me up into the mountains, so I started working on water­colours,” he says.

He came back to the UK with a gang of friends and they set up a band called The Seven Kevins. “It was psychedelic trash and folk,” he says. “We went on the road for about seven years. I played the drums and sang – it was such a laugh.”

They became the house band for the infamous Mutoid Waste Company, the music and art group lead by Joe Rush whose extraordinary mechanical sculptures have become a key landmark at Glastonbury Festival. This music-soaked wandering life lasted for a few years until, as Pete puts it, “I needed to come back to London full-time and stop feeling rather jaded. It was then I started painting properly in the 1990s and haven’t stopped since.”

Pete Dunne

His work has featured in Tate Britain and he has had success with as series of solo shows. His latest works were created as he toured through Tipperary and Clare.

They represent a move away from previous abstract or conceptualised work, instead focusing on the returning immigrant’s ideas of where they are from.

“The London Irish view Ireland with these rose-tinted glasses,” he says. “A lot of the time, when you go home, you say this place is spec­tacular – but it is very much an immigrant’s view. It isn’t really like that – people who live there do not always have the same perspec­tive. If you are London Irish, you have a foot in both camps. We feel Irish, but then again, we aren’t. London is now in my blood and I could never actually return. This leads to a feeling of dispossession.”

He travelled about on a horse and cart. “When you are on the road, there is always this lovely feeling of expectation as to what is just around the next bend,” he says.

“And at the end of the road each night there is a pub with a session going on and good times to be had.”

His chosen vehicle harks back to a time when he was in a three-piece folk band called PTA – Public Toilet Aroma. They’d use a horse to carry their equipment to and from their gigs.

“We’d go to our sessions on a horse and cart because you couldn’t get arrested for drink driving, and the horse always knew the way home afterwards,” he says.

Travelling at such a traditional pace gave the artist the time to consider his surroundings and how he reacted to them. “That is what these pieces are about,” he adds. “Soaking it up.”

A Spin Around The West is at the London Irish Centre, 50-52 Camden Square, NW1 9XB, May 17, 6.30-8.30pm. Entry free but advance booking essential. The show continues for two months.


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