Painter John Keane draws inspiration from troubles around the world and now paintings based on the 1930s Stalinist terror have won him a top art prize. STEVE PRATT reports

For painter John Keane, the Falklands War in 1982 set him off along a path he has continued to pursue – drawing inspiration from some of the most troubled countries and horrific events the world has ever seen.

“When I left art college, there were quite a few years where I didn’t have any great sense of direction. The catalyst was the Falklands War which I was quite angry about and my way of dealing with it was through the work,” he recalls. “I am a painter but it’s what’s going on in the world, or what has gone on in the world, that interests me and particularly violence, politics and religion. Sometimes this has taken me to places like Rwanda, the Gulf and the Middle East”.

He missed collecting the main prize in the Aesthetica Art Prize 2015 in York as a result of one of those trips. When we spoke he was just off a plane following a long flight from Rwanda, scene of the 1994 genocide killings. He didn’t know about his win – for four paintings from the Fear series taken from the great Stalinist terror of the 1930s – until after the prize giving event.

“Rwanda is the scene of one of the major events of 20th century history and I saw some of the most harrowing places I have ever been to. I was learning quite a lot about that,” he says. “I was with a group from St Andrew’s University – I have a relationship with them and Christian Aid - who were studying genocide and its aftermath. I was artist-in-residence in a school of international relations. I’m developing work on what we came across while we were there. My work tends to be about conflict.”

His Fear paintings are on show in the Aesthetica Art Prize Exhibition at York St Mary’s, York Art Gallery’s contemporary art space. The internationally-recognised Prize, now in its eighth year, celebrates excellence in contemporary art from around the world. The 2015 artists whose work is on show come from Australia, Germany and across the UK, and were selected from over 3,500 entries from 60 countries worldwide.

Keane, who was the official British war artist during the Gulf War, drew on images from the great Stalinist terror of the 1930s for his series of Fear paintings, four of which he entered for the Aesthetica prize. The images were sourced from mug shots of arrested victims – some well-known, some anonymous.

Cherie Federico, Director of the Aesthetica Art Prize and Editor of Aesthetica Magazine, says the paintings powerfully capture the fear surrounding the Moscow show trials. “They invite us to pause and reflect upon how this fundamental human emotion plays a key role in our lives, and is universally resonant,” she says.

Keane himself sees the paintings as “fragments of an extreme and terrible moment of modern history”, adding “But as I am constantly reminded, the dangers of such events happening again must be guarded against, and it is my hope that art can help to play some small part in this.”

He became aware of the Aesthetica Prize and “thought I would have a pop at it”. It’s his first win. “To be honest, I am not one of the youngest artists around at the moment and it seems to be quite freakish I’ve won. I have gone in for competitions and won nothing before.”

He sees it as a “very gratifying validation” of the work he does. “I thought the paintings raised the bar for me. They worked for me and I felt quite strongly about that series. I’ve had quite a career and it goes on.”

Although he has relationships with organisations like Christian Aid and St Andrews, there has to be an area of mutual interest for him to follow up an idea. What those organisations have are the networks, contacts and access that by himself would be very hard to achieve.

After the Falklands War, his work was based around other conflicts including the contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s and in Northern Ireland. Following that the Imperial War Museum in London commissioned him as the Gulf War’s official British war artist.

“It’s some sort of emotional reaction,” he says of the work he produces around global conflicts. “It’s also an effort to understand and learn about the situation, and an emotional response to current events. In the case of Fear, the events were a long time ago, but the theme is universal.”

Art can play a part in our response to such events, he hopes. “Who knows? But there’s a kind of cathartic value to art when it works. It can deal with very difficult subject matters and areas and ideas that horrify, but can emerge with something that’s so beautiful.

“In a sense, it requires that people who tackle a subject should draw you in through some aesthetic quality or we can turn our head away unless you are of a particularly macabre persuasion. A lot of books, films and art that deals with very grim and difficult subject matters can transform things.”

Keane has a new book and several shows coming up this year. Some work relates to more recent events in Syria. But not everything he does is “deadly serious”. He likes to think there’s an element of humour – irony or wry humour - in some of his work, although admittedly not the Fear paintings.

Keane was the winner of the Main Prize in the Aesthetica Art Prize 2015. Rising star Suzanne Mooney took the Student Prize with Come Away O… and Tokyo Summit. Suspended from the rafters of York St Mary’s, Come Away O… comprises two photographic images of near-identical window frames. Outside In explores city view observatories in Tokyo, where Mooney recently graduated from Tama Art University.

The York show spans painting, installation, three dimensional design, drawing and film from Marcus Lyon, Julian Day, Vera Drebusch, Owen Waterhouse, Matt Parker and Saliha Elhoussaini. A series of free lunchtime talks run alongside the exhibition.

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Aesthetica Art Prize Exhibition is at York St Mary’s with York Museums Trust, until May 31. Open Thurs-Mon 10am-4pm. Free admission.