Self-taught artist Damian Boylan creates energy and motion

Championing an art-meets-science approach, Damian Boylan creates paintings and sculptures that are an eruption of energy and motion. The self-taught artist talks to Stephenie Gee about his work and his process

The artist at rest

Damian Boylan was exposed to art from a very early age. The British-born Hong Kong resident recalls sketching and painting alongside his artist father, watching him “upon a cherry picker painting these huge murals”. But despite this exposure and sense of familiarity with art, it wasn’t until much later that Boylan really began to create.

“By the time I got to high school, I showed kind of an acclivity for maths and science,” he says. “And parents being parents, they were like, ‘Yeah, you should do that. That’s more stable.’ Same for my high school teachers, and so I ended up going down this very sciency, mathematics route.”

Even so, Boylan recalls yearning to do something creative. “When I was at university studying aerospace engineering, whenever there was a group project or some task where we had to do something creative or visual, for example, design an aircraft – somebody has to do the computer design for that morphology – I would always be like, ‘I’ll do it, I’ll do it, I’ll do it!’”

It was when he moved to Hong Kong at the age of 22 that Boylan’s creative ambitions really took off. Having developed a passion for music, he began to venture into the world of DJ-ing and electronic music. When that wasn’t enough, he began to produce his own music.

“So I started learning to produce music, but then even that wasn’t enough and I still had this kind of yearning to make something visual,” he says. “So about six years ago, I started painting – just in my home. And then my whole house started to smell of oil paint and I was like, I need some space because I want to work on a bigger scale and I want to do experimental things.”

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With no formal training in art, Boylan believed he had to “pay his dues” by learning the ropes. For him, that meant painting in a Renaissance style with painstaking emphasis on precision and detail.

Life, in Boylan’s case, imitates his art. “When my friend came and played on my computer, she was like, ‘Where’s everything?’” he says with a laugh. “That’s just how my brain works. It’s very organised. I don’t like anything out of place.

“But [the Renaissance-style paintings] didn’t really say anything about me personally,” Boylan notes. “I was just kind of replicating what I saw. After maybe a year or so of painting like that, I was like, ‘Okay, I want to make work that is more a reflection of the things I’m really passionate about.’ I’m really passionate about science, things like that, and so my work slowly gravitated into incorporating these kinds of rare materials and strange kinds of equipment.”

Damian Boylan’s latest addition to his Fire Painting series hangs on the wall at Crafts on Peel

As his work turned more abstract, rescinding control to the materials and fundamental physical phenomena, something that is explored heavily in his work, gradually became a challenge. “To paint in a more abstract way was actually really difficult because there’s no reference, you know?” he says. “For example, with Rarefactions, to be honest, I wanted the piece to be very linear. But it was so hot, it was like 1,200 degrees, so when I poured it on it just went ‘poof ’… And of course, for me, I was like, ‘I didn’t want it like that!’”

From linen and wood to marble and PMM A (a type of engineering plastic), Boylan’s body of work may not come across as cohesive. But there is an overarching theme he hopes viewers can identify. “It may well change, but everything here is interconnected with time, and my relationship with time and everyone else’s relationship with time,” Boylan says. “Five years ago, when my mother passed away, that was the first moment in my life when I really felt like I understood time is not coming back, you know?

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“That was the kind of the impetus for all of this, which is, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but that was definitely when I started thinking a lot about time and reading about philosophy about time and the nature of time.”

In ways that are enigmatic and reticent, this expression of time is brought to life via a creative process akin to a science experiment, weaving disparate materials and methods which may seem unconventional in the world of art.

For instance, Rarefactions, a series of paintings and sculptural works that involves molten brass being poured over the canvas, leaves behind a gossamer veil of brass residue as it sluices away due to the heat. Or Reactivity, a collection of photographs and films that capture various chemical and physical reactions, such as Ferrofluid, inks and jet fuel, under macro lenses.

Heliocentrism, 2020, butane and brass on wood panel

Then there’s Heliocentrism, Boylan’s latest addition to his Fire Painting series. At first glance, one might see a tangle of burnt timber, but upon closer inspection one begins to notice subtle undulations of light from the central brass piece and charred wooden surface.

“When you burn wood, that’s a representation of entropy in the second law of thermodynamics, and that’s a very visceral example of time,” explains Boylan. “I could have broken an egg, I guess, but I don’t know how I would do that.”

The piece is on display at Crafts on Peel until May 21, as part of Stories Encapsulated: Wood, which also features a range of individual and collaborative woodworks handcrafted by traditional craftsmen and contemporary artisans.

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Commenting on his part, Boylan says, “When [the artistic director of Crafts on Peel] first asked me about doing a show, I did kind of think, ‘Oh, actually I would consider myself more of an artist. How is that going to translate to being in a show with people that are more artisan?’

“And then I realised, the Crafts on Peel team have such a passion and such a keen interest in what they’re doing. And that definitely is something I can relate to and what I’m doing, so that alone was enough for me to want to work with them and I certainly have no regrets.”

Indeed, from science to art, realism to abstraction and from painting at home to being a regular presence at exhibitions, passion has been the driving force behind all of Boylan’s works and endeavours.

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