Brian Wallace, Pieces, June 2018, Engine Room Gallery, Belfast

High, mixed media,n.d.

This kind of playful courage to reminisce on gestural abstract expressionism belongs to this painter’s youth and memory of it.  The broken world of strong hues without attachment to a story  or an object is naturally suitable to express a state of mind that keeps disintegrating.  Yet – the unruly slivers of colours gell into a intoxicated sensual high.

While some studies are born of scholarly curiosity, others are aimed at discovering medical and educational applications based on how art affects the body and the brain. I have read this yesterday by chance:

“The National Endowment for the Arts is helping fund research into the potential therapeutic benefits of art “in treating a disease or disorder, or in improving symptoms for a chronic disease, disorder or health condition.” One specific question: “How does a dosage — frequency, duration, or intensity — of creative arts therapy relate to individual or program-level outcomes?”

Brian Wallace has both experience and will to share his insights and answer.

“I served in an Anti-terrorist unit for a number of years in West Belfast, and was involved in numerous traumatic incidents.
Even when I went on to serve in quieter stations I was involved in other traumatic stuff, as were many of my colleagues. This went on right throughout my service, and in fact one of the last incidents I dealt with was the suicide of a young policeman that I had worked with in Derry.
Some of the paintings are about the stuff I was involved in. I feel able to talk about and visit these without having any problems now. I would put that down to having 4 years of intensive Art Psychotherapy during which I have been able to revisit traumas and through protocols which we developed finally make sense of it all. While completing my Masters I had opportunity to research and write about PTSD and my recovery process, while actually taking part in my own personal therapy. It took a long period of time to repair the damage to my brain, but I believe that is what has happened…”


’82 Memories – Mortars on Woodhome, 2016, oil on canvas

Even the name he gave this exhibition  alliterates the phrase “going to pieces”  as trauma breaks a whole.

By coincidence, this exhibition also  answers one particular question asked rhetorically in another context:

“What else does one build a life out of if not people and time?”  (Keith Gessen, A terrible country, 2018  accessed on

Mother 4, 2018, mixed media. Collaboration with Billy Campbell

Three of the exhibits are result of Wallace collaborating with his friend, the painter Billy Campbell.  He explains:

Billy and myself have kept in touch over the years and frequently talk about our work and critique each other’s work. So a lot of trust has built up over the years.
We were talking one day about a painting which Billy did in conjunction with Mark Thomas and we both liked the idea of us trying something similar, but with different rules. So we set our rules and completed about 10 paintings over a six month period. We both really enjoyed the experience. Some of that work was on display eg No 9 and 19.

Mother 2, 2017, oil on canvas Collaboration with Billy Campbell

Yet – looking at  collaborative painting is independent of knowing who painted what. Experiencing the full effect of seeing it, makes everything about the artist disappear. Nevertheless what is known  about the author, tends to  influences the rest of the aesthetic judgement.

There was a series of drawings and paintings  with prominent focus on eyes, a kind of parallel to Munch’s Scream  but fully inwardly and soundless and knowing of the abyss.

Looking to the Future, 2018, oil on canvas

Process of painting appears to have a cathartic effect on Wallace:

 My process has developed over the years and I am learning to apply paint in a completely intuitive way and give what’s inside me as free reign as possible.
When I begin a group of canvasses I try not to have and end product in mind, but let my unconscious mind take the lead. To do this at the beginning I try and leave as much to chance and randomness as I can. The process is still developing and I am finding new ways of erasing paint. I did have a big problem with emotional numbness, so maybe my erasing of the grey colour has something to do with this. I have used this general model of process for most of the paintings on display and I don’t think it is particular to one group.”

What may be meant by his words ” this general model of process “?  Like early Modernists, Wallace dwells on the darker parts of psyche – a result not only of death of a loved one, but also of the social and political conditions  he worked for three decades as a policeman with a dormant Fine Art degree. Although many of the exhibited canvases  carry obvious desire to hold his experiences, he is careful not to blur the boundary  between art and life, as many contemporary visual artists currently do.  A tendency with one root in Allan Kaprow’s observation  that life is more interesting than art.

Wallace does not separate thinking and feeling, he even does not flirt with any clever-clever theory preferred by conceptual art.  He integrates thinking and feeling, decision and chance, memory and  invention  intuitively. Sometimes he erased the paint so virulently that he made holes in the canvas.  He covered it with brutal patches to make  the process visible.  Tortured person, tortured canvas.

All Patched Up, n.d., oil on canvas

As to the future of  his art practice he is optimistic:

“After I joined the RUC in 1980 I did not have much time to paint. We had two young kids and I worked very long hours. Painting sort of emerged in later years, but I found it difficult to do because it brought up bad memories which I could not handle at the time. With PTSD I found that I had a number of very vivid horrific memories which were swirling around in my head in an uncontrollable manner. This is why an art based cure has been very effective for me. I now feel free to return to the horrible stuff if I wish, and doing so will not cause me any distress.”


The quotes in italic are from his email to me on 09/07/2018

Images courtesy the artist.


About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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