The multiple lives of Phil McLoughlin

by Charles C. Cross
Born Phil Barker in Dunfermline, Scotland, McLoughlin spent much of his early years in his grandfather’s studio. Here he first realised that art could be made anywhere, with anything. Fifty years later he took his grandfather’s name – Phil McLoughlin – as his pseudonym: honouring this key influence in his life.

McLoughlin first set out to be an artist in the late 1960s, taking various jobs to help support his family - iron foundry labourer, jute mill worker, railway porter and, most significantly, psychiatric nurse.

Despite having no formal art qualifications, he managed to achieve some singular successes: showing at the Scottish Young Contemporaries (1970), the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (1971) and the St Andrews Festival (1972).

In 1974 he won the prestigious Pernod Prize at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1974 (as Phil Barker). (Later, the Pernod Company donated this work to the McManus Galleries Collection in Dundee).

In the late '70s he became one of the founding members of the artist’s collective – The Dundee Group Artists Ltd - along with Jack Knox, Grant Clifford, Jack Morocco and others.

A chance encounter with Joseph Beuys in Edinburgh led him to abandon painting for constructions and ‘performance’ work and a new life as a conceptual artist had begun.

In the mid-1970s he began training as a psychotherapist and in 1979 began a doctor of philosophy degree and decided, the following year, to give up art for the life of the mind. On completion of his doctorate in 1986 he began yet another life as a university academic and took his first professorial appointment in 1992.

McLoughlin spent the next 20 years as a university professor and psychotherapist in several different countries: England, Australia, Japan and Ireland. He published over 20 books and became (along with his wife, Poppy Buchanan-Barker) an international authority on psychotherapy and mental health recovery. In 2008 they were honoured jointly with the Thomas Szasz Award for Contributions to Civil Liberties at New York University.

In 2006, while working at Trinity College Dublin he lodged in the quad next door to where Samuel Beckett had lived while a lecturer in the 1930s. During the Beckett Centenary Celebration he experienced what he later called his ‘Trinity epiphany’. He realised that many of the people he had met as a psychotherapist were shadowed, like Beckett’s characters, by ‘the ineffable’: an intuitive knowledge of what haunted them, which they could not put into words.

The next day he resigned his professorship, returned to Scotland and decided to explore the mercurial presence that shadowed his own life. Later, he explained to me that: "we all lead multiple lives. The idea of the singular 'person' is a myth, a comforting illusion. All kinds of 'selves' weave in and out of our everyday existence. Not all speak but all make their presence felt. It's obvious, there is more going on than we can ever appreciate".

Why didn't McLoughlin pick up where he had left off in 1980, with conceptual work? I suspect that he thought a more radical approach to exploring his own 'mercurial presences', would be to paint: something he had not done for over 30 years. In a sense he was retracing his steps; returning to the roots of his own personhood. That said, it is clear that he remains a 'conceptual artist' - painting the form of the idea of the thing, rather than the 'thing' itself.

From an artistic perspective McLoughlin belongs to no particular school or movement. He has no mentors. He owes no allegiances. After 35 years as a psychotherapist, it might also be said that he has few illusions, about life or himself.

This might also explain the importance of illusion and paradox in his work, drawn from his 40+ year relationship with Zen. What you see is never what you get.

He is keen to re-present honestly his encounters with the world. At the same time, he is keen to keep his distance from the whole encounter - keeping himself out of the frame, so that the work might assume a significant life of its own.

But, I am only too aware that I am merely expressing my view of McLoughlin's life and his work. It is just one more view. I should let the work speak for itself - and not interrupt!

Only within the work - the 'idea of the thing' - will any meaningful voice be heard.

Therein lies the McLoughlin ethic.

  • the artist must retire if the work is to be revealed