Sarah Mayhew-Craddock talks to a prize-winning artist about his haunting artwork

Working in a studio in the artist-led Magdalen Road Studio complex in Oxford, painter John Brennan peels himself away from his easel to reveal the news that he has just been awarded overall winner of the ArtGemini Prize for painting and sculpture.

“As an artist I try to remain immune to praise or criticism, but there’s no denying that winning this prize feels good,” he says.

“It’s great to know that the work is touching people in some way. It is also an opportunity to introduce my work to a wider audience and forge some new and lasting contacts.”

Brennan was selected from 956 artists from 34 countries as the overall winner of the ArtGemini Prize, an independent and non-profit competition, that was founded in London in 2011, to celebrate and promote international contemporary art by emerging and established artists around from the world.

Describing time in his studio as being like a pressure-cooker, I realise how fortunate I am to gain such a glimpse of this sacred space.

“There is no place in my studio for someone else’s input in my work. I’m not interested, I don’t want it.

“I have a latch on my door so people can’t come in. I’m often listening to music as I work. I’m immersed in my own world.

“Interference can be pollution of thought. I don’t need anyone else when I’m painting,” he says.

John Brennan was born in Liverpool in 1966 into a “white-collar, thinking man’s, working-class family”.

Asked about his upbringing and if it impacted on the artwork he creates today, Brennan said: “Dad, and his family, all had very enquiring minds.

“My dad and my uncle both painted in their spare time. They were both self-taught, smart guys, which gave a marker-post that made me feel I could forge my own path through various disciplines.

“We used to go to the Walker Art Gallery as a family. My brother took me to see The John Moores painting prize in about 1980. I was about 13 at the time. It made me feel that painting was exciting; Christopher Le Brun [currently president of the Royal Academy of Arts] was one of the winners that year.”

Asked when and how he realised that he must paint, Brennan explained that he feels as though he’s had two lives as a painter: “I realised I wanted to paint when I was about 12, but I was also really aware of outlets for commercial art: album sleeves, book jackets etc.

“I was very experimental when I was young, by the time I was 16 I’d tried out pretty much every medium, so I started my foundation course very well equipped.

“I think I chose illustration because you could make a living out of it, and that was more palatable for my parents too than trying to make a living as an artist.”

Originally studying graphic design with a specialisation in illustration at Liverpool Polytechnic, Brennan moved to London in 1990, and worked as an illustrator throughout his 20s, but “got bored working as an illustrator”, so moved into online design.

In 2005 he was working for the BBC, when he began to realise that he wasn’t being creative enough – “I was getting really depressed.”

This was a pivotal point in Brennan’s artistic career that prompted a change of creative direction that he hoped might lead to a new life in photography, perhaps as a commercial venture.

A photo of his girlfriend, now his wife, was shortlisted for the 2009 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery. “Being selected gave me a big signal that making pictures in some form or another was what I should really be doing.

“Working as a photographer gave me a lot of richness in terms of a visual perception that set the scene for my painterly aesthetic; the tonal qualities I was creating were really similar to the oil paintings I make now,” Brennan explains.

On making this transition from film to canvas Brennan comments: “The act of painting transforms the chosen mechanical image into a physical, handmade object and, at the same time, heightens the emotions and uncertainties that linger just beyond its surface.

“It was whilst working as a photographer that I became aware of a growing desire for self-expression as a fine artist. At the same time I rediscovered my love of painting, both as a medium and as a meditative process.”

Brennan waited until his work had reached the right level of maturity before displaying it publicly in 2013.

Since then he has enjoyed great success showing with the Hollow Earth London group, as a finalist in the Arte Laguna Prize, Venice, and exhibiting in open exhibitions including Creekside Open, Neo Art Prize, Worcester Open and The National Open Art Exhibition.

Married to food writer Louisa Carter, the couple have an 18-month-old daughter, Skye, and, having lived in Little Milton for years, are currently living with his father-in-law near Henley, whilst searching for an Oxfordshire rural idyll.

The 49-year-old is carving out a reputation for compositions that possess a film set sensibility. His subjects are basked in a carefully considered cinematic light that evokes a sense of unease. His subject matter is eclectic and the images he creates all appear deliberately ambiguous.

When asked about something that he describes as an “internal folklore” in his paintings he explained: “When I talk about folklore it’s folklore in the sense of all the influences that you’ve grown up with – they all go into a big melting pot within which disparate elements from the past co-exist and resonate within the present.

Such as? “My dad was in the Navy in the war; he joined at 16 in 1933. He was a professional sailor, and talked about the war quite a lot.

“He was obsessed with the Russians – he thought they could control the weather.

“That military past and the Cold War are big influences on my work now, and I think that’s due to my dad and the stories I heard.

“So I grew up making tons and tons of Airfix kits; I loved the illustrations on the boxes. I regard this aesthetic as a utilitarian style.

“I have a healthy nostalgia for model kits, anything from the Second World War or the Cold War. I played in old, disused military bunkers – they were underground pillboxes.

“There were old porn mags lying around, odd characters walking past – the adult world always seemed to come sneaking in.”

Film, television and popular culture are also obvious influences in his work: “It’s moulded me to some degree as a person – those cultural influences have filtered through, pervading the landscape.

“I switch on to an atmosphere as if living inside one of those movies.”

I asked Brennan to expand on his interest in capturing the sense of haunting solitude that permeates his oeuvre; why is there always such a sense of tension of the unknown in his images?

“My work is a personal landscape of obsessions,” he accedes. “I choose to paint only from those images that trigger a spark of recognition at a deep subconscious level. But yes, there is a visual paranoia; I could be looking at a beautiful landscape but I’m identifying the foreboding, or malevolence, in that landscape.”

More recently there has been a stylistic shift in Brennan’s work, away from the heavily worked, Airfix-influenced layers of the German soldier in Ich Lebte und Starb (I Lived and Died) from 2013.

Now his surfaces appear unfinished, leaving the paint better able to breathe, and allowing his subject matter to play with these personal folklores, to cross time and space, in turn opening the door to ambiguity in this captivating work.