I received my first painting by Keiran Brennan Hinton a year ago—a painting of the view looking out his Bronx studio window in exchange for a piece of writing that I never got around to finishing. This April, I added another one of Keiran’s paintings to my wall, this one of the Toronto skyline. From there, they multiplied like bunnies left unattended. At the time of writing, I have twelve of Keiran’s paintings covering almost every wall in my apartment. Most will leave again, departing out for fairs and exhibitions, to new homes and walls and eyes. The paintings are quickly replaced, my apartment a pseudo-studio for the artist as he spends the lockdown in Canada and away from New York.
If it’s Sunday, Keiran has probably propped his laptop on a stack of books and has football playing in the background while he paints. On Thursdays, I’m at pottery class and he’s painting flowers that I bought for him or he bought for me—and, eventually, that someone might give to someone else. A statement of love vis a vis a statement of love. In the morning, he might paint the disarray of my room while listening to podcasts as I conduct Zoom calls in the next room.
Living with Keiran’s paintings begets a certain intimacy. In the gallery, you stand at a respectful distance and look at art. Maybe take a photo, to visit later or post. The relationship is temporary, the act of looking cemented to a specific spot. The context is decided for you and laden with learned behavior: stand back, lean in slightly, look, read the index card, turn to the person beside you, nod. At home, all bets are off. I look at a painting of my kitchen while lying on the floor playing with my cat. Another grounds me as I bounce around my living room during a Zoom fitness class—only the colors are in focus, deep oranges and fresh greens, a dash of artificial pink. I look at a still life of flowers sitting at my desk, the original flowers wilting on the window sill behind me.
I’m living inside a Matryoshka doll, my life reflected back to me on every wall. The paintings are mirrors that capture more than the physical objects in front of them; memoirs that reflect a temperature, a time of day, an emotion.
Like a kitten I’m only fostering, I try not to get too attached. I avert my gaze. This avoidance—an avoidance of looking too closely at my own life—is futile. There’s a flower painting that Keiran did on the first cold day of the season that my eye gravitates to every morning as soon as I wake, the colors so saturated, the moment so pristine in my mind, that I’m sure I will cry when I have to part with it.
Keiran often remarks how the people who buy his paintings will live with them for longer than he did—getting to know the canvas in ways that he never had a chance to. I’ll add: likewise, there’s an intimacy Keiran has to each work that is impossible to emulate. The time he spends looking, a couple of adjustments to his set-up, a slight pause, and then, with no hesitation, how he begins to make mark after mark. At first, the strokes are loose, carefree. As the painting continues a tension is introduced into the canvas, the looking becomes harder, each mark represents a fork in the road, a choice made. Living with the work, I might become more familiar with its surface—but I’ll never know the thought process behind each mark, the memory of the space embedded in the canvas.
Here’s the difference between the two forms of intimacy: For the longest time, I didn’t question a line of orange trailing down the window of the window painting I have of Keiran’s. I simply admired the color. A few weeks ago, he pointed to the canvas and told me how the setting sun would come in the window of his studio for a few minutes each day, how he raced to mix the color and capture the moment in a paint stroke. Now I can’t unsee the image. Of course, the color is sunlight! I begrudge this new knowledge, preferring the color to simply be a color, an abstraction of a moment I wasn’t privy to.
I’ve known this painting for the exact amount of time I’ve known Keiran (though I’ve lived with it for double the amount of time I’ve lived with him) and I’m still learning new things about both. How a painting changes tone in the blue light of a Toronto winter, how he’s always forgetting something at my apartment or taking something of mine with him.
Yesterday, Keiran called to remind me to start writing this essay. I glared at him over the phone. I have a process, I said. I forgot about all the ways I interrupt Keiran’s process, slightly moving objects in a still life he’s painting, or, wanting company, lying on the bed to watch him paint. If he’s feeling generous, and he often is, he might take the time to explain to me something about his own process: how to remove paint using a finger cloaked in fabric, how to mix warm and cold colors to create a base layer, how to look. I practice looking at the meta-interiors that surround me.
The truth to why I never wrote the first essay Keiran asked me to, and procrastinated with this one, is I never know what to write about Keiran’s art. What am I supposed to say? That it’s beautiful? That I can’t imagine living without it? There’s something too obvious about telling the truth. I’m used to writing about the interactions we have with art, all the things around it, using a secondary text to try and explain something about the work.
Keiran doesn’t share my need to contextualize, to distract from the life living in front of us. He simply presents it, not only as he sees it, but experiences it. I’m trying to do the same.
Tatum Dooley is a writer and curator living in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Canadian Art, Editorial Magazine, Garage, Lapham’s Quarterly, and Vogue UK.