Thursday, October 18, 2012


James Merrigan
The LAB, Dublin
7 September – 20 October 2012

Review by Nuala Nic Chuilinn

THELASTWORDSHOW in the The LAB, a space under the umbrella of Dublin City Arts Office, played host to the works of James Merrigan, an artist, critic and self-styled Jekyll and Hyde. It comes off as a cooly presented, yet downright angry show. With text appearing to represent a middle ground for Merrigan’s dueling personae of artist and critic.

Three large scale text based works shout out in all-caps for attention. One, along the glass balcony, spells out: ‘I CAN BE WHATEVER YOU WANT ME TO BE’. The other two are large wooden light-boxes. One shown on display in the large window of the space, the other housed in a separate blacked-out chamber. Perhaps it is a little trick, the light-box signs which read ‘JAMES MERRIGAN’S MESSAGE HAS BEEN QUARANTINED’ and ‘THELASTWORDSHOW’ give us a sort of self-made stardom in the form of a DIY styled marquee. The lettering used to spell out his messages has been shaped through a process: cutting reveals while black tape withholds. Indeed, something very real seems to be concealed. And what is revealed? ‘Fairy lights’ dully reflected against a silvery backing. In terms of expression this, and in general all text-based works, suffer from a vacancy. Instead of figuring out a way to visually express an idea or locate its allegory, or even build a structural adaptation of wordplay, or even tossing out a succinct one liner... the expressed meaning is shouted visually in bold capitals.

Notions of fame and gestures towards ‘bright lights’ are further explored with another, smaller light-box. This simply with a star shape constructed in the same reductive manner, revealing the word “CAMEO”.  Alongside there is a series of about a dozen variously coloured A4 pages at alternate heights. Some are bridged by way of a typewriter font text running across pages. It begins to form the basis for a potentially readable narrative. Employing text, like so many Instagramer's snap shots, his sentences steer toward a variety of pretense. “The art academic trembled before crossing the gallery threshold”.  Some are throw-away, some are vaguely literary, picturesque even, while others merely illustrate a beginning. In this particular adoption of text what gets lost is the personal, the word as truth. What remains is a predetermined vocabulary and a lingering dalliance with ‘fame’. But by taking only the form of conceptual art, like Carl Andre’s numerous typewriter pieces or the Flux Kits by George Maciunas, they were as concept no more than Tweets or fragments of of a story.

Another text piece on the other side of the room can at first appear as a jokey missive for those within its circle. Unfortunately, this ‘10 Commandments’ of art criticism contains only light insight and much heavy angst. In respect to other works discussed it comes across as a bit of a rant. Stating its self-pitying directives, he merely positions himself to be small relative to his object. A range of sentiments make up this list of inward looking, outwardly aggressive and thinly conceived grumps. Ultimately fifty to a hundred equally as spurious declamations and proclamations could have been presented and still the artist would stand in place of god. Unless Mount Sinai is occupied and cannot help with such molehills, some might say that his problem with his chosen profession be cause enough to adopt more than a voice, but a message.

A projected video piece which looks like a dvd menu may well be the best piece in the show. It contains a set of symbols and references which are internal to the artist, and they signal little but activity itself. This projected video, alongside the aforementioned ‘10 commandments…’ piece and come to think of it, much of the show’s content is very much territory that was explored in the Manual of Contemporary Art Style by Pablo Helguera - sections of which were published in the Visual Artists Newsheet just a few years ago. Much like Merrigan’s video, Helguera assigned symbols to roles as found within the suffocating ‘artworld’. Whereas Helguera created battle plans for how, in his case, the chess pieces were to interact and behave at exhibition openings, Merrigan has eschewed the commonly held language of signs in favour of his personalisation of code and conduct. It is as if he is, at least subconsciously, aware that the message which he seeks to share is for him alone.

A monumental black form is positioned centre-stage. It is neither ramshackle enough to be humble or curious, nor crafted well enough to be ‘well-made’ or sublime. It is neither ugly nor beautiful, falling into a strange grey area that lacks intentionality. But more importantly, it is also indiscernible. Is it a broken rabbit, upright and jagged but with a rounded belly? Or is it a headless chicken atop a woman’s head? Does it refer to, like a modest nod to the work of Kara Walker, an inaccurate silhouette? Possibly of Robert Emmet? It is what it is. Or perhaps... it is what ever you want it to be. Appearing in a nearby video also, but in a more animated guise, this shape jumps, slides, and travels the flatscreen. Maybe it mocks the large sculptural form which stands still and is tied to its objecthood? In any case, it does indeed work as a formal echo of this looming indiscernible sculpture in the centre of the room; one holds station while the other is flat. The standing piece is black, a chicken-wire and timber frame covered in some kind of commercial wrapping plastic. Fugue-like, the theme is stated and little elaboration follows. The on-screen graphic is just that, while the sculptural form is equally just that. Neither provokes enough that the viewer be prompted to discover what relationship exists between them.

Upstairs, the near empty space is red lit. Connotations of the ‘Red Light’ have not been in any way removed, it seems that it is hoped that red be seen relative to temper and rage. Which is unusual, because rather than the kink or tease which might be expected, all we come to find is itself pretty much a story of the artists' dealing with some unmentioned gallery employee who for whatever reason failed to act with due respect. A stencil, hearts, a flashing light and a tale of personal woe. What is interesting is that rather than take of his position a strength from his decision to decline their revised and seemingly lesser offer, he has exposed himself as being vulnerable to the emotional to and fro of professional and personal confusion.

The dual persona which Merrigan attributes to himself has, no doubt, a function, perhaps simply to tell his story his way. As it is, the primary issues to be wrestled with here, self-indulgence versus self-censorship, require an author/artist who is willing to be judged for whatever he must reveal. Whether Jekyll or Hyde, the critic has here permitted little room for the artist to make any sort of meaningful expression. This surely is not the desired function of his or any critic.

I do take issue with his craftsmanship, but in this case most of the works don’t offend on that front, rather the ideas lack significant development. Value relationships never being clearly defined, all we have to look at are parts of something or other or something other; a story not worth telling, a not quite discernible form or some text which never makes sense of itself; the LASTWORDSHOW may very well have benefited from a pinch or two of the poetic, or even, something of his true feelings; something earnest. In referring to his hiding of something, it is this nature of his true feelings that was overplayed by the noise of almost everything which he made.  As it is, bluster blows gales through the The LAB and apparently neither the artist, the critic nor the gallery could see it hold.

All photos by Michael Holly, courtesy of The LAB and the artist.


  1. I'm nearly convinced that Nuala Nic Chuilinn is a makey-upy name to protect a critical someones real identity. It stands to reason.
    If not I commend you Nuala for your real criticism although I'd leave the artschool palaver behind and at least pretend you're coming from the real world, as James is. As an artist, it's hard not to be cynical and it's commendable when someone attempts to address certain... issues, even when it's not done tactfully.

    I could have summed it in fewer words, "The show is a bad one, and given the circumstances, offends the viewer by not having a sense of humour".

  2. As this is a subject raised before, SOK should pass comment.

    We have no ethical dilemma about 'printing' a review under a nom de plume. We have worked with a number of writers over the last few years, some on a sustained basis. We receive submissions regularly and in fact solicit them at times. As such, we do not necessarily personally know all the contributors, nor see the need to. We vet the article for information as best we can, make recommendations and even find some submissions unsuitable.

    We would assume that if someone chose to use a pen name it would be for a valid reason. Some concerns that spring to mind may be that they fear negative professional repercussions, that it would be deemed a conflict of interest by their employer/educator, that it is a collaborative project, that it could be interpreted as a personal attack, or that it would not be published. Perhaps your reasons for remaining Anonymous are similar?

    Thank you for your summary also, however we believe in particular that Nuala's points regarding historical, formal concerns provide a more well rounded critique.