Wednesday, January 21, 2015

For The Birds

For The Birds
Sean Lynch and Tom Fitzgerald
Visual, Carlow
13 Sep 2014 – 11 Jan 2015

 
Review by Darren Caffrey

...based upon the medieval Irish myth of Buile Suibhne, or the Frenzy of Sweeney. Cursed to be half-man, half-bird, Sweeney hopped throughout Ireland lamenting his woes in lyrical verse, until he reached a farmhouse in St. Mullins in Co. Carlow where he found a strange form of kindness, - each evening he was invited to drink milk out of a bowl of cowdung...”1



The story of Buile Suibhne is an old epic of the Gaelic tradition. A king who is turned into a birdman at the first sound of a bell is in the end the tragic part. 

For The Birds plots the real final resting place of Sweeney. The mythological tale of An Buile Suibhne is reasonably well known. It was used most recently by Irish authors like Paula Meehan and Seamus Heaney to elucidate the ways of modern life. T.S Elliot also used the primary character as inspiration for Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama. Elliot borrowed his dramatic form from the ancient Greek comic Aristophanes. The point here is that an origin for any story is always a story itself.

British poet T.S.Elliot's own Sweeney-like character lived in the time between two world wars and his use of a syncopated drum beat echoes the popular influence of jazz music at this time. By extension, the influence of American culture on British behaviour is underlined as a question of moral integrity. This unfinished stage play exposes Elliot's feelings toward the modern woman and her place within man's changing world. In Elliot's version, Sweeney befriends, lives with, and uses the whores of visiting US soldiers. In essence, the tale is one of social change, and in this example the character of its myth is evoked as something contemporary to the age. In this tradition, Lynch's approach is that of contemporary enquiry. If it should happen that miracles and magic tales are still resonant for us now, how is it that we might live with them as part of our own lives? This is the question that For The Birds asks of the viewer.  


Almost without realising, you might find yourself standing in a livestock enclosure, straw under foot. Beneath a glass table top, pictures of previous work by Tom Fitzgerald suggest an ongoing interest in the Sweeney tale. In addition, we are given the milk and the footprint which hollows out a cup in cow shit. Hot and steaming in its original state, this single pat of dung and its surrounding straw has now been confined to a glass box on top of a plinth. The gallery setting means that lights glare back as you near. Inside the box, it is of course the same shit left by the cow we see in a video playing adjacent. The video is a short grainy thing, starring two cows of visibly different states of maturity. Although we never see this shit fall, the video briefly shows us that a cow and her calf were in the gallery.

Marked out according to modern farming practice, the polished concrete floor remains visible beneath the straw. The plastic milk carton housed in a second glass box has been emptied. The short video shows us a hand pouring the contents of this carton onto the shit where it fell. Three months after the show opened green shoots have also made an appearance inside this box. 


Outside of the provided holding a figure stands watch. This figure is constructed as an amorphous form of wood and brass tacks and paint and papier-mache and buttons. At the far end of this almost manger-like setting, again outside the enclosure, another figure stands tall. This second figure possesses no exact human form. Even so, the pieces of carved wood which make it stand at roughly 8 feet propose an instrument. The metal wire which strings its figurative bow is held firm, illustrating tension as part of its make up. Like a scythe or the sharp lines of a crow's wing, its blackness cuts the rows of straw which serve to usher in and out both the livestock and the art viewer.

Around the 16th century Irish families began to anglicise their surnames. This was done in order to gain favour with the English landlords. It left Sweeney, a name born of the Scots-Gaelic heritage, forced into the now more familiar Sweeney. The irony of this is perhaps best reflected by the plastic milk carton, which, along with the metal brackets used to brace the wood fence of the enclosure, all call to mind the tendency of technology to universalise the making process. Rather than a wooden pale or a basin made from an old bath, there is a thermoset plastic mould of something reflecting an industry and marketplace no longer about subsistence farming.

The story goes that when Sweeney was tired and truly maddened by his perpetual flight he found in his final days a homestead and scullery maid willing to feed him the milk he needed to survive. The story's end sees him become the victim of a jealous husband who liked none too much his wife attending to such a disreputable figure, mythic or otherwise. This man's spear resolved the wish and word of St. Ronan who set into motion the whole story that is An Buile Suibhne. In the story, when the saint hung his church bell in the once peaceful homeland of King Sweeney, he received protest from the King regards the noise. The saint then sent his religious followers to deal with Sweeney's protest. Things escalated, prompting the saint’s curse that Sweeney be driven mad as neither bird nor man. This saint and the actions which he set down offer to us a simple division between the ages, exemplifying the many social shifts which occurred as a result of the arrival of Christianity.

While For the Birds is a collaborative offering from two men, it is in the gallery room next door that we see Lynch's own blend of archive, artefact and media resolve as a model of cultural critique. In this room a number of proposals have been made by Lynch. The first comes in the title: A Church Without a Steeple. An accompanying slide show reveals to us the actual church built without a steeple yet the objects in the room provide a sense that the connections being explored are at least partly philosophical in nature. 

A glass box with wooden frame contains clustered pieces of broken bottle. Is that art? Is it even interesting? Where is Duchamp's famed bottle-rack now? Another plinth displays a pairing of paper coffee cups left next to an intricately made wooden apparatus. On four walls are cartoon depictions of people looking at art. These characters come directly out of a 1950's comic book series called The Looney's. Their creator, Seamus O'Doherty, also did strips for The Dandy and The Evening Press when both were still in wide circulation. Along with their role as archive material, the cartoon figures stand ever present as an enquiry, speculating whether Lynch has in fact used them to centre his argument as primarily a cultural question.

In the slideshow and provided audio commentary we are told amongst other things, the story of a man who enters a gallery and takes off his hat. As he walks around he looks and questions the artworks on the basis of perceived difficulty or even function. He hears a sound of quiet awe and he follows it back to a group of interested spectators who have come across this fine and very interesting bowler hat. They refer to the creative act of bravery: to place a hat on a plinth and call it art – and they rejoice in the unfailing qualities of the human spirit. The man then picks up the hat and tells them he must take away their masterpiece as it is in fact his very own hat. In this tale a practical line is drawn through the interpreted subject and we begin to see the gaps which exist between individuals as a result of their differing knowledge sets. Of course western culture must always reflect the extent of these differences as the precondition of a democratic society. The humour of O'Doherty's tale is found in the possible awareness of both sets of knowledge. In the end we are left to question whether the man was wearing a hat or did he in fact exit from the gallery with art on his head.

For The Birds takes a more hands-on approach to the life of a story, helped largely by Tom Fitzgerald's figures. These works exist to describe the characters significant to the final days of Sweeney. The black wood with painted white tips and a jutting leg all symbolise that final act. Sweeney with a pitchfork deep in his ribs, and the thrusting arm of the milk maid's husband reinforced by the jealousy this man felt – stand here in a single form. 

 
The daily pages of a contemporary newspaper make up the outstanding hairs of Fitzgerald's other work. This figure stares back as one staggering and frightful totem. Even so, it takes on a human scale, playing its part in the same way that we as viewers entertain such questions as is it art. In truth this work was made by a man of our time, but it's figure appears to see something of our future in its beady green eyes. Apart from these eyes, expression comes to us on the torn strips of paper which cover the hair and face. These daily news stories act as an archive material, situating this figure as grounded in our world, and suggest also that whatever this figure has to say we may already know.

As with the exiled Sweeney who was forced to migrate perpetually, the indigenous Irish culture has been laying claim to the land ever since the arrival of what were seen as opposing cultures and techniques. Sweeney eventually found succour and sustenance in the home of a sympathetic man and his staff. Perhaps sentiment played a part in the old man's kindness, but with Sweeney's death came the inevitable transition from the symbol of man and nature to the Christian model of man and god. 

The question of is it a hat or is it art is a joke about the mistaken roles we subscribe to dead things. It would seem the same for shit in a box as for religious artefacts or symbols. But it is Lynch's use of the Sweeney story which suggests a broader narrative about acceptance, adaptation and the expression of loss.


1 From the exhibition press release.
 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Lacuna in Parallax


Lacuna in Parallax
Lucy McKenna
The Source, Thurles
12 September - 25 October 2014

by Jim Ricks

The thing about symmetry is that the beholder is positioned at the centre of the image”1


 


A train journey south towards Limerick on an overcast day brought me to Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Rising out of a wholly typical Irish place (and its pubs, takeaways, banks, butchers, Norman tower house, slow moving river, etc.) was the completely unexpected, substantial zinc-clad trapezoid edifice of The Source. Minus the apparently unsustainable cafe, it appears to be a rare exception to the prevalently mediocre Tiger-era county art centres.



Behind a massive sliding door lies a blacked out gallery. The lighting takes immediate significance. The artist, Lucy McKenna, created an atmospheric installation by way of a pragmatic stellar microcosm; tiny luminous points hovering individually in front of, or over each of her works.

  

The exception to this is the large sculptural piece titled Bridge. Light emanates from within the descending cylinder of golden metallic beads, installed centre stage. Perhaps it is a nod to Hollywood science fiction, a Star Trek transporter or even a  stargate. 


A golden disc projected through space and time, individual atoms of light held together through glimmering strings, it becomes the metaphorical sun. McKenna's show becomes heliocentric. And while I'm sure this is actually a symbolic reference to metaphysics or the Einstein-Rosen-bridge, I can't help but think this piece is largely decorative.

Taking varied, yet related circular forms, are a number of kaleidoscopic stargazing photos, all formally Hadron Collider-like, if you will. Some are wall mounted discs. Other sculptural ones are positioned on the floor. Collectively this visual presentation points to an underlying fascination with symmetric patterns occurring in nature, physics. The human intervention, repetition of these celestial 'shards', creates a sense of order and pattern, and, in particular the curved-bottom grounded constructions, recall baskets and bead work. The interstellar strung together.



Another prominent piece is We Didn'tMove, an 8mm to video transfer, which is projected high on the gallery's long wall. The footage of trees and flowers is filmed at Montpelier Hill in Dublin, a site of apparent frequent UFO sightings. A mirror effect is applied, and a layered, echoey voice-over recounts a story of a nocturnal invader. Although my first reaction was to cringe at a tale of real human abuse, no doubt the product of a post-Murphy-Report Ireland, the repeating narrative is ultimately of alien visitations.

The strongest works in the show, and what I would guess are the most involved, were exceptionally detailed pencil drawings of the cosmos. Four of them in total, McKenna explains on her website that “two of the works, Herschel and Rosetta were a collaboration with astronomer Nick Howes, wherein I drew some of his photographs of distant man-made spacecraft.” No doubt pieced together from square source photos, both are strangely pyramidal in shape. Stars streak across, activating them as the shapes become objects with cartoon motion lines. With its jagged base, it recalls the shape of the Stealth Bomber, or, equally, Carl Andre's corner metal triangle installations.

 
The other two painstakingly crafted drawings have this same shape, only removed like a missing piece of a puzzle. These, in contrast, are static. They are NGC 346 and LH 95, drawn from photos of of gaseous nebula from 'neighbouring' galaxies recorded from light traveling hundreds of thousands of years. The sense of time is heightened with McKenna's own investment of time. The dark matter of graphite is capable of holding the viewer. [Insert gravity pun here.]



This same shape is repeated thrice in a triptych, this time photographs clearly digitally stitched together from Google Maps imagery. These earthward looking images are local, coming from a period of research in the immediate area before the exhibition. All feature ring forts within a patchwork of towns, agricultural enclosures, and differing exposures, colour balances. 



Two strands of work in Lacuna in Parallax become distinct. One is with the artists research in Thurles around early Middle Age structures and looking downward on them through satellite photography. The other deals with looking upward, outward to the skies above. Both are connected by considering the passage of time. Distant star's light takes thousands, millions of years to arrive to Earth, emanating before our worldly ruins were even begun and visible only to us today. And how little we know about either.


Hand folded origami paper individually belted to the wall serve as the accompanying gallery text, Notes on Perception, Reality and Ringforts, while functioning also as installation. The (slightly difficult to read) text expounds a number of the artist's teleological musings and citations ranging from string theory, 'fairy forts', symmetry, kaleidoscopes, perception, time... It is essential to the exhibition, adding value to the works via McKenna's research.

Within the generous trapezoid gallery of The Source, the shape of McKenna's show is well rounded. She explores a number of themes within, from the local to the intergalactic, presenting them with polish, and handling the space adeptly through this multidisciplinary installation. Unfortunately, I feel the earthbound works on their own explore previously trodden territory. And those kaleidoscopic, from 'out of this world', are somewhat... distant. Both become background to the series of drawings, so deftly executed and gorgeous, manifested through a rare moment of collaborative focus between artist and scientist. 



Without focus and background, and ground for that matter, humankind has little way of understanding our own place within the biggest subject matter ever: the scale of the known universe.




1 From Notes on Perception, Reality and Ringforts.





Thursday, January 15, 2015

Patient Staring


Patient Staring
Works by Anne Hendrick, Aileen Murphy, and Emma Roche. Curated by Paul Doran
Wexford Arts Centre
19 October – 3 December 2014

Review by Susan Edwards


Tucked upstairs in the Wexford Arts Centre was a group of some feisty, thought provoking little paintings. It consisted only of eight works of art and coincided with the Wexford Opera Festival. Even before looking at the body of art, one is met with the exhibition title, Patient Staring, and the connotations that statement brings to mind.

Webster’s dictionary gives three descriptions of the use of the word patient.

patient
/ˈpeɪʃ(ə)nt/

adjective
1. able to accept or tolerate delays, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.
noun
1. a person receiving or registered to receive medical treatment.
2. the semantic role of a noun phrase denoting something that is affected or acted upon by the action of a verb.

In the case of this exhibition the action of the verb is “staring”, which is exactly what I did.

In combination these paintings present confusion, aesthetic pleasure, grotesque caricature and disturbing contemplation. The press release explains that the bond in all three artists is using their own vulnerabilities and insecurities in the art process:

In their aspects of making, these artists share encounters with anxiety and confidence, silence and noise, and the insufficiency of verbal language to express these experiences.”

It is possible to stare at these paintings and to tolerate that any immediate comprehension of their meaning might not occur. So, as this review begins, I can affirmatively state that there is little comprehension as to what the paintings are about, though a vague undercurrent of artistic history is present, as well a pointed application of materials.


Why these paintings were selected, exhibited and titled as Patient Staring is because the binding link to all of them is to not being easily understood. The viewer patiently stares at the art on the walls in hopes that some light bulb might click on above their head, but each click, of each viewer, will be individual. Therefore, it is plausible these artists give to us an enormous personal freedom of interpretation, free from right or wrong insights. 

Paul Doran stated that when selecting the paintings for the exhibition, he was drawn to work that was 'a bit off' and having a lack of clarity.

This was shared during an event near the end of the exhibition on November 29th as Doran hosted a conversation with the artists and the audience. He began with a quote from the artist Chris Martin, as to what constituted a good painting:

Who cares what’s a good painting? How about a painting that’s disturbing, raw or we don’t even know what it is? That’s probably more helpful to all of us than these very well made abstract paintings….. and so we have this amazing work that very few people pay attention to, not valued by the culture, examples of paintings that we don’t understand, a wild energy or freedom.”

We all have seen those types of paintings, the ones that illicit the cliché: 'a child could have done that'. Except they didn’t and that really isn't the point. 

 

Aileen Murphy’s work included three paintings with a central imaginative figure in each. Tender Wave, oil on beeswax in tones of yellow, gold, oranges and browns of a crudely drawn hand with a smiley face marked in the middle of the hand. The sort of doodle one might do when sitting in a meeting, bored as hell. Only this wasn’t a doodle, but a thought out artistic endeavour. Paint had been expertly layered, brushed, moved, scratched. Subtle blending, quick brief marks creating the outline of the hand and a rooster comb type of hair-do of the fingers, the smiley face giving it a naïve cartoon effect. The simplistic image was disappointing, one must expect more of a painting. But this initial disappointment created the need to dig deeper, so as to validate our art experience and Murphy’s skillful use of her materials and tools gave this painting depth, but not necessarily comprehension or a 'prettiness'. 


Her other two paintings, Kissing Wetly and Eye Believe were images of bats. The bats might have been of a nightmare quality, sickly sweet, garish and grotesque, a caricature gone terribly wrong. Eye Believe, consisted of blue, purple, and grey toned marks, this bat having outstretched wings and eight eyes on its head. It was at once creepy and fascinating. Kissing Wetly was a multi-coloured bat or even gargoyle image that looked as if it might have flown from Rio’s Carnival with its brushstrokes in orange, pinks, reds, yellows, and blues. The smushed about paint resembled a finger painting extravaganza. Murphy’s art process is intuitively led, leaving massive amounts to the imagination of the viewer. This process does not necessarily produce a lovely painting or a 'good painting', but it does give the viewer the opportunity of working out deeper connections, weighing and balancing meaning, or even to dismiss. 

The second artist in this exhibition was Emma Roche, whose work included two oil paintings. Roche has developed her use of paint in a three dimensional way, often making more sculpturally than painterly. She constructs with the materials of paint, building up structure and texture, incorporating bits of external debris and sometimes allowing that accidental debris to remain. Her paintings were the largest in the exhibition. Both appeared to have a theme or reference to bondage, or other dirty secrets, with images of restraints, ropes. Both included a centrally placed 'graphic' that hinted at being a representational symbol of warning or hazard. 


The Joy was oil on linen over board. Black and variations of grey tones of a horse head with an orange diamond shape placed exactly in the middle of the painting below the head. On either side of the head were descending rope nooses, or maybe stirrups. The painting was unframed, but painted around the canvas were beams of wood. Perhaps the horse’s stable? These wooden beams gave an illusion of depth to the image which was skillful. The mood evoked was dull, unevenly erotic, and tragic. While images of horses might not necessarily conjure up ideas of tragic, one need go further than that garish scene from The Godfather. The image was so jarring, broken up, and distorted with random design qualities as to give forth a notion of pointlessness. Again I was provoked to patient staring.





Punched or Bottled was the second large painting. Pale grey tones interspersed with bold black marks making visible a cubicle or room with a yellow and black crudely painted trampoline-like hexagonal shape (again, vaguely a warning symbol). This shape is placed dead centre of the image, not to be overlooked, which would lead one to think it has high significance for the painting. Above this trampoline shape is a wooden crossbeam positioned on the ceiling of the room. Tied to this are ropes that attach to a suspended u-shaped 'tube' of pale green. The perspective drawn to create the depth of the room demonstrates skilled draughtsmanship. There is a feeling of entering the domain where another episode of Salad Fingers might be enacted in all its weird uneasiness. In the artists conversation, Roche discussed that elements in her paintings which admittedly 'don’t work well' are a large part of her artistic practice, describing her work as “uncomfortable and disturbing with meanings not easily grasped.” Certainly, these concepts were excellently achieved. And yet this statement does not by default imply the paintings were either 'good paintings' or that they might enjoy popular appeal. But instead that the artist identified a message that could be delivered on a visual level to provoke a specific set of questions or feelings. And this requires a certain level of expertise.

The third artist and work to be explored is Anne Hendrick. Her three pieces evoked immediate historical art references fro me to Jasper Johns and his American flags. When she talked about her method, she said, “several themes are running at the same time... but flip-flopping from intuitive to academic research.” In the end, she did confirm that Johns was a reference point for these three works. Her style is described in the press release as “slow and meditative, seducing with silky and textured surfaces”. It also contrasts the familiar visions with unknown meanings at the same moment. Hendrick's work, again possibly guilty by association, can benefit from something John Cage once wrote of Jasper John’s artistic craftsmanship: “looking closely helps, though the paint is applied so sensually there is a danger of falling in love”. 


Recherche is oil on board, with red, blue, and grey squares of paper composing a checked pattern. It comes across as a woven textile piece with its depth and layers. Across the checked pattern, red paint is sprayed and splotched, tiny glimpses of raw paper show through. This gives it a pleasing distressed appearance. Recherche is an adjective meaning unusual and not understood by most. Indeed, there is no obvious meaning, as it is purely an abstraction of colour, shape and geometry, but the effect was not uneasy. 

 



Her second piece, The Solitudes, oil on board with wood, fabric, and mirror was the most 'flag-like'. The base of the work is red and white horizontal stripes, and in the upper left corner, on top of these stripes, is placed a piece of found wood. It is covered with small mirror circles of various sizes. The effect is so that the reflection of light and opposite objects are seen. Lashed in horizontal lines around the entire work is a length of green fabric twine or rope. The combination of found objects was at once familiar, but unexpected. The objects might have been scoured up from a hike along the sea discovering washed up driftwood and rigging lines. Yet the feeling of romantic optimism was produced, there was also regulated pattern and constraint perhaps offering a counter balance to this optimism... with disenchantment. All psychological, but if you take all the cerebral bullshit out of the equation, it was purely a lovely thing on which to gaze. 

 

The third of her works was an oil on board titled Magnificent Desolation. A base formed an illusion of a frame painted in colours of indigo, white, and wine. These square patches of colours again, formed a pattern to reference geometric flag symbolism. A second board was layered on top of the base, using the same tones of indigo blue plus white, on this she painted a night sky over a frozen landscape sprinkled with white stars across the sky and into a checked pattern. The impression of frozen ice and rocks was created with smudging, scraping and layering of paint. It was clever, creative, meditative, and comforting.

To be honest, Hendrick's work didn't seem to fit the criteria of being 'a bit off' or having some lack of clarity. The connection with the other artists' works was a stretch really. It is possible this part of the exhibition was an indulgence purely for aesthetic pleasure. And in terms of not being easily understood, I might concur with Mr. Martin, “who cares?”. Because it was pleasant, patiently staring at them. Her intuitive process joined with academic research and references produced work capable of reaching beyond an expiration date.

Yes, all the paintings in this exhibition were successful. But, not all were 'good paintings', and that shouldn't prevent us from seeking out nor from patiently staring. 

All photos courtesy the Wexford Art Centre.