Sunday, March 30, 2014


NCAD SU XXX-Mas Ball Image-Gate
By Jim Ricks
30 March 2014

So there was this ‘something’ that happened up at NCAD in December, and it’s worth having a second look at. It is the kind of thing that one may say ‘I’m over it’.  But, a number of interesting and important issues: politics, semiotics, feminism, pornography, power, all immediately come to mind.

I was reflecting on Panti Bliss’s speech at the Abbey Theatre, and the simple and invaluable point she makes. Even an openly homosexual, cross-dressing male has caught herself censoring her own thoughts, and the actions of others because they were ‘too gay’. For we are all a product of a homophobic culture, one that is deeply rooted in our upbringings. We all are homophobic.

I would like to extend this to something else. Sexism. And so too we are all guilty of sexism. It is part of our culture, a legacy we inherit, participate in, and are guilty of. Both women and men alike. To others, to ourselves.

It has been correctly pointed out that one cannot assign labels to activities that one does not directly experience. The seed of this point is valuable, because we can never quite know what someone else experiences; their pain; their discomfort.

Something like sexism is so pervasive and even indoctrinated, we all slip into it. For me this is not an excuse, and certainly not something to succumb to, but a fact to be aware of and correct; change upon reflection. The question for me becomes one of not how do we behave perfectly, self censor or take higher ground, but of how we can identify and correct our mistakes.

Interestingly, in the last few years, I feel a new feminism is on the rise. It is a feminism espoused by the likes of Beyoncé and Molly Soda. A successful woman, comfortable with her sexuality (and being sexy), who also has good fortune, power, or popularity, can still advocate for the equality of women. Pro-choice campaigns, particularly after the death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway in 2012, have spurned many forward towards being active and vocal. I think it is a very interesting and exciting time.

This past December an incident originated at the National College of Art and Design, Ireland’s preeminent art college. Its scope ended up reaching well beyond the college and students, becoming an important discussion about feminism and artists in a broader community. As an outsider to the college, I have been reluctant to comment on it, cautious not to fan the flames, seeming preachy or not knowing my place. Ultimately, I have decided to raise a few points that have not been put forth strongly enough and that I think are worthwhile. My aim is not to re-open old wounds but to get beyond the initial emotions and examine the issues in a little more detail.

Like most colleges, NCAD has a Students’ Union (SU). It is safe to say generally college Students' Unions are the representative body and voice for students. Originating, in the 1960’s, as a form of political representation via the struggles to advance and update these institutions, they work as a negotiator with the academic institution itself in communicating with the student body. Normally they are open to all students, are funded through a percentage of tuition plus their own fundraising, and they work on campus issues, charitable campaigns and, of course, social events.

The incident of which I speak began with the NCAD Students Union’s advertisement for a Christmas Ball. On December 6th, 2013, as the holidays approached, The NCAD SU prepared for their ‘Christmas Ball’. The December 19th ball was billed as the ‘XXX-Mas Ball’. Their press release reads:

Ho Ho Ho and merry XXX-Mas.

Oh we know its been a long, hard, year and you've all been very very naughty so lets end it with one hell of a bang.

Get your stockings up, your baubles hung, and your tinsel out, this is going to be a blingalicious festive spectacle the likes of which you'll never have seen before, lets hope this will be more eventful than Jolly Old Saint Nick coming down your chimney, going into your room sack in hand and emptying it all over the place...”

Questions of taste abound.

Indeed, it is arguably quite offensive to frame a campus event designed for the benefit of the entire student body in terms of the sex industry. Using puerile double entendres is a bit crude, a little ‘teen film’, and not that, err... creative (IMO). But it is really the ‘conversation’, very much fueled by contemporary modes of information exchange, i.e. Facebook, et al, that ensued that is the point of contention (more on that later.)

The image used to promote the, at this point unnamed ball (the image only advertised the college), was an illustration in the manner of a neon sign. Glowing lines depicted a busty, naked women straddling a campus landmark: an old whiskey still. The figure revealed oversized breasts with exposed nipples, wearing only knee-high stiletto boots and a Santa hat. Cartoon ‘quiver lines’ let us know she is in motion; ‘grinding’ that whiskey still. Besides the neon body, the graphic also exposed a male-centredness towards the college itself. Both in the use of the campus ‘erection’ as the source of her affections and in that the overt sexualisation of a female was used to market the college. To go further, the chosen visual language was clear, it is that of an American strip club. Neon signs advertising sexual satisfaction, titalisation for the cost of a few bucks.

A stream of comments followed. A female student declared the image was in bad taste and another that it was not representative of the college student demographics. Most astonishing was what happened next. A series of flippant, derailing, offensive, and downright stupid provocations followed, mostly from male students, frequently containing imagery in equally bad taste (penises, swastikas, etc.). Of course, this was challenged in a very balanced way by a number of the college’s women, and a few men. But it became clear a bigger issue was arising: the lack of SU response and the aggressive reaction that erupted.

In one comment, Eimear Van Der Waals gets to the point when she wrote:

It's really really important though, if someone is genuinely offended by something, for example if someone feels like some aspects of the sexual objectification of women has had a negative effect on their life, that they can register this offence with out being subjected to the aggressive response that Karl and the people who have liked his comment have made.”

But the controversy brewed and escalated. And still the image remained posted and the SU remained quiet. That was the biggest problem.

In addition, some rebuttals and taunts from the anti-feminist camp cited a previous year’s SU t-shirt design that featured two crudely drawn (think Neckface or Beavis and Butthead) nude men masturbating, one on the other's lap. This reference was well off topic as a) there was no protest about said design (and therefore no need to respond to it). And b) it was not pornographic. It was crudely and comically drawn, not for arousal or referring to the ‘adult entertainment’ industries, but presumably instead for shock value.

Along the same lines were comments like Cyan Ryan’s response concluding:

...I just would't call this "Inappropriate and degrading" or think that much into things but yes a male version will keep it fair

Which I’m certain it wouldn’t. Simply asserting a personal opinion does not trump or negate someone else’s. Unless you’re like a dictator or a monarch or something. This basic balancing act does not address the twofold core issue here: a) That someone’s grievance is not being addressed by an elected body designated to represent them. And b) that it is ahistorical and ignores the political and economic facts of injustice and imbalance. Isolating the issue in a vacuum, ignoring the legacy of historical disadvantage. A racist caricature of a black person is not suddenly okay if you then produce a racist caricature of a white person.

Not so the prevailing wisdom in the SU. In keeping with the above line of thought, they unveiled a second XXX-Mas Ball graphic: a male version. A seated muscular figure with his hand around a large smokestack in the place of his penis. *ahem*. A very favourable representation of his manhood as it were.

It struck my as a real dick slap in the face. Not only does it not solve the issues of the original design being unwanted, non-representative, imposed; the increasingly abusive discourse on Facebook about it; the SU inaction, but it also reflects another male agenda. That of sexual power. Tellingly, this version clearly stated the puntastic name of the event and not solely the college’s name. A subtle addition.

A third graphic appeared, directly referring this time to the exterior signage of a strip club or XXX cinema prevalent in red light districts. A cursory Google search for “strip club neon” revealed nearly identical images to this and the first one. A fourth, final image contained a selection of four XXX related designs, including the first one.

When asked about the controversy, neither the college nor the SU responded to our requests for comment. However, Eleanor White, co-founder of the NCAD Feminist Society, spoke openly about the incident and elucidates a number of productive points. Her statement is here in full:

Regarding the whole ‘NCAD SU XXX-Mas Ball Image-Gate’ incident and being an actual woman within the college, I found it a bit bizarre that imagery like this was used in a college that is 60% female, and while I personally didn't find it offensive I could see how people could. And maybe the only reason I didn't find the imagery offensive is because in our society we are so used to seeing such imagery constantly.

What really offended me was certain Lads (in and not in the college) telling women over what they can and can't be offended over. And telling women to “fuck off”, and of course the NCAD SU not bothering to deal with the troll fest on our official page.

Cause Swastikas and dick pics being posted gives such a great impression of NCAD. When I called the SU out over this they used the whole ‘no to censorship’ babble which I found ironic considering the dick pics and swastikas and of course the personal insults to women who raised their concerns over what was happening. ’Cause freedom of speech totes means this is like acceptable.

I’ve told the NCAD SU personally that this could have been nipped in the bud so easily and with 4000+ friends on Facebook they're going to need moderation, and how our SU page should be a safe space for those raising concerns and that the SU needs to obviously represent. This is PR 101 and while we're now ok on personal terms I feel so let down by them and of course certain people with the student body. I’ve had people come up to me and say “I used to think feminism was cool but not anymore”, and I’ve been accused of being a ‘feminazi’, which is just so infuriating to me, cause I’m like all for ethnic genocide, ugh.

Overall I feel quite disappointed and upset by all of this and I’m so annoyed with certain people within my college (ie DE LADS) shouting down anyone with an opposing opinion to them. 
And the fact that a number of boyos have approached me telling me that they agree with me, but due to the fact they're friends with these idiots they feel they can't call them out, cause hey even though they are men, they can’t be really be seen as having opinions that are not of the typical lad norm.

I’ve had had enough testosterone for a lifetime thanks to this and you would think in a college that is predominantly woman dominated I wouldn't have this problem but alas I do.”

So why is this important to me, a non-student, a non-NCAD alum? Because I am a thinking individual and artist in Dublin. And by extension involved with the greater arts scene. I am also politically involved, i.e. my practice and life are engaged with the issues that surround me in my professional and geographic community, and I hope my actions and choices make them better. As artists, we are shapers of culture. To remain on the sidelines would be an error on my part.

I would argue that it is my/our job to criticise this simplistic thinking, this sexist advertising, the repugnant debate that followed and to fight for principles like justice and equality. I would argue it is our job to challenge everyone of these assumptions, these culturally inherited prejudices and their behaviour and attempts to enforce them. And in the very least I expect artists to be compassionate to other people. If we are not, then what are we doing? Are we just providers of propaganda, inspirers of advertisements, complicit in the problems capitalism creates or cannot solve? If we cannot ask ourselves and answer, “What do we stand for?” then there is a problem. And the bigger problem can only be dealt with by being better equipped to correct it, nay, fight it. And better organised, and more stubborn in our resolve to make a positive change.

So the issue boils down to, as I understand it, and I’m willing to be corrected on this, is that many, not all, women feel they do not have the power of how they are defined as humans. That they are consistently and vociferously being defined in the public eye as objects for the sexual gratification of men. And not much more. This is not against sex, but against the narrowing control of identity. More so, it is essentially about power and who has the power to define themselves. In this case as complete humans.

Kerry Guinnane succinctly summarized :

Heya! It is not the position of men to tell women what they should or should not be offended by esp. in relation to sexual objectification. Ok? Ok tnx.”

A sound principle that can be applied across the entire scope of Intersectionality.

The NCAD issue really struck a nerve with a number of students and with myself because, as I mentioned, it is the type of interaction that noxiously ignites on the internet. Women are regularly the targets of shameless trolling online. One of many examples is Lindsay Bottos, a photographer from Baltimore, who says:

...I get tons of anonymous messages like this every day and while this isn’t unique to women, the content of the messages and the frequency in which I get them are definitely related to my gender. I almost exclusively get them after I post selfies. The authority people feel they have to share their opinion on my appearance is something myself and many other girls online deal with daily.”

See one of her projects here: The likes of aforementioned Molly Soda handles her trolling on a regular basis, but always with her characteristic sass.

Ok, so this years NCAD elected representatives were a bit blind or insensitive. Or was it something else? Frank Wasser, Former President of the NCAD Students' Union, surmises:

NCAD SU this year are scumbags.”

Clearly opinions on the matter are strong.

Stepping back a bit, as image makers, thinkers, possibly intellectuals, and students, what exactly is the artists role, or rather, responsibility?

In the case of the NCAD SU and the XXX-Mas Ball, it comes down to a question of ethics that becomes increasingly highlighted as the initial ‘error’ was ignored and compounded. There was no retraction. They made a single post that apologised for people taking offense. WTF? They were sorry people got offended, not for offending people. Nor for letting a very visible online forum become a safe place for misogynistic trolling. So the response of the NCAD SU is tantamount to saying “Stop bothering me” or even “Piss off”; that what they did needed no correction; that they were not responsible for any wrong doing.

This, the initial non-response, the ‘we’ve still ignored the original argument’ response embodied in the other graphics, and the final re-inclusion of the image strike me as mean-spirited, retaliatory, a test of the resolve of those opposed. And it all relates directly to power. It also relates directly to politics and the lack of. It can be interpreted that the SU not only doesn’t view itself as an entity of representative democracy working on behalf of those that put them ‘in office’ nor do they see any responsibility in shaping ‘best content’, creating a ‘safe space’, let alone forum, for all members of their community.

And just on that basic ‘being a decent human being’ level, and this is directed at everyone and no one in particular, if someone tells you openly they are uncomfortable or offended, why would you do anything other than try to correct your mistake? How about starting with a little respect.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist

Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist

The Garden Galleries, IMMA, Royal Hospital Kilmainham    

18th Sept 2013 – 26th Jan 2014

Review by Lynda Phelan

“The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope”(1)
                            – Leonora Carrington

What a fantastical world we expose when we penetrate the depth of our unconscious and concurrently the zenith of our imagination. Can any of us say for certain which is felt to be more consistent with that of ‘the real’: the structures of the conscious mind, or “...the unconscious and its – for the most part unintelligible – order”(2) ? According to Carl Jung, the unconscious acts as “the symmetrical counterpart of the conscious mind and its contents, although it is not clear which of them is reflected and which is reflecting... we could regard the centre as the point of intersection of two worlds that correspond but are inverted by reflection.”(3)

Who’s to say? If there exists such thought to question, then maybe? For, as Meillassoux asserts, “the capacity of thought cannot be richer than the capacity of reality... If we can imagine so many things, this must be just the shadow of reality.”(4)  Perhaps what the conscious mind perceives is in fact a mere reflection of the unconscious world and its contents? Perhaps, as self-professed rational creatures, imagination exists for this very reason? “We are rational and have imagination. Why? Because in fact they're the same thing.”(5) 

Returning now to the stuff you can touch (save for the art)... The Garden Galleries, adjacent the formal gardens of the now Irish Museum of Modern Art, has on display the work of an artist who has captured our dreams (reality?) for us to see, and see we do: the extra-ordinary, or should I say, the supra-ordinate.

The story propelling this ‘once was lost and now is found’ artist by the name of Leonora Carrington, is one of passion for the imaginatio above all else.  Her future was set – in stone, so to speak. Her affluent upbringing in Lancashire meant expectancies bound up in marriage, property, and her own formal gardens. Leonora Carrington decided upon a world of her own making, fit to her design. Parental dissention found her in Paris in the company of the Surrealists, and it was here that she made for herself a new beginning, one in which she was free to explore that ‘other’ and experience her imagination as alive and well. Mexico called for her as World War II encroached, and it is here where she remained until her death in 2011. Carrington spent her life in Mexico painting, and studying such texts as the Kabala, the ancient texts of the Mayans (Popol Vuh) and the writings of Carl Jung on alchemy.

Her roots taste of ‘Celtic’ blood, on her Mother’s side. As a child, Leonora would visit her Irish Grandmother, an important symbolic figure who provided her with an inheritance of Irish Mythology.  Her trunk, as it were, was later reinforced by the ideology of the Surrealists. For, Leonora was at this point branching out as an artist in her own right. And in Mexico – the most surreal place in the world, according to André Breton, her branches sprang many leaves depicting what Lévy-Bruhl termed the représentations collectives.

For the most part, Carrington’s work remained relatively unknown on this side of the world; whereas now it is felt to be found as though once lost. The vast array of her paintings, tapestries and some of her sculptures occupy every space available in the Garden Galleries. But rather than a walk-through in chronological order, the curator, Seán Kissane, has arranged the work with a thematic structure in mind, relocating Carrington’s work outside of the ordinary formal language of art.

We could of course discuss the work using terms like representational, formalist, iconological, even iconoclastic, but in Carrington’s own words: “you’re trying to intellectualise something, desperately, and you’re wasting your time…that’s not a way of understanding.”(6)  Carrington is pointing to, what Jacques Lacan also felt, that "the important thing is not to understand but to attain the true."(7) Understanding and Truth; both function by way of a parallax gap. Parallax refers to the shift that occurs in the position or direction of an object when viewed from different positions,  the object itself being the cause of the gap whereby there feels to be a continual confrontation between "two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible."(8)  Slavoj Žižek also states that this “gap is asserted as inherent to humanity itself…”(9)  This natural psychological setting is certainly fertile ground from which to experience The Celtic Surrealist, and to be transported into a metaphorical world of mythological themes and alchemical symbolism. 

Carrington’s artistic rendering of her childhood home, Crookley Hall (1947), haunts Room 1. But there is, however, an alternative that offers more direct access to her childhood by way of openly displayed copybooks, albeit behind glass. Our lead in to the story of Leonora Carrington as artist takes the form of strangely assembled creatures that live on the planet Starvinski. The presence of these copybook drawings are a gentle curatorial push in the right direction... imaginatio above all else.

The painting chosen by the curator to promote the exhibition is incidentally the painting which holds the Carrington auction record at Christie’s, New York, fetching $1,482,500. The Giantess (1947), sometimes known as The Guardian of the Egg, is a fine painting, delicate in its address of the Great Mother archetype who is re-called to mind by Carrington’s repeated touch of tempera on a wooden panel. She stands tall, negotiating land, sea and sky; all the while, birds, proportionate to the Giantess, swoop but the egg is kept safe between hands. The egg as symbol simultaneously holds the key to life and non-life, and in alchemical terms, the egg functions philosophically as a sealed vessel in which the magnum opus takes place, uniting both the microcosm and the macrocosm.

The Irish connection is tenuous to say the least but it is there. However, as a title, The Celtic Surrealist is a clear museological marketing ploy, attempting to draw in more Irish viewers by drawing upon the ‘lack’ in our national psyche. Room 3 is also thematically experienced as a slight connection to Carrington’s interest in hunting. Nevertheless, it is here where we find a tangible relationship to Carrington's Irish ancestry. In her painting Red Steeds of the Sidhe (1996), the artist highlights an Irish folktale.

The story goes that King Conaire, while out riding, noticed up ahead three men of the Sidhe, also known as the Tuatha De Danann. The king then sends his son to follow the men who were now riding away on red horses. There was a message for the King from the Sidhe: “Though we are alive we are dead. Great are the signs: destruction of life; sating of ravens; feeding of crows, strife of slaughter; wetting of sword-edge, shields with broken bosses in hours after sundown.”(10)  Red Steeds of the Sidhe is a painting which illustrates this warning as fact, and I believe it to be very telling of our modern mess that these words have found their way back to us from the fairy-folk. Leonora Carrington made her choice of sword from which to plunge it into the ‘now’, and the horses do indeed burn red from within.

As World War II continues, Carrington flees to Spain after the arrest of her lover Max Enrst. The emotional state that ensues leads her to be institutionalised. This particular chapter of Carrington’s life-story was published in 1944 in a book entitled Down Below, and this self-same named room focuses on the work that speaks of where Leonora went when she was down below.

There is an untitled etching in this room that I wish to draw to your attention.  One supreme Dog-figure stands round; several smaller dogs have their heads tied in place within the overall structure, they are also seen to function as vital body-parts for the one ‘Dog’. Consider the purpose of places such as that asylum in Santander. Now, consider the real purpose. In her etching, Carrington takes on the truth of things.  Like the wolf all those generations ago, man has been bred for ‘friendship’ in order to preserve order and ultimately the existence of such a framework. Illusion and the resultant delusion attempts to fill the gap inherent in humanity, and should this not work: lock us all up for real?

The Celtic Surrealist is an exhibition that animates the uncanny. Carrington’s delicate disclosure of ‘the real’, the lack that exists between our waking and dream state, is seen again and again through her decisive use of tempera and her evolved relationship to it. The inclusion of her tapestries in particular fall short due to the lack of feeling and material depth when compared with the paintings. And her sculptures function as well-needed interruptions in the physical space while on the meta-physical journey.

Carrington’s work is an attempt to bridge the gap that exists inherently in all things. What her work actually does is facilitate that which is calling to be recalled. I would like to end with a tale:  A slave boy found himself being asked questions by Socrates of a geometric slant. The slave boy subsequently came to the truth of this geometric proposal without any prior knowledge of the issue (Meno, 402BC). In this way, Socrates demonstrated the possibility of a prior knowledge existent before consciousness and that in some way learning is in fact mere recollection. Let us remember that which we don’t know. Let us dream. 

Images courtesy IMMA.

(1) Leonora Carrington, The House of Fear: Notes from Down Below, E.P. Dutton, 1988, p. 163.
(2) Carl G. Jung. Psychology and Alchemy. Routledge, London, 1963, p.171
(3) Ibid, p.171
(4) Quentin Meillassoux. Interview, 22/07/2010,, DOCUMENTS UF13, p.3
(5) Ibid, p.4
(6) Leonora Carrington. Interview:
(7) Jacques Lacan. Le Séminare III. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1981, p. 58(8) Slavoj Zizek. A Parallax Gap. MIT Press, Cambridge, London, 2009, p. 4
(8)  Slavoj Zizek. A Parallax Gap. MIT Press, Cambridge, London, 2009, p. 4

(9) Ibid, p.5
(10) W.Y.Evans-Wentz. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Henry Froude, London, 1911, p. 290

Monday, December 23, 2013

Haiku Review: Workers Café

Haiku Review: Workers Café
Temple Bar Gallery & Studios
11 October – 2 November 2013

By Fujimoto Ryouji

A noble pop-up.
Local produce. Workshops. But
what of The Lockout?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Images from 'more adventurous thinking...'

more adventurous thinking...
from the archive of Dorothy Walker, with artist's response from Seamus Nolan
NCAD Gallery
15th June - 7th October 2013

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

McCarty and Kensmil at the RHA

by Marlene McCarty
Crying Light
by Natasja Kensmil
Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin
5 September – 20 October 2013
Review by Darren Caffrey

Does anything frighten us like the merest sight of our own reflection? Terror comes of a story told to scare, equally the frame of art is no hiding place from the horrors of life. It could be, but artists dont want it that way. Indeed fear is often as compelling as the lure of success. And so it is with two exhibits running in sync at the Royal Hibernian Academy which both tease at something of the draw of death and destruction.

The work of Marlene McCarty stands larger than life and here precisely is the illusion which draws you closer. Each work is composed as a tableau, presenting distinct characters within each scene but hinting also at a union which might yet reveal the full extent of the tale. In fact, the gallery text shares with us a glimpse of the real life world of each figure and each figure has been finely rendered in graphite pencil and blue Biro. But that is where the facts begin to blur into a bigger story about shared responsibility. It is this terrifying concept, overshadowing the tale of each gruesome crime, which in itself brings to mind the true cause of fear and so-called psychopathic behaviour. 

Life is once only. Marlene's first foray into representing murderous young girls came as the result of being introduced to the life of another Marlene as told in a true life american crime novel. When Marlene Olive was just a teenager she and her boyfriend of the time killed her mother and father. One day Marlene McCarty was asked by her mother to move some things in the attic. It was here that she found a self-portrait from when she was seventeen. In her own words, this typical pencil drawing was “terribly tightly rendered with all the teenage angst of hoping to make it look like a pretty version of me”. Similarly drawn, McCarty found in a portrait of herself a means to reflect the innocence of murderous individuals. She has since been making various series of drawings, worked up from head shots and details of height, and composing of them a literal fantasy embedded in real life events. Taken as a subject, the many examples of the same crime only serve to reiterate the claim of human.

"The girl, as she matures, is losing her position as a child in society. Now she's being sexualized, not only physically and hormonally, but also by outside desire. She's living in these domestic environments with her parents, and generally her mother is going through this stage where she's losing her sex appeal and her cultural currency. And in each case, there's an impulse. The impulse for the girls was: I have to get out of here, I have to free myself, I have to get rid of this environment of parents, family and everything that is oppressing me. And murder was the way out." (1)

Rather than speak about individual works, it would seem the job of the critic is not to criticise or praise but to simply acknowledge what is present. The characters seduce in formal representation and their drama becomes ours for a moment, each one accorded characteristics which reflect their sex, age and place in the group. Primates bowl about as sideline to, and perhaps also as a symbol of the great meaning of such a litany of tragic events; but primarily we are confronted with what it is to be sexual. The fact that in these drawings the characters are clothed with the folds and falls of various fabrics, restricted even by a suggested tightness, nonetheless leaves each of them naked to the eye of any viewer.

The use of line to delineate form while also dancing with the notion of transparency serves to illustrate the fantasy which is innate in looking. The question being: if we are looking, what do we want to see? Indeed, what are we afraid of seeing? Thus, the naked bodies of boys and girls are set into the picture amongst an array of vulva and fully erect and somewhat limp penises of the adult males and females in the mix. Elsewhere, she has drawn more hands than makes sense and even two faces, making of the scene a sketch; as though some other possibilities were rejected. The drawing thereby providing a form of proof of exactly what happened in the process. It is clear that although true to life, in many ways these drawings represent a means to look at the question of human desire. We all have nipples. Indeed by representing also the individual hairs of primates along with the wild seventies hair styles of her subjects, including also the pubic hair of both males and females, she has confronted head-on issues which religious and now secular societies have failed to manage: namely how do we stand as one and become the other. In such a social climate, fear and tragedy will surely test even the most respectable of judges.

In one particular drawing, with a provisional title of Group 2, the central figure serves as a force of attraction for the other figures in the picture plane. On either side, this figure is engaged by adult primates, embracing and open to their gaze. Behind the back of each adult primate, adult women breast-feed and otherwise comfort the young as well as the female primate which make up what is overall, a playful, joyous composition. At the knot core of this drawing we are presented with a dual headed, dual shafted erection, which in turn is weighted by dual testes. It is from this heart of the picture plane that every other line extends and reflects without ever filling in the blanks. It is here precisely that nurture begins: the bondage of man and beast.

In the end is death, even for the youngest life. The picture plane is always a reflection and the paintings in 'Crying Light' reflect change. Whether it be the traditional costume or custom or indeed the evocation of an epoch, the works by Natasja Kensmil illustrate these changing attitudes which prop us up and hold us back. The paintings themselves, taken from two different bodies of work, shadow every subject with a murky glaze of requiem and distance, the colour palette too appearing suitably dated. While there are two distinctive sets of work presented, the uniform of aged remorse is bound by Kensmil's painterly style and so dead babies and queens present no challenge to one another, nor science for superstition. And so when this progressing world of charming simplicity is taken over by a swarm of soft black swirls in Crystal Eyes not only is everything not alright, it is terrifyingly real, the smoke of industry billowing a new darkness with it.

As a cast and setting, Kensmil's use of history proposes different stories which make the one world. In Elizabeth I, we are given to understand that the story of the world which this queen commands, is itself yet to be discovered, as though predestination is as absurd as any other context we might observe. Conversely, The Armada Portrait, painted in Elizabethan times by George Gower, reflects with its globe and grasp in favour of politics and power, the picture plane reserved only for symbols and stature. Kensmil's version however supplies a sort of tragic comedy, developed as a layer which resolves eerie greens into the heads of frogs, as though the product of an ectoplasm not seen by Gower, thereby omitted from his painting. Exactly because the original concerns itself with control as the structure and the future, it confuses the richness of humanity for the riches and potency of rule and order. Indeed when looking back at any reflection from the past, all we have at our disposal is fact and suggestions which the facts support.

On the whole, the absurd proves here a useful reminder of the terror of self doubt which even the monarchs of our world must encounter and leaves the various bug-like species which populate the foreground on the left to appear as a reminder of how focus and as such power is all about positioning: the small things which make even the bigger things seem small by comparison. Arresting and prominent, the queen's tiny head sits engulfed by the ruffles of her time, while elsewhere in the picture much larger shapes hang like memories without a place. Even so, the frog heads appear in stages, relating to one another in likeness and difference, as gradually they come to resemble if not a queen, then certainly a subject in their own right. Time as we know passes and the child which she clutches as she holds the sceptre of rule is shown to almost float within a space that can only be expected to grow as her grip loosens. Of this well known subject, the artist has made a fresh and rewarding shadow of the original.

Indeed the breadth of historical influence is itself light and welcoming. As each tale is explored it is revealed in line with both history and experience. And so while even the most intimate of views are presented for us to witness, the effect of a precious use of light and sparingness of colour in turn compose a changing view of revolution. In The Martyrdom of Tsar, where we look up at a masked man on a horse, the horses back stridently bold and beset also with the surrounding skulls of the dead, the image is one of power and we are left in no doubt as to who is responsible. Of course the painter here is also the story teller, illustrating social and scientific revolutions as both informed and obscured by her actions, a turn exemplified in Anatomical Manuscript, where the paint forms a hazy screen through which something of alchemy occurs. 

In the series of paintings entitled Sleeping Beauty, the agonised faces of young children hold their cold black stare as if somehow protected from any further scrutiny or judgement. The faces are painted in short rough brush strokes and their expression is one and the same. They are dead, they could be alive but the pallid greenish hue suggests otherwise. This particular series extends from the fact of infant mortality and draws on the once favoured custom of capturing the image of a dressed corpse. Known as memento mori, the practice translates as 'Remember that you'll die', and it presumably works on the basis that such a document could preserve the life of the dead beyond mere memory. However, in Sleeping Beauty IX, the head of a baby nestles amongst the ruffled lace of an age and there is something which suggests that the subject might as well be a prize cabbage, a thing which although special, perhaps even loved, is now surely long consumed. Decoratively painted in loose gestural marks, the artist has been careful to observe the relevant traditions, and so for the viewer the statement is clearly made. There is little room for feelings though, only remembrance as the means to expose in us a responsibility for life.

Are these paintings of better service to this end than say the actions of you or I? Of course not, but they do operate as part of a texture of reminders set down by the living which mark and indeed warn of the passing of life. Equally, the drawings of Marlene McCarty do not make for much use in the sentencing of murderers, nor do they propose an alternative working of healthy family life. In each case the artist is hoping only that by being responsible for the work, by making the mark and creating where else there was little, actions may continue to show themselves through consequence. If then responsibility is defined by action, it is shown here in both exhibitions that innocence is not clear. Be it the softly erotic pencil lines of McCarty or the bright white tangled brush work of Kensmil’s dead babies, all we can really say is that whatever is found to be useful is carried on into the next. In this way action threatens innocence.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland & Eigse

Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland
Isabel Nolan, Stephen McKenna, Poly Morgan, Dan Hays, Alex Rose, Djordje Ozbolt, Ben Long, Francis Upritchard, Yuriy Norshteyn, Martin Healy and Garrett Phelan. Curated by Stephen Brandes
Eigse Carlow Arts Festival 2013 Visual Art Open Submission
66 individual works selected by Stephen McKenna PPRHA & Emilia Stein RHA
VISUAL, Carlow
7 June – 8 September 2013

Review by Darren Caffrey

In the local sense, festivals and their associate art trails follow the scent of remuneration. Art spaces are key focus points for public expression, and this itself establishes a political content. In a world where natural disasters or even clemency must be quickly guesstimated into a rounded figure of noughts, the show of art in Ireland’s public galleries is, in these terms, a show of worth. This worth is paid for by a series of beneficiaries and sponsors, all of which serve to identify what form expression will take in the public space.

VISUAL in Carlow is currently host to two group shows. While Eigse Carlow Arts Festival 2013 Visual Art Open Submission is almost exactly what it says, Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland is comparatively cryptic. The beasts in question maybe refer to the selected artists, or it may be a reference to the commonplace ecologies of what is local in terms of global citizenship. In fact, this exhibition “considers some of the ways animals have been deployed symbolically within contemporary art practice”.

If you haven't yet been, VISUAL has room for you, boasting as it does of over 3000 metres square of dedicated cultural application. Sitting on the grounds of Carlow College, it too is an instrument of education. Unlike the nearby college, it is a place where the standards of education are not set but rather fluid. At times seemingly trend based and indeed trend biased, contemporary art practice is nothing if not contemporary. John Berger has written well about why we look at animals, contending that “the treatment of animals in 19th century romantic painting was already an acknowledgement of their impending disappearance”. Elsewhere Berger references Levi-Strauss' observations, citing the diversity of species to be employable also as an elective strategy for social differentiation. And so by virtue of the concept of species there arrives the necessity of class.

VISUAL was sited at a time when local commerce had been found in need of a diversification all of its own. In the same year that sketches were released of VISUAL (The National Centre for Contemporary Art and Performance Theatre), Carlow's long standing sugar plant finally closed. Upstairs in the Lobby Gallery, essentially a landing–cum–hallway space, one particular work characterises something of this very contemporary transition. Rosalind Murray's Sugar Woz Ear appears on screen in a work which assumes the clichéd vernacular of youth; married to simple wordplay, as rendered via a performed gesture in front of the camera involving flower petals. A large flat-screen TV stands portal–like before an architecture of industrial scale phwoar, and on screen the wind scatters these petals which spell out the letters, W, O, Z, as if to replay the passing of. While headphones play back the artists own rendition of 70's pop gem Sugar Sugar, the element of wordplay further extends into the narrative itself, leaving as a final shot, the artist standing behind a steel gate in a field of what appears to be rape.

A viability report prior to construction of VISUAL noted that families, tourists, students and firms would be attracted to the town's greater national visibility. Broadly speaking, the development of industry to not only reflect but include the arts generally, and even more specifically the visual arts, has in turn given rise to a redistribution of creative activity. Considering the landscape that is public sector construction, there is no doubt local knowledge about the cost which does not show up in the official rhetoric of projection, yet none of this may be relevant to the facts. It is this framing of everything under the one staggered roof which makes the case for intentionality beyond public expression. So too it is this manner of sf selection which distracts from what might be otherwise useful in asserting a community of artists both locally and nationally.

What Eigse offers to VISUAL is a selection of artists, sourced both locally and nationally, peppered with a few anomalies to force the rule. The five 'invited' artists for this annual show were Gary Coyle, Richard Gorman, Eithne Jordan, Jim Savage and Dorothy Cross, with the bulk of the works contributed by lesser known practitioners. The collection as a whole was standard for a show of this sort but worth mentioning for its collective value and staging. Surely it is right that artistic activity of all kinds be regarded as complimentary to a local identity, and indeed who better than those who live within and work for that very community image.

The works in Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland may all have benefited from being shown according to their respective qualities, utilising perhaps just one wall of the space to create a tableau of cut and paste iconographies, each work a personal affect of sorts. Naturally leaving three walls bare would not reflect the convention and so it is that each work has been taken, only to be drowned soon after. As part of the open submission exhibit presented in conjunction with Eigse, an interestingly titled work by Helen Robbins sees dried lichen and wool fashioned into the shape of a girl's dress, and curiously it all appears to question the nature of selection itself while being simultaneously contained in a wooden box with a glass front. Make me a coat of Rich Moss and I will return to the forest to gather all that I lost is satire in verse while Mens Rea by Mark Leavey is funny, possibly in ways other than intended. Consisting of a child's desk from by-gone parish schooling which has now been reconfigured to more closely serve as a one person pew at which to kneel, the abuse in each case is clear. Directly above this prop a neon light makes explicit the title as well as the actions and inaction from which we might learn. The title of this work is of course latin, translating as literally 'guilty mind', it is also the legal term which refers to criminal intent. On the rest where countless elbows have waited, a switch has been added so that the viewer is responsible for lighting the Mother Mary, so that she may say something of the Christian narrative.

So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” This is the quote arrived upon by researching Veronica Nicolson's 2:15 sign. Simple presentation allied with rich cultural instinct frames this biblical passage as though a statement of the people. The question of why scripture came to be referenced at GAA matches is an interesting one, but whereas the popular JOHN 3:16 sign highlights the main thesis of christianity, namely that Jesus was sent to prove God’s love, here the crucial change is that even Jesus didn’t accept the abuse of the people’s faith.

Sheep and cattle, along with a host of other farm animals were present also when Old Major's rousing speech of revolt opened the first chapter of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland takes its name from a song which follows this speech, the wisdom of the past foretelling of a future choice. If the shows title sets a political tone, the work selected merely rationalises its own fantasy. Produce being the final mark, it is as if producing work for the viewer/consumer is all that either the supplier (artist) or the distributor (gallery/curator) were concerned with. And so in a lustily high-ceilinged space, where filtered light pours in from the top like water, the mark reached by much of the work appears only as unwanted ends which have been afforded far too much space to breathe.

The charge sanctioned to hold the focus of the exhibition and our focus alike is the work of Ben Long, flatly titled Horse Scaffolding Sculpture. Steel and aluminium bars form the basis of what is essentially a hollow evocation of heraldic past. This literal hollowness is also what permits the illusion of depth, as though every sense of its power is visible yet also far out of reach. The stand from which Long's horse figure rears is like the figure itself. Intricately constructed and meticulously worked out in the round, it stands firm against concept, taking of construction only that contact which is bound by structure. The simplicity of its stand suggests that it probably travels well and so it will no doubt rear once more when the show has ended.

In any case, the conceptual shadow which this sculpture ensures leaves even the humble scrappy works below to be found wanting of attention, even empathy. Animals do indeed feature prominently, from the ways we keep them when they’re alive to the ways we keep them when they die, and perhaps more notably, their straightforward likeableness. A mix of paintings and a few photographic prints placed low on the wall to shake things up, the curator perhaps did not consider the work relative to the space until it was too late. The idea of viewers getting down on their hands and knees to see their kind in the heads of horses is perhaps too much, even so, these various works by Alex Rose suffer little.

To be clear, the room swallows everything in one standardised gulp. Effort has been made to reconcile the size issue by staging a sort of school setting where monkeys learn by watching people watching a hedgehog on a quest. The Hedgehog in the Fog is contributed by Yuriy Norshteyn, ( while the monkey assemblages were supplied by Francis Upritchard. The entire presentation of this show may be understood by noting that the monkey figures, fashioned from furs and leather, are forced to compete for your vision with a ventilation grate which cuts their visible space and dispels the making of each monkey into component parts. While seemingly an innocuous intrusion, the resulting separation of these monkeys from character to object appears as contrary to the anthropomorphic act. Given this psychological function, it can only be concluded that the conceptual break serves some higher purpose. What is truly disappointing is that this purpose only appears to concern the monkeys where it is that they fit within the near geometric format of the over all scheme as printed on the gallery handout.

And so that which was laid out has in the end prevailed, order featuring above creative action. The fact that this all takes place in such an exceptional art space as VISUAL is itself an issue beyond the contributing artists, the curator or even the gallery as institution. There is a question regarding animal in man which the economic reality of fabulousness simply does not answer. Perhaps society will soon be capable of accepting that there is no farm in the country, only the fact of death.