Migration, Memory, Mimesis, at Linen Hall Library, Belfast, September 5-28, 2018

Displayed on the walls of the stairwell and in cabinets on landings are photographs by Lynne Connolly, Moira McIver, and Mo White.

Lynne Connolly manipulates her lens-based or digital images by stitching and texts, some end up like small books or paper houses. Her work focuses my eye on the charming and sensually rich crafts,  even when dealing with a hostility experienced by her central subjects, citizens of Northern Ireland’s “absence of representation of identity”. (see https://lynneconnollyphotography.wordpress.com).

Significantly, in one of her reviews, she proposed that the visual is better than words in slipping into viewers’ consciousness and staying in their memory,  in the sense that and how it rejects questioning of the image’s truthfulness.  I cherished her addition: “… only if we really see, what we are looking at”.

“Everything can be taken from a man,” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his  treatise on the search for meaning“but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Even the political simplifications of reporting do have their visual equivalent. So the choice of one’s attitude is open-ended.

This is my first contact with Connolly’s visual art. An overwhelming saturation of memory with familiar modes like boxes made by stitching together old photographs and leporellos and other kinds of folded pages came swiftly to my aid.

Her folding books (looking like my childhood leporellos)  are also toy houses, one exhibits an image from her other work

 

Printed on the pages are both words an images, aiming to exhume hope from under despair. She says she likes a “happy ending”. Connolly is a writer of stories, some of which she then “translates” into images, that are aimed to be not just “added”  illustrations.

On her university page she states inter alia: I am interested in the use of constructed imagery to explore meaning….  

While her objects and images slip into a world of playful sweetness through an assembly of not-quite-from this-world-high-keys they are rooted in fragments of that intention.

For me, she visualises kindness in its many appearances and stages.  Perhaps because she indeed aims at “happy endings”.

MO WHITE: KITCHEN ACCOUNTS (2012)

are records of a performance to a camera held by Lynne Connolly (see the artist’s handout).

The series entertains a visualization of similarity and difference as if reading Plato on Demiurge in Timaeus.  The sameness of the set-up introduces a rigorous, cold examination room only formula. It does not explore all the methods of creation Plato mentions.

The words printed under the serene visual composition appear to be superfluous, a sign of unnecessary dependency on the verbal.  On the other hand, they are meant to protect the integrity of the artist’s intention, thus ensuring competition with the dignity of viewing.

White writes that the series has roots in the Irish diaspora to England, specifically the 1950s generation “who were unable to assimilate”.   This claim is not otherwise supported by the images.

(It is also not supported by my experience of teaching in the Middle school where the majority of staff and pupils were recent additions from Northern Ireland, escaping from the Troubles.  They assimilated easily, whereas the treatment of  children from Jamaica drove their fathers to leave the UK.  The Irish boys ruled.)

There is a fundamental dignity in the openness of visual art (not necessarily the artist) to various interpretations and not every intention succeeds without being challenged by real life.

Remy Debes offers elucidation of our problem with dignity:

 And yet, the idea of human dignity is beset by hypocrisy. After all, our Western ethos evolved from, and with, the most violent oppression. For 200 years, we’ve breathed in the heady aspirations of liberty and justice for all, but somehow breathed out genocide, slavery, eugenics, colonisation, segregation, mass incarceration, racism, sexism, classism and, in short, blood, rape, misery and murder. It shocks the imagination.  (https://aeon.co/essays/human-dignity-is-an-ideal-with-remarkably-shallow-roots)

White chose the severe classicist discipline of clarity and order.  In a row on the wall she mimes small acts while sitting behind the table.

I value the intensity and power of visual thought, of what is made visible while preferring to ignore the verbal directive.  The text dilutes the meaning of the visual thought, it directs my response.  It curtails my freedom to relate to the visual directly.  There is a strong symbolic meaning issued through the choice of colours: green background, pristine white empty page,  and the gray subdued I of the sitter.

White’s severe discipline of planning, of order, and the clinical cleanliness evoke clear, incisive images –  the exactitude  compared by ancient Egyptians to  the “fundamental note of the flute” ( as in Italo Calvino, Six memos , p.55)

In practical life it feels like a call to start again from the blank page.

MOIRA McIVER

The two of her photographs have words in Irish attached.  That means that I do not know what they mean. An experience  similar to my looking at Chinese ink paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Arabic illustrated manuscripts etc.

However, for Irish speakers those words have strong emotional associations, I observed.

Making a particular language a condition for “getting” the tenor of a visual / aesthetic trope is a dubious advantage, connected to an inherited divide. McIver tailors words to memory, moreover, uses them sparingly. She kindly translated some for me – they had an easy power to subvert expectation signalled by the image of the child, or of the celebrating a religious rite. Issued a light touch.

In the vitrine, she arranged images from different periods of her practice.  All are visual equivalents of known and anonymous, two of her preferred dualities.

In her thesis submitted for the Higher Research Degree  she writes:

…present and absent elements are equally valid, moreover, they are necessary for diminishing integration and emphasising oscillation and cross-over.  (see Moira McIver, Traces of Self, Between Practice and Theory, May 1996: 180) It is the same open-ended character familiar from poetry.

Her art does live within the riches and confines of visual thoughts, which overcome at least some of the boundaries that divide people and lifetimes.

In a vitrine (above)  she installed some older work for surprisingly up-to-date- realism infected by whimsical framing, e.g. the cowhide morphs into a  view down through the gaps in clouds when the flying or viewing snow on rocky mountains from above…

The animation is as spontaneous as seeing may be, and perception, at times, is.  The gently enjoyable reminder of the richness of play.

McIver demobilizes habit by juxtaposing different found images, or, in the image below, by adding a restricted comment.  A few painterly touches on the girl in white look like being made by time collaborating by chance with the atmosphere.

Her focus on memories started in her undergraduate work. It was her fascination with and respect for her family roots in Donegal that nourished her lifelong devotion to memory and history as a subject for her art practice.  Early on she selected four strategies for visibility:  overlap, oscillation, merging and obliteration.  Not to get drowned in Self she fondly cherished dualities, eg unique versus similar, and singular versus multiple, and further eight pairs of expressive dualities to match the visual code to the source.

The photographs in the vitrine illustrate flattening of the depth of space – the cowhide is almost flat, so is the “necklace” of fish.  They also revive the older strategy of the juxtaposition of the fragment as a whole (hands),  favoured by McIver both in her videos and photography.

Her work refuses to fit its own date, in a sense that the decades between the take and the current print do not influence the meaning.  Such a light touch of time, this frivolous play with uncertainty, is never allowed to dissipate the whole.  Her mastery of these complex phenomena is visible both in her close-ups and video loops.  It seems appropriate to summarise her art practice only with the complex concept entertained by Leonardo: mute poetry.   McIver never betrays that.

 

Images courtesy the artists. Installation shots by Moira McIver.

 

 

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Sharon Kelly, Mind Fuel, The Crescent Gallery, Belfast, 27th Aug – 8 Sept 2018

Sharon Kelly introduces the viewer to her exhibition by a brief paragraph on the gallery handout:

“The seeds for the MIND FUEL project began in the closing stages of the World Championship 24 Race held in Belfast Victoria Park in July 2017, a race in which competitors run continuously for 24 hours. The race organizer and director, Ed Smith, had invited me to engage as the race Artist in Residence…”

As a keen runner herself, she accepted the invitation from the organizers and made over 40 sketches then.   In 2918 she stayed for the whole 24 Hour Race, and recorded the Endurance runners, in drawing and interviews.  She also added video.

The Long Path, 2018, video, 7mi 1 sec . Shot, directed and edited by Éanna Mac Cana

The sentence The Solitude is the Comfort  comes from an interview.

Kelly’s observations, and numerous sketches of people taking part in both the World Championship 24 Race  (2017) and Belfast 24 Hours Race (2018) fill all three gallery rooms and the corridor.

Sketch from race day Belfast 24, 2018, charcoal, 40x30cm

For some time – at least since 2013 when she made The Liminal Space of the Runner –  Kelly reflected on the similarity between drawing and running:

Table Sketches, 2018

“finding something out of nothing and that both running and art can take you to another space – it is a force that involves heart, head, and hand (body) just as it is in the process of drawing… trusting your instinct, finding focus – an expression of energy and passion” (her statement on the gallery handout print).

As if new forms of self-knowledge and respect for nature were born from similar sources, a mixture of endurance and exhilaration fired by an intention to dissolve one’s ego in a kind of resonance.

Shared aesthetics of a calm respect for visible truth within each image unifies the different sizes and media, not just in the series of Table sketches (2018, mixed media).

 

Hidden Connection, 2018, ink on watercolour board, 38x56cm

The appearance of cut-outs,  the stark choice of what is visible and what is erased by the ink, accommodates the altruism of three runners. The black and white contrast visibly carves the pain of an exhausted and unwilling body as if out of the light behind the black surface.  The bodies appear in front of it.  The tree in that background marks that light as the will to go on,  as sublime nature, as energy.  The powerful constructs of hiatus and foregrounding secure the truth of the experience in a remarkably chaste use of poetics.

The simile born from both observation and memory forges such truth through confident verism in some other drawings.   The drawing below is a convincing transfer of the dynamics of moving into a still fragment, overcoming the need for “correct” proportions.

Stride, 2018, crayon, ink, 40 x 30cm

There are two lens-based exhibits both edited by Kelly’ son, the young film maker Éanna Mac Cana: Stop Motion Drawing animation of Kelly drawing a head etc.  The other is the video Mac Cana shot, directed and edited: The Long Path (2018).  

It includes the technical background to such events as well as inventive shots of runners behind trees, on the pathways.  The trees erase the chance of identification of the persons taking part, instead, they offer the feeling of two kinds of togetherness:  with the people involved in the race, and with nature willingly embracing it all with dignified disinterest.

In a  series of eight powerful ink drawings  With My Breath (2018, each 38x28cm) Kelly maps the stages of growing fatigue. Usually, her forte is a sensitive and sensual charcoal mark viewing carefully every detail, whereas in this “confession”  the brush stroke and the selection of hue are brutally resolute carving details from the observed real.  Reminiscent of Goya’s portraits of physical and mental pain.  Kelly’s (red and) black paintings?

That intensity of conflict between will and nature is somewhat hidden when she revives her classic way of grading, modulating blacks and greys. The observed reality is subsumed into the distance measured between verism and abstraction.

The deliberate, honest and intimate,  insecurity in the drawing of the left hand in her large drawing below, reminds me of Alberto Giacometti’s complaints.

The Signal, 2018, charcoal, 57×76 cm

The moment before the move.

Giacometti complained about his insecurity when he worked on the portrait of his brother.   His drawings also contain evidence of his sensitive mapping of the gap between the visible and the perceived.

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Images courtesy of Sharon Kelly.

Travis Somerville and Ian Cumberland at Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, 04.08 – 22.09 2018

The gallery calls it a “simultaneous solo exhibitions” connected to “the current themes (….) explored by the GTG  2018 – 2019 programme of approaching ways of looking” (Gallery handout). Like Humpty Dumpty I – you- GTG may  give those words different meaning. One is that the gallery programme aims to present some distinct ways of looking. But – by who? The curator? The artist? The viewer? Is it not always the case?  Seduced by the 20th C obsession with “la différence”, often that becomes the main value.  However, these exhibits allow for sameness to enter.

Travis Somerville, Invasion, 2017, graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet issues gas mask and bag, 118x96cm
Travis Somerville, Invasion, 2017, graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet issues gas mask and bag, 118x96cm

Painting or drawing a person transmutes a sentient person into an inanimate object. Nevertheless, verism holds on to more of the “soul”.  Nothing new about that. Look at Gentile Bellini’s self- portrait, how similar his way of looking at the live body is to that of Somerville above. I am not suggesting the debt of the younger to the older artist. Rather, a comparison of pose and modelling illustrates that the ways of looking do not depend on temporal context. Whereas, using vintage cotton pick sack as a ground, does, as do references to a Soviet gas mask and bag.

Gentile Bellini, Self-portrait, 1496 -97
Gentile Bellini, Self-portrait, 1496 -97

Bellini also added accessories in a portrait of another:  In line with the trends in European portraiture of the time, Bellini depicted the sultan in resplendent detail, his three-quarter profile framed by an illusionistic archway.

Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Sultan Mehmet, 1480
Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Sultan Mehmet, 1480

Mehmet is also represented by the trappings of Islamic authority: His red caftan and luxurious fur mantle are accompanied by a headdress (a wrapped turban over a red taj) that indicates his rank and religious identity; a piece of jewel-encrusted Ottoman embroidery hangs down the front of the frame; and the three crowns of Constantinople, Iconium, and Trebizond flank him on each side.

Travis Somerville, Exiled, 2017, Graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet soldiers epaulets, 106.7 x 96.5 cm
Travis Somerville, Exiled, 2017, Graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet soldiers epaulets, 106.7 x 96.5 cm

Quite a few “samenesses” between the then and now.

I am not sure that the double meaning is intentional in the terms GTG prints in its handout: “approaching ways of looking” – from where? to whom? by what? Are ways of looking distinct from ways of seeing? 

The verbs seeing, looking and watching, situate each activity in subtly different realms of attention and meaning.  In life and in art. Yet – what I see  I perceive as a process to make visible – even, particularly,  the invisible, e.g. empathy, fear, insecurity.  Human condition.

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Travis Somerville, This Land, 2017, graphite on vintage cotton pick sack, appr 256.5 x 133.3. cm

Drawing and painting, both have near hypnotising capacity to find correspondence between a fleeting perception and the unmovable marks on the ground. Between seeing and naming.  Between observed and made up.  I recall  Paul Klee: “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.”

Therefore, thinking of the art, I tend to replace the words “ways of looking”  with “ways of making visible”.

In the above drawing, the fatal experience of being “lost at sea” between escape and arrival arrests the retrieval of that experience in one moment.  While the reality is inherently fugitive.  As is generally the case with visual perception.  It may imprint on memory if my eidetic memory is good.  The rest is, as Balzac pointed out,  indéfinissable.

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On the image immediately above – a challenging 8-part painting by Travis Somerville that echoes Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, with its political charge. The Raft, 2016, demands to fragment perception into a stream of many partial views, resisting offering one all-embracing one.

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Travis Somerville, The Raft, 2017, Oil on Canvas 8 sections, 67 in. x 126 in.

It successfully transfers to me the impossibility of grasping it as a whole.  Like any of Breughel’s “tableaux”.  The event’s dynamic is not susceptible to one dominant view. This ragged composition mediates an experience of being inside a story.   There is no sign of the order of Alberti’s disegno.  Instead, the colours weep, accuse, make hope not to be swallowed by dark waves. The darkness of what it is they collectively make visible.

The choice of painting it in fragments removes the narrative from sliding into sentimental historical drama. Instead, it revives a mechanism of restraint akin to  Zola’s “j’accuse”… and hits hard the central issue:  the tragedy strikes and unfolds, strikes and unfolds … its duration unpredictable.  Homeland Insecurity  mirrors the experience as it would be lived,  a part after a part.

 

Mediation of reality by subverting the convention by control and absurdity appears in a display of the five exhibits by Ian Cumberland  in Gallery One.

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The title A common fiction appears both ironic and wondrous.  Is it a futile literalism that turns a portrait into a genre, à la Pieter Breughel the Elder? Just with one person, not as many as the 16th painter would do.  Or is it turning a portrait into a still life?

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The first “tableau” includes a carpet covering the floor, also painted on the panel with a fallen man. Suspended from a rough wooden support on the painting’s dorso, the body is seen from its back,  moving its head slightly now and then, movement afforded by the virtue of lens-based media.

Higher up on the wall, two video screens run information about various health issues.

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The All Consuming Selfie (2918)   presents a tromp l’oeil of the carpet around the hyperrealist (photorealist) rendering of the body. The painting and its support are the mute, unmovable parts.  The faith in the power of the painted image is immediately undermined by screens with words on the wall and projection of the pose of the man seen from the back.  Is it a pleonasm? Is it needed because the trust in mute poetry is waining? Matching up the two modes of representation cannot escape the dominance of “la différance” in the perception of visual images and text.

Adrian Navarro (Boston, 1973. Living and working in London)  pointed to a paradox inherent in painting practice.

“Man is an alienated being who thinks he is free. The same thing happens with painting, it is a free and expressive medium whose aim is the communication of a view of the world, where that freedom is not possible. This is the paradox I try to represent. “

Cumberland also explores the dichotomy between confinement and freedom inherent in painting and by focusing on a figure,  extended to the human being.

Ian Cumberland, Boom and Bust, 2017/18, oil on linen, video.
Ian Cumberland, Boom and Bust, 2017/18, oil on linen, video.

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To a certain extent, the installations are similar to still life.  The presence of the human being does not violate the terms of still life, as formulated by 17th C Dutch paintings.  Hypnotic ambivalence erases any chance of hebetude. Like Paul Cezanne, the painter is first true to the motif, but after that he plays with omens of impermanence.  Spark -germinate-unravel.  There are clues in brushtrokes and in attachments of real objects: flag, cage, wood, neon, carpet….

Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent (detail), 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm
Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent (detail), 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm
Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent, 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm
Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent, 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm

Quiet confrontations of representational accuracy and installed objects create less dissonance than the sudden “blind” gris-en-gris divided brushstrokes. Could be intentional or not. Make me think of decay.

Objects are there as if the painting needed them.  As if without them it would be incomplete.  Their “reality” results in estrangement of the painted part.  The question arises – what kind of alienation is that?

Ian Cumberland, False Flags 2018, oil on linen, mixed media
Ian Cumberland, False Flags 2018, oil on linen, mixed media

Marxism  defines alienation as hiatus between the worker and the product of work.  That’s not the case here.  Bertold Brecht established that estrangement enhances criticality and awareness.

That is applicable to these exhibits.  The caged painting and the woman’s gesture align to indicate a court procedure. Only to be undermined by the domestic setting behind her.  So this alienation is both similar and different from Brecht’s proposition.

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Ian Cumberland, Get the look, 2027-18, oil on linen, neon
Ian Cumberland, Get the look, 2027-18, oil on linen, neon

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Handwritten over the above  painting is the cost of each item in GBP, e.g. material, the model, etc.

Listing the model is a significant marker, that the painter works in the European tradition  – not the newer way of using photographs or video or cinema stills.

That leads me to conclude that this painter defends representational figurative painting by wishing it, letting it, win a competition with real objects.  That is, what I sense to be foregrounded. Through exposing it to estrangement, alienation works like Shklovsky’s foregrounding or defamiliarisation.

In his 1917 text Art as Technique he distinguishes poetic language from ordinary language :

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” (Shklovsky 16)

Cumberland  moves in the world of common reality, such as the animation of inanimate objects, but evolves defamiliarizing the viewer and provoking an uncanny feeling.

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The slowing down of perception ( like the smear of the blind blue-grey of the pills onto the hand) injects energy into a physical system of paint to “originate” difference, change, value, motion, presence.  Making painting strange (e.g. both by tromp l’oeil of the carpet and confrontation with real carpet) motivates comparison and recognition of “la différance”…

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Images courtesy Simon Mills and Golden Thread Gallery.