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4.10.2015.


You Like to Watch, Don’t You.

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19.2.2016.


Boys & Girls

I personally hate flattery—both giving and receiving it. Acts of flattery and criticism is something that I will explore here as an overture to reviewing two exhibitions currently running in Belfast that I experienced a few days ago.


Andy Warhol advised artists not to read their reviews, just weigh them. For the art critic there is always the nagging question, is it better to offer an artist criticism or flattery?1 Which has more weight? I’m not talking about ‘reputational’ weight, I mean holistic weight. Positive reviews come and go, but criticism, lingers. Do artists want to be fat on flattery or sinewy on criticism? Flat-footed or on their toes? 


Where do you go next with flattery anyway? You have to wonder if behind all of today’s fawning flattery there is an element of intentional or unconscious disdain for the intended recipient, which results in you, the flattered, feeling uncomfortable, sick, powerless, pregnant with this bloated thing while stoppered with a plug in every orifice. So what I am going to say next might come across as flattery, which is endemic to Irish art criticism, but it’s something more visceral than that. 


I wrote ‘seminal’ in the visitor book for the current exhibition at Belfast’s Platform Arts. I didn’t mean ‘seminal’—cue Beavis and Butt-head (“huh-huh, huh huh”). I meant SEMINAL! It’s probably arrogant or stupid of me to proclaim an up-and-running exhibition that has had no time to breathe ‘seminal’, because who’s to know how this exhibition will influence later developments. 


Perhaps what I’m attempting to suggest by seminal is that this exhibition is (to my mind) the culmination and most concrete manifestation of recent developments that has seen a burgeoning climate of all-female-driven discourse, protest and solidarity around notions of power and ‘patriarchy’—a word that has become ubiquitous and pervasive on social media platforms in relation to all-female exhibitions and events. 


Aside from successive tidal waves of feminism (are we fourth or fifth wave now?) the plain fact is (as I see it) Irish female artists are making and exhibiting art that is—collaboratively and collectively—generally more visceral, critical and seductive, and on a fundamental level, more exciting than their male counterparts. 


I don’t say this to flatter feminism or become a WOOHOO girl, it’s just something I have experienced, starting in the college degree shows and expanding outward into public art spaces, artist-run spaces and even the boy’s club of private galleries. For instance, in my annual video review of Dublin Degree Shows on +billion- (SHITLIST), 9 out of 12 graduating artists turned out to be female in 2013, and 8 out of 10 in 2014.


After taking stock of my recent written art reviews which also show a gender imbalance going the wrong way as society sees it and history tells it, which could be a sign that more and more female artists are exhibiting in Dublin, I then came across The Guardian art critic Adrian Searle criticising Charles Saatchii for lumping 14 female artists together in the recent exhibition ‘Champagne Life’ with no apparent curatorial reason for doing so.2 Then, Gemma Tipton’s ‘people to watch in 2016’ in The Irish Times included just two (female) visual artists, Caoimhe Kilfeather and Genieve Figgis (albeit Figgis, up in the distant stratosphere by now, was a safe bet two years ago). 


This was followed by Aileen Murphy and Kathy Tynan exhibiting together in the opening exhibition of 2016 at Dublin’s Kevin Kavanagh Gallery. Two emerging female painters exhibiting at a commercial gallery in Dublin shouldn’t have looked out of place, but for me, it was a big statement. And it’s important to note the origins of the Kevin Kavanagh show which started back in early 2015 at Dublin’s Pallas Projects where 13 female artists (including Murphy and Tynan) came together in the group exhibition ‘Panorama’ (one less artist than ‘Champagne Life’ but a seemingly similar slippery motive). 


But it was the string of all-female group exhibitions at the beginning of this year that got me thinking about gender and art. There was Eleanor Duffin, Caoimhe Kilfeather and Barbara Knezevic at Solstice Arts Centre; and Victoria J Dean, Niamh O’Doherty and Laura Smith at Galway Arts Centre.


All this on the heels of the ‘16 X 16: New Generations bursuries’ announcement at the President’s house in December 2015, which included 8 visual artists, 7 of whom were female. And then just last week, art critic Cristín Leach wrote in a review of Sheila Rennick’s solo exhibition at Dublin’s Hillsboro Fine Art that “The best of them [Irish painters] are doing figurative work that challenges our notions of seduction, and perhaps that is why the best of them are women.”3 Bold, but true.


Which brings me back to Platform Arts and 6 female artists: Saoirse Wall, Tara McKeon, Kerry Guinan, Avril Corroon, Eimear Walshe and Renèe Helèna Browne, and what I have already suggested as their seminal exhibition ‘Knowledge and other myths’. Although this can be intimately viewed as a show of individual moments that are both funny and political, visceral and seductive, what makes this show seminal is how it can be perceived from a distance. 


Let’s take for instance the concurrent all-male exhibition at Belfast’s Catalyst Arts, ‘This is Water’, with Simon Cummins, Paul Hallahan and Lee Welch. ‘This is Water’ is an exhibition that also plays with collaboration and collectivity, but in more abstract ways. 


On the opening night I ventured in to Catalyst on the bell of 6pm (hoping to avoid the exhibition entourage) to find the ‘Catalysts’ and a few early birders in the gallery before, I suspect, a larger audience and the three artists would convene later. 


In contrast to the Platform exhibition which is brazenly representational (something I will explain later), at Catalyst the transition from individual to collective is smoother and in flux. I think this is due in no small part to the group’s evolving abstract aesthetic (they have shown together before). 


Mr Hallahan’s Everything changes but nothing stands still, a three-channel projected video of a ‘Highway to Heaven’ celestial space—somewhere between sky and cloud—stands face-to-face in self-reflection and self-reproduction. While Mr Cummins, the man behind the pissy toilet light that filters through the space, has also dressed the four pillars in the space in brutal red lagging jackets, badly. 


But it is Mr Welch’s wall-confetti of ‘hallelujah’ blue and gold satin emulsion that seals this exhibition in, as a celebratory and nostalgic avant garde moment. Sincerely titled It began as a mistake, Mr Welch’s paint job commandeers the walls like tester pots that have revolted against rejection and ill-use. 


The artist did something similar at Dublin’s NCAD Gallery last year but here, at Catalyst, amid the rough transitions of artist-run architecture and threesome intervention Mr Welch’s abstract splodges of paint help sieve out the information piecemeal so an awareness of individuality is piecemeal, if at all. The same way Georges Seurat’s dots became Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte in 1884, Mr Welch’s elaboration of an ‘accident’ is filled with an immensely creative exploration of intuition and an awareness of intention. ‘This is Water’ is all about the punctuation marks, left free to their own devices with no full stop......  


This avant garde feeling on the opening night was compounded by the introduction of a record player playing American minimalist composer Terry Reily’s 1969 album A Rainbow In Curved Air (an audio-scape that I’m not sure, but hope, continues playing during the daylight run of the show?).


The opening night re-imagined my book and video experiences of the late 1960s/’70s New York avant garde art scene at night, the twilight hour of anti-establishment and feminism in the arts, before the art market hi-jacked the New York art scene in the ’80s. 


In a film review of the recent David Foster Wallace (DFW) biopic The End of the Tour, American author D.T. Max observed that “Wallace’s books and the public perception of his personality have seemed for some time headed in opposite directions: one reaching for a spiritual purity, the other deeply enmeshed in the problematic and human”.


This fork in the road of public perception concerning DFW and his work, whose commencement speech delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 (which everyone should experience: see YouTube) is explicitly referenced in ‘This is Water’ at Catalyst, and whose metamodernist tome Infinite Jest is referred to in Tara McKeon’s video work Weejy Weejy at Platform, also sums up the fork in the road that we are faced with in these two exhibitions. 


Although one branch of this fork is foggy at Catalyst, the road is clear at Platform. Like Mr Cummins, Mr Hallahan and Mr Welch, this is also the second co-curated exhibition by these 6 female artists. As mentioned earlier regarding the brazen representation performed in ‘Knowledge and other myths’ in contrast to the fuzzy abstraction of ‘This is Water’, well, ‘This is Water’ is gratifyingly gummy, whereas ‘Knowledge and other myths’ has teeth. 


There is a bite to the artists’ shared conviction and resolution of upturning the “indoctrination of patriarchal values”. And while there is no full stop at Catalyst there are plenty here. There’s a ‘point’ to this art; or points being made by the artists through parody, history, abjection, and an actual electoral ‘Liberate Art’ campaign by Kerry Guinan (which just this week went from artworld ether to public realm—kind of—in a live press conference at Dublin's Temple Bar Gallery + Studios (TBG+S)).


The distinction between politics proper and art is fuzzy in regards to the contrast between Miss Guinan’s static promo- and info-display at Platform and Miss Guinan’s live press conference broadcast from TBG+S via Ustream last Monday. Sure, politics is theatre, and Miss Guinan gives us lots of solo-posturing in a campaign manifesto that replaces false promises, but it lacks, dare I say it, ambivalence and modesty. 


It’s like an art parody of what we now recognise as ‘parody politics’ with serious consequences. It’s also something a male artist like Mondrian might do in the early twentieth century with one of those dumb manifestos about what painting is and is not: no grey areas. You can perhaps take a leap of faith here and say it’s a parody of power and the men that wield it? But my personal interest in Miss Guinan’s ‘Liberate Art’ campaign ends at art and doesn’t even begin with political administration—this is not House of Cards. Well, not yet anyway.


Some of the individual artworks that are theatrically spotlit in the same room at Platform become whispers in headphones or are swallowed up by Miss Guinan’s political rhetoric and bluster. But if you listen and read closely you will find that they are rich with humour, hidden histories and entertaining mythologies. 


Avril Corroon and Renèe Helèna Browne have constructed what looks like a tall, timber lifeguard chair with black and yellow trim, echoing Miss Guinan’s campaign colours. This can be read as a nod and wink to their campaigning peer, or, because I initially put chair with campaign, help to abstract Miss Guinan’s representational message. 


Miss Carroon and Miss Browne have also collaborated on a tongue and cheek video work titled Masterpiece. Considering the overriding frustration towards patriarchal society expressed and performed by the artists at Platform, the title Masterpiece sums it up really. Masterpiece is in essence an absurdist instructional video on “how to make your very own masterpiece” by bonding horse hoof, egg and bone. The step-by-step cookery guide is combined with anecdotal garnish that points to Renaissance Man and biographer to the male-artist-superstars, Vasari. 


The ironical tone is continued in Tara McKeon’s video work Weejy Weejy, which is centred around the myth of the Weejy Weejy, a bird that has just “one wing which causes it to fly in tighter, faster, smaller circles, until it disappears up its own fundament [its arse]”. This Weeji Weejy bird’s ever-decreasing circle into itself becomes, in the end, a metaphor for protest against progress. 


Miss McKeon’s video work is rich with oddball myths and notions about what it is to be a woman in society: there’s the story of the Roman goddess of fortune, Fortuna, who was drawn to adventurous and risk-taking men because she, a woman, was naturally cautious; there’s the notion of the hard body of treadmill-capitalism vs. the soft body of motherhood; there’s the social shame of the spinster, unmarried, childless and of no use to society as we see it; there’s the belief that the wingless Dodo was satanic and birds that eat rice blow up—watch out China.


Then we come to Eimear Walshe’s architectural symbol of female exclusion and resistance. Window Restoration is a freestanding, stained-glass window recovered and donated to Miss Walshe, who has put it on public display for the first time in 50-years at Platform. In a dark recess the work is spotlit so the light paces through the glass to stain the floor with the window’s decorative elements and the strange inscription “neutra”, latin for ‘neither’. 


Miss Walshe’s accompanying booklet outlines ‘The Queer History Of A Stained Glass Window Originally Designed For The Long Hall Pub Dublin’. We are told that The Long Hall Pub was a “man-only space until 1951” but it was “permitted” for women to use the adjoining hallway where they were served smaller glasses through a hatch. The history is bubbling with moments of female solidarity and resistance. The idea that the window was installed in the hallway with the inscription ‘neutra’, marking it as a “space of gender neutrality”, is hopeful. 

 

Although Saoirse Wall’s voice can be heard while experiencing the artworks of her peers in the large space at Platform, her video work Sticky Encounter is out of view behind an anemic pink curtain. In 2013 Miss Wall’s video work for her degree show at NCAD was the absolute highlight. I noted then, as I do now, Miss Wall’s “striking physiognomy” and “performative timing” on camera. 


Filmed presumably in situ at Platform with the pink curtain used as scene backdrop, Miss Wall wears an equally anemic blue dress, sitting on a sickly white plastic office chair on wheels. The wheels help the artist to glide gradually towards the camera. Miss Wall coyly presents her invisible, internal symptoms to an imagined doctor, until the observer, face-to-face with the camera lens, is pulled down into an endoscopic view of the artist’s tonsils. Miss Wall’s art is anything but anaemic.


Frustratingly, sometimes it’s easier to side with irony over sincerity—it’s a contemporary condition that keeps flapping its wings. What DFW said about irony in relation to protest could ruffle a few feathers: “Someone once called irony the song of a bird that has come to love it’s cage, And even though it sings about not liking the cage it really likes it in there.” But there is also the suggestion made by Miss McKeon in her video narrative that the Weejy Weejy is happy chained to its own ass. 


These two exhibitions at Platform and Catalyst cannot be experienced in isolation, or shouldn’t be, because within the relational frame of timing and gender one infuses the other with energy and context. ‘This is Water’ is a celebration of abstraction and filtered individuality; ‘Knowledge and other myths’ is a celebration of representational protest against the social order. At Catalyst Mr Welch’s ability to elaborate on an ‘accident’ to create an experience that is abstract enough to break down representation and individuality should be intimidating to other artists (how’s that for flattery!). Miss Wall’s ability to simply make performance believable is not something that you can learn. 


Generally, I think we have to question our loves, not the promiscuous likes, loves and favourites on social media, but love as a confused and visceral response to art rather than a fair-weather one. There is something ubiquitous and habitual about flattery, but that thing (let’s call it a ‘thing’ rather than love) I experienced at Belfast’s Platform Arts and Catalyst Arts the other day was anything but habitual. That thing, their art, broke habits. 


[James Merrigan]


‘This is Water’ ends today 19 Feb.

‘Knowledge and other myths’ ends tomorrow 20 Feb.




Notes

1. To my mind the flattered artist transforms into the doe-eyed-deer (‘aw shucks’, replies the self-conscious teenager in the movies). The criticised, self-assured artist becomes prickly and self-conscious—even self-aware. The response ‘I’m flattered' (if you watch movies or TV melodramas like I do) is usually followed by ‘but...’. And what about those artists who are tamed by flattery, like those one-time writers who achieved breakthrough first and only novels: Harper Lee and her lonely To Kill a Mocking Bird, J.D. Salinger’s isolated The Catcher in the Rye, Emily Bronte’s spinsterish Wuthering Heights. Flattery is homicide. 

    So every time I experience an exhibition that approximates love I have to ask the question: what is my intention in professing that feeling in the act of art criticism? Do I want to destroy the artist with what may be perceived as empty flattery.

    I’m always afraid that when you flatter the artist what you are really saying is ‘I am on top of your art... Your art doesn’t challenge my sense of taste... it doesn’t challenge anything... I get it... move on’.

    Is flattery a form of subjugation? Is that our motive for pronouncing our love for something? Love said is always a disappointing second to love felt. People talk about different loves for different things: your husband, your wife, your family, your children, your friends, even your dog. But what I am talking about here is something that could as easily offend one’s sensibilities as ingratiate them. Real love fucks with your sensibilities. But the smitten art critic in love with the exhibition can only become a disappointing review? Right?

    As artists we tend to bathe in criticism and dry ourselves off of flattery. I think artists are spurned on by criticism, or should be. While the flattered artist is ‘stuck’—validation is riddled with msg. Love in its visceral manifestation is something that, sometimes, we want to divorce, shake off. It can be torture, but always an unsaid torture, held in the pit of your stomach—sometimes turning to butterflies and other times to shit. 

    Unlike the proliferation of ‘Like’ there is something visceral and critical about love in relation to art. It comes with an emoji of hate—as the cliché goes... you don’t have to like someone to love them. 

    The person that loves an artwork and cannot move either side of love into something more manageable, like ‘like’ or even hate, there is a sense that subjectivity is taking over and, moreover, ownership being confessed or professed by the smitten lover. When I love specific artworks, or worse still, an artist’s body of work, I feel dirty, because it’s like the artist has got on my skin rather than under it. 


2. Adrian Searle: [http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jan/12/champagne-life-review-all-female-exhibition-saatchi-no-feminist]

3. Cristín Leach, ‘Winning ugly: Messy painters capture the dirty realities of modern life’, The Irish Sunday Times, published: 7 February 2016.

[http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/ireland/article1664604.ece]

4. DT Max, ‘Why David Foster Wallace should not be worshipped as a secular saint’, published: 9 October 2015. [http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/09/david-foster-wallace-worshipped-secular-saint]

SAOIRSE WALL, STICKY ENCOUNTER (film still), 2016, PLATFORM ARTS, BELFAST.