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2. 2. 2017.


Brian:      Look, you've got it all wrong!

                You don't NEED to follow ME,

                You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY!

                You've got to think for yourselves!

                You're ALL individuals!

Crowd:    Yes, we're ALL individuals!

Brian:       You're ALL different!

Crowd:     Yes, we're ALL different!

Lone figure in the crowd:       I'M NOT !

(Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, 1979)

I'VE NEVER TRUSTED DEMOCRACY never mind crowds. That said, as a boy I always had the natural inclination of crowding the frame of my play with figures. On first seeing the Chapman Brothers' dioramas of Nazis and Ronald McDonalds swarming the very edges of the vitrines that contained them I thought: these are just boys playing with toy soldiers.

Today I look at the crowd as a walking maul that looks like a brain but acts like a hard-on. Cynical? Perhaps. The Chapmans express the same cynicism of crowds by populating their models with grotesque detail and mass. Popular protests? Banks? Water? Zombies? Sheep? Social media? The attendance at Trump's presidential inauguration? A crowd coming together willingly illustrates that democracy is a process of keeping the splashing/screaming baby and the bathwater together, forever. Where's the struggle, the fun, the life in getting what you want anyway?!

The crowd and art have gone hand-in-hand since the Renaissance – just think of all those saintly congregations in oil paint and stucco. Powerful examples are Correggio's toilet flushes of cherubs going splat on Italian church ceilings. Then there's Hieronymus Bosch's gang-bangs of morality and beastiality. And more recently Andreas Gursky's photographs of insect-bath raves and sweaty financial markets (or should that be sweaty raves and insect-bath financial markets...).

Far from the badly written placards and the political puns, the big talk and the small talk, Joy Gerrard's small drawings and large paintings currently on show at the RHA look down on rallying and protesting crowds from on high. Fluidly but densely expressed in Japanese Ink, the Irish artist presents the gathering crowd in its truest form: cul-de-sac democracy. There's no way out of these monochrome warrens, physically or idealistically. They are merely ink gestures on paper and linen. They cry mark-making; they anticipate the swirl of mascara in the shower after the party is over.

This is especially manifest in Gerrard's large-scale paintings which hold their own and command the scale of the RHA gallery by leaning dramatically on the dark-side-of-the-moon tonal register. Except for a crack here and there in the dense pockets of shadow – demonstrating that these are real objects not just illusory representation – the silky surfaces remind me of Gerhard Richter's Capitalist Realist monochromes of groups of swimsuit models and partygoers. Gerrard further breaks the illusion á la Cezanné when she purposely tilts the perspective of her cartography so roads appear a little off, a little flat – an inch more real.

Like the artist's namesake, the accompanying video work 'shot-crowd' is a Joy to behold. Projected large we are presented with a model city made from Perspex blocks on a white backdrop – pure as snow. Then, as the table is tilted the table is turned as a swarm of small, black ball-bearings flood the scene. The cynic in me laughs and exclaims: ‘Like Cluster Flies born of a carcass, life and death, exits and entrances, it’s all the same difference.’

There's something civilised about being up here in the blue yonder imagining the distant and routine sirens of the workaday city as it goes about its business of closing borders, patting down Muslims and reopening coal mines. Maybe there's the potential thrumming of a news-media helicopter or the squawk of a seagull up here; but, nah... not for the moment. Gerrard's distant but careful gaze really illustrates the splendid detachment of art with not just politics, but with the masses – like gallery foot traffic crowds are just empty stats anyway.

All this looking reminds me of what my mother and perhaps all mothers tell their children, that our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. That sentiment continues to be true of the visual artist. All that matters from up here is, we can imagine with big saucer eyes the open-bar potential rather than the bottlenecked reality of a better society.

Although dedicated to the visual detail, Gerrard has no real notion of the societal minutiae down below. Nobody does. This is the BIG PICTURE after all. As the Victorian era photographer William Henry Fox Talbot observed: "If we proceed to the City, attempt to take a picture of the moving multitude, we fail, for in a small fraction of a second they change their position so much as to destroy the distinctness of the representation." So if intimately knowing and capturing someone is at best guesswork, then what Gerrard offers us up here among the choppers and seagulls is a view. But a view is sometimes more than enough. Much more.

[James Merrigan]

Through March 26.