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I WONDER ABOUT PYROMANIA. The therapist will advise the pyromaniac that stress relief or instant gratification is the psychological nature of their 'strike and ignite' impulse. But the resulting fireworks and ashen remains of their pyrotechnics suggest to me that there's an artist buried in that fiery symptom somewhere burning to get out (if you believe artists to be the sum of their symptoms and sublimations).

I think Caravaggio was a pyro underneath all that chiaroscuro and tenebrism. In the Taking of Christ Caravaggio portrays himself holding a weird Chinese lantern behind the black galvanized heads of two Roman soldiers. Here Caravaggio is playing a clandestine voyeur in one of his own paintings, holding a paint brush in one hand and a match in the other. He is both witness and auteur of a drilled expectancy. 

But it's not Caravaggio I think of when surrounded by the sculptures and wall works of Siobhán Hapaska currently showing at Dublin's Kerlin Gallery, it's his Spanish counterpart, Zurbaran. Especially in what Robert Hughes described as the "extreme spirituality" laying underneath the painter’s holey “realism".

First is Hapaska's overall palette of willow-charcoal-grey with beams of hazard orange and cardinal red. Then it's her forms: heavy, undulating cloth bearing the weight of its material conceit, concrete. Some of the forms look like they are staged, ready to be studied with pencil and paper by young masters. Others are cowled like Philip Guston's KKK, utilising the same volume-making motif of repair patchwork that Guston did: a stitch in time saves nine.

From what I have viewed of Hapaska discussing her work online she is a good storyteller. And like all good storytellers and good artists she is indebted to her memories, which she recounts vividly with verbal acuity, imagination and play. But it is how she imaginatively abstracts her memories into materials that gives her work a resonance, a vibration, that goes deeper than mere design or surface. 

Because, if you haven't read, Hapaska's art over the years has been critically celebrated as functioning on the level of surface. A kind of eulogizing of surface takes place in the verbal descriptions of her work, as if underneath all this cosmetology is an empty husk or cadaver.

There have also been tentative associations made with regard to Hapaska’s Northern Irishness, her Jewishness, not the mention obligatory links to contemporary socio-political traumas. But they are all speculative and searching arrows spluttering in the wind.

What is comfortably vaunted time and again by art writers and in exhibition press releases is the meeting of opposites on the surfaces of her sculptures (I won't list the antonyms here because they have already been done to exhaustion). But what of the ironic soul of Hapaska's sometimes glamorous sculptures; that is, what is beyond the binary analyses and clashes of texture, symbol and use? What is the emotion behind all the surface skirmishes? We can ask the same of Zurbaran’s beautifully crafted but hermetically sealed monks?

Take for instance Hapaska's Love, made of concrete cloth, fibreglass, oak and paint. Whether on the Moon, Mars, or in a pyromaniac's wet dream, the suggestion of two figures – mystics dedicated to their faith or realists to the fate of the Universe – are caught in what looks like a Chinese finger puzzle. Underneath the to-ing and fro-ing I imagine the imagined couple secret an embrace or gasping for life in a world deplete of grace and oxygen. A kiss captured at the moment of immolation? It has all the repercussions and romanticism of pyromania. 

Spirituality – if that's what Hapaska is tapping into through or own brand of realism – bespeaks inner-contentment and happiness, but it is not born of them. What I mean by realism here – as depicted in art – is the carefully rendered tear in the robe of Zurbaran's penitent monk; the broken shoes of Courbet's Stone Breakers; the torn edges of Hapaska’s concrete cloth. Out of wear and tear spirituality springs forth.

From this you could cynically infer that spirituality is embraced when an individual, a society, hits rock bottom ('ashen bottom' in the pyro's case; 'carbonised bottom' in the the case of Hapaska's brutal/subtle wall works). There's a desperate contentment in spirituality, as if the concrete experience of reality becomes too much to deny anymore, and fat, bald, bearded, haloed, winged, immortally ephemeral symbols of faith are the only remaining salvation from the shit after it hits the fan.

Hapaska's current work at the Kerlin is less about the meeting of opposites and more about the safeguarding of one texture or feeling within another. For every one of the artist’s material antonyms there is an emotional synonym ready to break through the exquisite corpse of her art.

[James Merrigan]


Through 4 February.