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Extended Essays – Various Exhibitions, Limerick City Gallery of Art Exhibitions Catalogue, 2015

March 17, 2015

Limerick City Gallery of Art (27th November 2014 – 8th January 2015)






Artists Rooms : Michael Canning and Gillian Kenny curated by Ailbhe Barrett
Collecting & Curating Limerick City’s Art 1936 – 2014 curated by Dr. John Logan

John Shinnors New Paintings
Andrew Kearney The Meaning of Nothing

As is the norm with presentations of gallery collections, it is often possible for gallery visitors to view artworks that they might have encountered before, during previous exhibitions. It can be interesting to revisit works in this way, thus experiencing them afresh, reconfigured somehow, depending on the persuasions and curiosities of respective curators. Cognisant of the rich history of LCGA’s Permanent Collection, Dr. John Logan selected a range of works for the exhibition Collecting & Curating Limerick City’s Art 1936 – 2014. His accompanying text imbued the exhibition with an archival function, tracing and making visible the evolution and historical trajectories of both the collection and the institution itself – a perspective I enjoyed immensely.
Overall this was a worthwhile task which was rationally executed, resulting in the robust juxtaposition of older canonical artworks alongside lesser-known or modern acquisitions. From the intimacy of small figurative sketches and miniature woodland scenes, to the expansiveness of seascapes and Modernist abstraction, a diverse range of subject matter and media were presented, allowing for variations in scale across a broad time span. However, the number of works shown and the massive diversity of media eventually became a stumbling block for me as a viewer, and I began to see the assembled works as a functional ‘cross-section’ at times, rather than a tender gathering of artworks.
Despite a necessity to display ‘as much as possible’, and a reluctance to showcase ‘sparseness’, I tend to think of collection shows as a ‘hiatus’ in the lives of artworks: Momentarily liberated from archival vaults, these artworks must find some space to stretch, locate their bearings, and resonate once more for new audiences. I find myself thinking about the chemistry between artworks: They might be vaguely acquainted, or they may never have met before; They might have a lot to catch up on; They may feel compelled to rekindle a former romance, or take friendship to a deeper level. For example, Alice Maher’s characteristically stunning series of four etchings ‘Sleep’, ‘Rain’, ‘Dancer’ and ‘Talking to my Hair’ (2004), seemed overpowered by Willie Doherty’s black and white photographic triptych ‘Evergreen Memories’ (1988), which towered in a vertical formation on the wall. There was however, a palpable magnetism between Maher’s etchings and Michael Warren’s minimalist burned oak sculpture ‘Her Hair (2)’ (1993), which occupied a near-by corner. Compelled to gaze at this ardent pairing, yet not wishing to eavesdrop on their secret conversation, I turned away and gave them some space.
In the Anteroom Gallery, John Shinnors’ solitary work ‘Bird Over a Field’ (2014), provided a commodious prelude to his imposing installation in the adjoining space. Occupying the back wall of the expansive South Gallery, were Shinnors’ ‘Scarecrow Portraits’ (2013-14) – a series of 5 large-scale canvases mounted in close proximity. Based on everyday objects, these abstract works, depicted in yellow and red ochres and emerald greens, provided a confrontation of Rothko-esque proportions. This immersive wall of colour intervened in what is typically a difficult space, accentuating both the width and height of the room, while reminding the viewer of the skylight overhead that floods the room with natural light, conjuring an ‘international’ ambience which remains difficult to articulate.
Further attesting to Limerick’s rich history of painting, Artists Rooms, curated by Ailbhe Barrett, probed the idea of ‘artistic immersion’ as expressed in the work of two local artists. Michael Canning’s floor-to-ceiling works ‘Selva Obscura series I – IV’ (2014) occupied the central ground floor atrium space, and were rendered in acrylic, water colour, soot, charcoal, ash and pencil on paper. Depictions of a clearing in the landscape from the perspective of someone emerging from a dense forest were conceptually underpinned by Canning’s accompanying text, which conveyed the emotional depths incumbent of such a vantage-point. Accounts of bewilderment, perplexity, confusion and being ‘lead astray’, gave way to metaphoric descriptions of a lone traveller who ‘grimly resolves to forge ahead towards the death that will finally end his journey’. This sense of melancholic burden permeates the drawings, whose back-breaking scale and unwavering detail presented the artist with a ‘purgatorial task’. With the imminent emergence from wilderness presented as a ‘liminal’ threshold, emotional sanctuary was provided in ‘Lights Leaving’ (2008) – a small study of a singular plant, in oil and wax on canvas. No longer ‘unable to see the wood for the trees’, this shift in perspective permitted the viewer to relinquish the thorny, claustrophobic woodland and view new horizons with clarity, thus symbolising the internal solace we all seek, as a site of liberation.
Gillian Kenny conveyed the notion of ‘immersion’ with depictions of everyday domestic objects, in her sequence of paintings and drawings entitled ‘The Life Cycle Series’ (2014). Here, ‘transitory glimpses’ of family life were visible in her use of the shoes, belongings and clothes of young children, as subject matter for still life compositions. Used in quite a literal sense, this subject matter became perplexing, in that these static scenes offered little sense of time-frame: they resonated neither with the nostalgia of the past, nor the indulgence of the present moment. Just as American conceptual artist Mary Kelly used the documents and ephemera of childhood/motherhood in opaque and durational ways in her ‘Post-partum’ series of the 1970’s, I personally am more drawn to the partially concealed or incidental remnants of the everyday. Overall, my interest in Kenny’s artworks is less concerned with the subject matter, and more focused on what these objects lend to the trajectory of her development as a painter. The luminous painterly grounds, for example, offer risky but interesting propositions, particularly in the places where neon pinks envelope the edges of canvases with startling tactility. Similarly, the use of the square composition – a problematic art historical format traditionally fraught with the perils of ‘twee’ – lends this work snap-shot quirkiness, conjuring curiosity through unconventional compositions (such as the one involving a pram), while summoning the revival of anachronistic Polaroid formats through digital applications (e.g. Instagram,) as potential points of departure. The inclusion of an older artwork (depicting the artists’ previous travels in metropolitan settings), also attests to her painterly progression, in her shift away from photo realism towards more expressive and ad hoc techniques. While there is no doubting Kenney’s competencies as a painter, the use of less prescriptive titles would liberate the viewer from pre-determined statements, affording them the space to devise their own connections and metaphors, as the artists’ personal narratives merge with their own.
Heading towards the first-floor galleries for Andrew Kearney’s solo exhibition The Meaning of Nothing, I encountered a striking photographic portrait in the stair-well, which brought to mind the ‘Buddha of Suburbia’, and made me smile. Then, nestled comfortably within a net (strung across the atrium space like a diaphragm), was a large ball, which had the lumpen texture of chewed gum – the greyish type, frequently deposited under desks. A horizontal strip of photographs traversed the surrounding walls, depicting multiple iterations of a snowball, which recalled Muybridge’s pre-modern moving image stills. There is something very soothing about multiples. Like Monet’s ‘Haystacks’, the snowballs, with placid lilac shadows, memorialised their surrounding terrain, accumulating mud, before their inevitable melt back into the land.
In the Herbert Gallery, I was met with a dazzling pair of rotating round silver curtains, which shimmered and twirled in an anti-clockwise direction, etching barcode-like shadows onto the walls nearby. Two sculptural works were mounted on opposing walls, composed from a bricolage of red leathery padding and glowing light bulbs, which illuminated sections of skin and apparent public hair. As sculptural assemblages there was magnetism between the sexually-charged pairing, which made me think of Edward Kienholz’s dimly lit parlour scenes of the 1960’s. If this space was a seedy nightclub, then the adjoining room had a fetishitic edge, presenting a rotating tyre, suspended from thick silver chains, whose vacant ‘O’ (proposed in Mark Leahy’s accompanying text) had been crammed to capacity with a silver puffball.
As a recurrent feature within each space, a matt-grey oval board was affixed to the upper corner of the room, bringing to mind the ovate forms of popular home-décor mirrors of the1970’s, or the angled mirrors used to monitor shifty clientele in supermarket corners. Located in the spaces typically occupied by ubiquitous modern-day CCTV devices, the pieces prompted reflection on our collective desensitisation to surveillance, and the perverted reassurance we glean from being connected (however intrusively) to voyeuristic realms. As matt reflectionless mirrors, these zones of blank surveillance led into nothingness, lending a rare insular quality to these public spaces. Simultaneously, bore-holes permeated the walls, constituting physical interventions within the building’s internal architecture, suggestive of ‘peep shows’ and hidden domains.
As an artist acclaimed for large-scale public artworks – such as the interactive piece ‘Tell Me Something’ which was installed on the chimney stack at the former Golden Vale Factory as part of Limerick City of Culture until the end of 2014 – it seemed fitting that Kearney should make reference to the built environment, using windows as portals to exterior worlds beyond the confines of the gallery. In one room, viewing boxes were constructed around two window alcoves, creating ‘self-contained miniature universes’ to be viewed with the city as backdrop. The small-scale monochrome arrangements recalled the ebony and ivory artefacts of Victorian curiosity cabinets – an aesthetic which was further entrenched through the exotic display of black feathery plumage. From a distance, painted white aerosol cans appeared as holy candles, but on closer inspection I thought of Maser – the graffiti artist who revamped a nearby derelict garage, in a ‘Nod to Ed Ruscha’. Maquettes of colonial pillars – one black and one white – seemed vaguely familiar, yet it wasn’t until my departure through the People’s Park to the rear of the building, that I spotted the freestanding limestone column supporting ‘Rice’s Memorial’ (1829), and made a direct connection between the gallery works and the immediate landscape.
In the final room, an installation – part studio-laboratory, part hospital ward – transformed the space in interesting ways, revealing 6 windows that I had forgotten were there, since they had previously been boarded over to accommodate former exhibitions at LCGA. A glimpse of the outside world was possible through a partially-covered seventh window, further embodying tensions between notions of visibility and concealment which titillated the entire exhibition. As if to preserve the modesty of the ghosts of Eva Partum’s billboard-scale nudes (which had occupied the wall the previous autumn) a semi-transparent, olive-gold curtain traversed the space in a sheer continuous wave, looping curvaceously to accommodate the windows’ alcoves, and wafting seductively in the breeze. On the back wall, ceramic multiples echoed the streamlined forms and white plastic-coated veneers of ‘hidden’ spy-cameras, typically found on public transport. In contrast, grimy house-shaped ‘tanks’ were haphazardly constructed in what appeared to be plaster board, clay daub, straw and other detritus. Black piping connected the structures to the ceiling, while internal lighting illuminated the floor below. Unrefined rock-like formations littered the surfaces, recalling the snowball chronicle, and the netted daub-ball hovering in the atrium as a threshold between earth and sky. This encounter served to reaffirm the raw materiality of the sculptural discipline, and the reality that crafting things of beauty – making something out of nothing – is no easy task.

Michael Canning ‘Selva Obscura series I – IV’ (2014)

Michael Canning ‘Selva Obscura series I – IV’ (2014)

John Shinnors, New Paintings (2015) LCGA

John Shinnors, New Paintings (2015) LCGA

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