Article from the Irish Times 14th August 2009.
Image-Unravelled Textile Drawing by Caroline Schofield-taken by Colm Hogan
THE ARTS: The artists showing at this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival faced a challenge – to make their work more accessible without sacrificing their cutting edge messages. But most of the works on show managed to appeal on many different levels, writes GEMMA TIPTON A SIGNIFICANT advantage to showing work in the visual art programme at an arts festival, is also the cause of one the strongest challenges to artists and curators. At Kilkenny Arts Festival, the regular gallery-going audience is expanded with visitors who have come for the classical music, the theatre, or the literature, plus locals who may be inspired by the general cultural buzz to explore a genre that hasn’t perhaps reached them in the past.
So the logical thing would be to programme work that is more easily engaging, and yet there is also the desire, with the resources of a festival behind you, to programme right at the cutting edge – after all, why should the visual arts dumb down just because someone may be looking in on the way back from a bit of Beckett? These two extremes of visual art don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and often more challenging work can become accessible to an audience less literate in its languages with a little help from some curatorial notes.
This is not to suggest that art needs panels and pages of explanation; quite the opposite, but at the main exhibition in the programme at Kilkenny, Something Else, curated by Aisling Prior, the challenge became first to find the art works, and then to identify who, among the eight artists involved, had made them. It will always be problematic to exhibit in a 17th-century building where you can’t move the existing paintings and furniture, or drill into the walls, but what began as a treasure hunt for art work gems by Isabel Nolan, Jo Anne Butler, John Byrne, Gary Coyle, Mick Wilson, Kevin Atherton, Ciaran Murphy and Corban Walker, quickly became frustrating as works were not individually numbered or labelled, and the list of exhibits more a teasing guide to what you couldn’t locate.
Within that, there were some exceptionally strong pieces. Isabel Nolan is an artist whose work has grown in strength over the past few years to achieve a powerful rhythm and sense of dialogue between its seemingly disparate elements. Here, the eclectic nature of her practice found the ideal setting amid the antique bric-a-brac of Rothe House. Her room in the exhibition was one of the most satisfying, as the certainties of past eras embodied by the setting were shown by her work to be fragmented and false. We may no longer be convinced of the solidity of our position or our goals, but in Nolan’s work there is still the possibility for beauty and wonder, even if these things are also revealed as fleeting and fragile.
There is beauty and wonder in Gary Coyle’s work too, though it does better when better installed, the same being true of Ciaran Murphy’s paintings, as well as Kevin Atherton’s Gallery Guide series of five DVDs, which had the unrealised potential to be one of the strongest elements of the exhibition. Downstairs, Atherton’s 2006 In Two Minds shows two large screens, facing one another, creating a space across which the artist stages a conversation that spans 28 years. On one screen, Atherton’s younger self (filmed at the Serpentine Gallery in 1978) talks about video art, and is interrogated by the older version of Atherton on the other screen. It is a meditation on time and growing old as much as it is on the development of video and performance art, and all the better for that.
Corban Walker’s hauntingly beautiful LED installation in the back courtyard was another work that sang in its setting, though not as literally as Mick Wilson’s Double Our Father , where speakers in the central courtyard filled the space with religious music. Knowing this artist, there is every reason to expect some form of ironic undercutting to this simple aural beauty though, short of phoning up the artist to find out, there was no way of discovering whether this was true, or what it may have been. John Byrne’s digital video Believers (2005) also played with religion, as the catechism was replaced by a clothed man and naked Renaissance model-type woman repeating, “I believe in the visual as the foremost articulation of meaning . . .” Something Else showed an intensely interesting and excellent selection of artists, and yet didn’t quite achieve the sum of its parts.
David Godbold’s The End of the Beginning of the Beginning of the End at the Butler Gallery is perfectly pitched for an arts festival audience (as well as the regular gallery-going crowd). It is a major installation of this artist’s work, where the usual suspects of religious and mythological imagery are drawn in an old master-like manner on tracing paper over the ephemera of old shopping lists, letters, notes and cards, and all undercut by witty, ironic one-liners completing the circle of the work. Here, the newer departures are large canvases, and there is the added frisson of the recently introduced blasphemy laws, laws that Godbold would be breaking should anyone decide they chose to be offended. A large disclaimer in the Butler’s entry room, spelled out blackmail-style with words and letters cut from newspapers, hints at the fun to follow.
The Museum of Broken Relationships at the Arts Office Gallery, and Weapons by Blaise Smith at the former Zavvi record store, again both hit the mark for a festival audience, each rewarding deeper engagement with further levels of thought and insight. On the other hand, Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s exhibition at Ryan’s Electrical is a quirky and offbeat presentation of six or seven of this artist’s paintings, propped up behind glass in the counter unit of this small local store. The display is peppered with a couple of invitation cards for the exhibition and, while the artist states in the general festival catalogue that a central concern in her work is the condition of “being exiled on the edge of this space”, the overall sense is of something hastily and casually assembled. Ní Mhaonaigh’s work is delicately grave and meticulously spare, and in this instance the artist’s stated concerns, while present in the work, are detracted from rather than amplified by the installation.
Another major strength of the visual art element of festivals is the opportunities they give for showcasing the work of local studio groups. At Kilkenny, two exhibitions in particular stand out. Endangered (at both No 72 John Street, and Fennelly’s in Callan), shows the work of artists who work at the Endangered Studios, Callan. At the John Street exhibition, Caroline Schofield’s hanging felt piece, Unravelled Textile Drawing was particularly striking. Etaoin Holahan’s Crow Series and Bridget O’Gorman’s Allostatic Load were strong, while recent painting graduate Gary Tynan showed canvases that hint at an interesting career to come.
Not in the programme, but worth seeking out, Art by a group comprising young artists (some local, some from Co Mayo), demonstrated the energy of self-organised studio groups and exhibitions. Particularly engaging were Catherine Barron’s tiny painted vignettes, taken from a collection of family photographs the artist discovered dating from the 1950s and 1960s. Little moments of affectionate memory, they don’t set out to impress, but do so nonetheless.
Something Else, Rothe House, Kilkenny ends Aug 16; David Godbold, The end of the beginning of the beginning of the end, Butler Gallery, until Oct 4; The Museum of Broken Relationships, Kilkenny County Council Arts Office Gallery, until Aug 31; Blaise Smith, Weapons, Zavvi, MacDonagh Junction, ends Aug 16; Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Ryan’s Electrical, ends Aug 16; Endangered, 72 John St, and Fennelly’s, Callan, ends Aug 16; Art, Tasha Interiors, ends Aug 16