Short texts on some recent shows in Ireland …

The Irish independent asked me to do a few short introductions to artists showing around Ireland over recent weeks. The idea is to concentrate on one piece of work but to give a sense of the artist’s broader style or interests too. These are quite slight little things, but I thought I’d post them anyway.

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Jonathan Mayhew, from ‘My Head is in My Hands’, from ‘Intelligent Machinery’ at Farmleigh Gallery, Phoenix Park, until May 31st.

How much of your life is experienced via smartphone or tablet? For many of us, these sleek, touch-screen machines are always at-hand, always in-demand. More and more, our muddled memories rely on them as back-up. We increasingly depend on them for accessing information — and for connecting us with others. We see the world in serial glimpses: swiping through slideshows or selecting from multiple open windows. Images appear in a dizzying abundance.

Paris-based Irish artist Jonathan Mayhew is fascinated by such discreetly powerful devices. Like many young artists, his work responds to the pleasures and confusions of obsessive screen-time. In his recent series of digital prints, My Head is in My Hands (on show at the Farmleigh Gallery in Dublin’s Phoenix Park), Mayhew combines cropped imagery of human hands and internal components from hand-held devices. On the one hand (as it were) Mayhew maintains strict control over his material, arranging shots of computer hardware and human digits within orderly squares and rectangles. On the other, he hints that technology exceeds our control —the pieces in his pictures could be coming together or flying apart — exerting uncomfortable pressures. What’s more, the candy-pink and highlighter-yellow hues of the framing squares seem garishly commercial — sickening in their lurid glow.

Decades ago, abstract artists such as Mark Rothko or Joseph Albers painted glowing squares in efforts to achieve deeper understandings of perception. Jonathan Mayhew’s taut compositions are also systems for analyzing vision — but radically re-programmed for our distracting, digital world.

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OR_Kathy Prendergast_Crawford Art Gallery_Cork_Photography by Jed Niezgoda_www.venividiphoto.net

Kathy Prendergast, ‘
OR’, April 10 – June 13
, Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

Irish artist Kathy Prendergast has long been a committed map-maker — albeit a highly eccentric one. She came to fame in the mid 1990s with her ‘City Drawings’: intricately detailed hand-made maps representing only roads, streets and other routes through urban landscapes. All other essential cartographic information — names of districts and landmarks, references to scale or orientation — was assiduously excluded. What emerged were dense and delicate linear patterns: beautifully complex depictions of place that were, nevertheless, more poetic than practical.

For a later piece, Prendergast produced a map of the United States that listed only place-names containing the word ‘Lost’: Lost Creek, Lost Valley, Lost Lake — and so many more. Wherever you found yourself on this map, you would be lost. In this representation of America, everyone, everywhere, was searching for somewhere they couldn’t find.

Prendergast’s current exhibition at Cork’s Crawford Gallery (always a wonderful place to get lost in for a little while) includes one particular work that goes even further in stripping away any assured sense of place. This is a fascinating, forceful installation composed of over twenty geographical globes — standard, familiar representations of the earth — but with each one painted deep black. Though they are precisely the types of models we might find in a classroom or a scientist’s study, these instructional tools now show us nothing — as if all knowledge of the earth’s surface has been obliterated. These latest ‘maps’ by Prendergast are solemnly disturbing – suggesting, perhaps, that we are now more lost than ever before.

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Karla Black, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. Until July 26, 2015.

Karla Black’s ‘Prospects’, on show at IMMA in Dublin, is a row of 20 artificial trees with pale plaster-cast trunks and billowing foliage made from clear, light-catching cellophane. Each of these fake, trashy saplings are planted in a neat, but entirely inadequate, bed of unboxed, crumbly soil. Like a lot of Black’s work, the whole flimsy ensemble looks like it might fall apart or fly away at any time. For this widely acclaimed, Glasgow-based artist, however, such fragility isn’t a failing. Rather, Black is excited by how all manner of brittle, messy or non-precious substances might behave in each other’s company – and by the diverse sensory effects they can stimulate.

Black has become well-known in recent years (making the Turner Prize shortlist in 2011) for sculptures that combine recognisable art supplies, such as paint, chalk and paper, with an exuberant plurality of non-art products. Scented bath bombs, nail varnish, moisturiser, lipstick, eyeshadow: all of these and more have been piled, layered, scattered or suspended in precariously composed arrangements. The use of such commodities could point, perhaps, to an interest in how the body is cared for, or how its appearance is enhanced. But, as with the brand new works at IMMA, Black is less concerned with what her chosen materials ‘mean’ than in what they actually are. She concentrates on – and celebrates – the sensuous particularity and physical vulnerability of everyday ‘stuff’; creating airy, dusty, delicate combinations of familiar materials that escape from the expected stability of sculpture.

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Susan ConnollyWhen the Ceiling Meets the Floor, The Lab30 April – 13 June

Artists can be breakers as well as makers. The urge to take apart is almost as common as the need to construct. At times, the destructive instinct is an iconoclastic one, directed outwards at what is perceived to be conservative or outdated. (Think of the Italian Futurists’ wish to “exalt aggressive action”, or even the Sex Pistols’ desire to “destroy everything.”) In other cases, art turns against itself, becoming self-destructive as it resists conventions or tests assumptions about what a finished artwork should look like.

Painters have often been particularly eager to attack their own creations. In the 1950s, Italian painter Lucio Fontana chose to complete his canvases by violently slashing them. More recently, Spanish artist Angela de la Cruz gained fame for making large, abstract paintings that are then strategically smashed. With snapped stretchers and twisted surfaces, the resulting artworks lie on the floor like brutalised bodies.

There is less aggression in Irish artist Susan Connolly’s paintings — but just as much perversity. Connolly’s method involves, firstly, layering paint onto a canvas very thickly. Then, when the sticky substance has dried, she makes multiple micro-incisions into the surface, before, in a freakish final act, peeling back the leathery acrylic skin. With its grand-scale combination of swirling decorative patterns and draped painterly ‘fabric’, a work like ‘Primary Process P2’ — included in her current show at The Lab — typifies the dramatic effects of Connolly’s risky process. By pulling apart a painting’s essential components, Connolly has found fresh means of constructing a distinctive artistic style.

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