Influence of Context
'First Look - Six Young Artists' was at the RHA Gallagher Gallery, Dublin, 25th February - 1st April, 1999, 'Forty Below' by Clare Langan was at the Green on Red Gallery, 15th April - 19th May, 1999
Review by Justin Carville
Group shows can at times be difficult terrain to negotiate. The concerns of individual artists can be usurped by the overall agenda of the institution or curator, and the impact of individual works can be lost amidst the varying scale of the pieces which surround it. The works can thus compliment or clash with one another, and the show is accordingly a critical success or curatorial failure. First Look, at the RHA in Dublin falls into the former category in both instances not least for the interesting combination of mediums, from photography and etching to video and sculpture.
The most successful aspect of the show is the way in which the randomness of individual pieces provide a space for the viewer to make connections between groups of works. This is particularly exciting from a photographic point of view - whether through subject matter or visual strategy, most of the works on show have some recourse to photography history. Eoin McCarthy's staged tableau, 'A Fish With No Tail', brings the mythological figure of Narcissus into the everyday and situates it between the serenity of rural landscape and the menacing backdrop of industrial emissions. The morbid obsession with self-image is effaced by the forbidding presence of industrial waste seeping into the lake. In 'A Kiss Goodnight' a more ominous backdrop dominates the embrace of a couple in what appears to be a country lane. McCarthy seems to be toying with the conventions of representation here, the lane disappearing into the depths of darkness offering a more sinister outcome than that suggested by the title. The individual works are interesting on their own but as a body of work it does not have the same impact.
John Halpin, whose digital images feature on the back wall of the space, addresses the representation of landscape in literature and visual culture. The largest piece, 'After Patinir', presents a landscape burdened by the history of its representation. Halpin presents the Irish landscape not as it is, but as it is perceived to be through the influence of the picturesque in painting and tourist literature. A detail of books on reading the Irish landscape and a guide to the 17th century painter Poussin sit neatly beside a camper's tent. The landscape is cluttered by references to its representation and interpretation through the anonymous gaze of tourist and artist. The landscape is not merely presented as a pastoral cliché based on literary descriptions and visual culture however. Landscape as a backdrop to Ireland's social and political present is also explored. In one detail a hand protrudes from a plastic fertiliser bag abandoned on a quiet country lane. There are also references to Ireland's portrayal in the mass media. While the image by no means treats the subject in a subtle manner, the conflicting portrayals of Ireland's landscape are brought to the fore.
The most interesting work in the show is a small untitled diptych by Clare Langan which is also part of her impressive solo show Forty Below, currently on at the Green On Red Gallery. Mounted flush on the gallery wall, the piece presents a cold desolate landscape romanticised through the camera lens. Despite the sense of isolation which comes across in the piece, the landscape has a certain familiarity to it. Broad expanses of greens, blues and blacks merge and distort what could be a small rural cottage in the distance.
The diptych has a different role within Forty Below than it does in the group show. Larger in scale, it lacks the impact it had in First Look. Viewing the same piece in both shows demonstrates the influence the context a group show can have in making connections between seemingly dispirit work. Within the First Look, the diptych plays a more central role. It pulls together the other photographic work and completes the connections between landscape, photography and representation. In Forty Below however, the diptych is merely a back-drop, a still from Langan's film in which the viewer is led through a cold glacial underworld by a shadowy narrator. As in the diptych, the underwater landscape is desolate and unfamiliar. At times the shadowy indiscernible figure resurfaces and glimpses are caught of more familiar scenes, but there is always a sense that we have no control over the path taken through this strange underworld.