Culture Ireland, the Irish government’s NEA/State Department equivalent, has been on something of a tear lately, promoting all things Irish to all corners of the world. San Francisco, a city with substantial Irish roots, has been one of the agency’s recipients. The tide rolled in two months ago with a Patrick Graham show at Meridian Gallery, followed in quick succession by a wave of events, among them Amid a Space Between: Irish Artists in America. The show features Richard Mosse, Alen MacWeeney, Nuala Clark, Helen O’Leary, Helen O’Toole and Katie Holten. All are internationally recognized artists who’ve been living and working in U.S., but haven’t been seen locally until now.
Organized by SF curators, Al Cosio and Monique Delaunay, the exhibit waves no flags, proclaims no unique Irish aesthetic or, for that matter, any point of view. Rather, it’s a sampling of currents running through the art world that just so happen to have been sampled by these six expats. The show mixes photography, painting, installation and conceptual work, with the good far outweighing the not-so-good.
The photographers Richard Mosse and Alen MacWeeney fall clearly into the first category. Mosse is a world-renowned photojournalist who specializes in documenting war-torn areas of the globe. Lately, his work in the genocide-ravaged nation of Congo has been getting a lot of attention, mostly on account the images’ toxic appearance. He uses a large-format camera loaded with infrared film which turns foliage hot pink while leaving everything else black and white. The technique allows Mosse to signal the presence of evil without, for the most part, showing the macabre aftermath. Only one of his photos is on view, but it’s a good one: Colonel Soeil’s Boys, the same picture Aperture featured on the cover of its Summer 2011 issue. It shows a group of soldiers standing in a semi-circle at the base of a barren hillside, staring at something that lies just beyond the frame. We don’t know what that is, but we know from the blank stares of the soldiers – and from the lurid color — that it’s bad, and it’s the artist’s withholding of critical information that gives the picture its power. Like the German photographer Florian Maier-Aichen, Mosse uses color the way film directors use music: to set a mood and to direct viewers’ thoughts. It may be a gimmick, and a heavy-handed one at that, but it’s allowed Mosse to breach the divide between journalism and serious art. Whether the work makes that leap by aetheticizing violence remains an open question.
The career of MacWeeney, 73, has followed a more varied, less dangerous trajectory. He began in his ‘20s as Richard Avedon’s assistant in Paris and went on to do many things (portraiture, travel and interior photography) that have earned him a place in prominent museum collections. His best-known work, a series on Irish gypsies called Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More, reflects the three-pronged influence of Avedon, Robert Frank, and Frank’s mentor, the designer Alexey Brodovitch with whom MacWeeney also studied. Here, it’s the artist’s travels in the U.S. that are the subject. Culled from different locales, each of the four images on view is a gem.
The picture that first grabbed my attention was Corot Landscape, Louisiana. A near-nocturne, it shows trees and water shrouded in deep shades of black, brown and umber, illuminated by light seeping through a hole in a dark cloud. It’s an essentially romantic vision, one whose links to historic American landscape painting surely weren’t lost on MacWeeney. The same feeling carries over into Convenient Store Parking Lot, Mississippi, a crime scene shot beneath a similarly darkened sky. It shows a phalanx a police vehicles and a van under whose front wheels rests a body. The contradiction, between the parting of the clouds and the tawdriness of the scene below couldn’t be sharper. Like Frank, MacWeeney takes a gimlet-eyed view of the U.S. Even when he’s romancing it he seems to be contemplating its underbelly. His picture of a cornfield, shot from a moving vehicle in Indiana demonstrates further. Of its three elements – a rainbow, a golden-hued corn patch and black tire tracks — it’s the latter that sticks in memory, like some sort of cosmic defilement.
Atmospherics are a primary concern of painter Helen O’Toole. Drawing from Albert Pinkham Ryder and William Turner, O’Toole fills her canvases with dark shapes, stormy skies and spectral light She does it with great skill, but too few innovations. Nuala Clarke provides a contemporary take. Her multi-layered paintings evoke the cold, harsh, windswept isle of her birth in ways you can feel. Like the collagist Leslie Shows, Clarke demonstrates a keen appreciation for the creative and destructive power of nature, expressing it in broad, gestural strokes that reveal a wellspring of emotional longing and conflict. The works unfurl across shifting planes and ambiguous viewpoints, probing surface and subject with the authority of lived experience.
Helen O’Leary, a painter/sculptor, weights in with Bigness Shape of Disappointment, an installation that takes up old arguments about what painting should and should not be. It consists of a metal armature that stands out from the wall about a foot, behind which hang shredded strips of crudely painted canvas. The piece feels as if it could be animated with the flip of a switch, and that kinetic, Tinguely-like potential is the installation’s main strength. However, the abject quality of the painted portions undercuts the critique, which the artist makes explicit by including crusty paint mixing containers, lest anyone miss the point. But what point might that be? That painting needs to be liberated from its supports? That it can be sculptural, too? Those scores were settled long ago, I’m afraid.
Katie Holten, best known in the U.S. for her public art project in the Bronx of “talking trees”, strives for bigger more elusive things. Her main concern is the intersection of myth, nature, magic and science, and she expresses it by laying objects (fossils, branches, mineral samples) on pages of Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890) – all of which appear in a vitrine. I have no doubt that the artist has thought seriously about these subjects. (Indeed, Frazer’s book, when he published it, was considered a groundbreaking exploration religion, ritual, myth and science, and it remains so.) The problem I have with this and with so much conceptual art these days is that it fails to communicate clearly. If the mere juxtaposition of things were art, we’d all be artists. To legitimize such aesthetically bereft practices, conceptualists typically include explanatory texts, but there are none here. Holten and the curators may assume, correctly or not, that viewers are familiar with Frazer’s writings. Either way, the interpretive possibilities are so variable as to be meaningless.
On the plus side, I found myself transfixed by the six framed drawings of Holten’s that chart — via Google Maps — her movements across various cities. The technique is now common among scientific types who moonlight in the realm of fine art (see Eric Fischer’s recent works and Katharine Harmon’s definitive book on the subject, The Map as Art), but Holten’s “maps” have something else going for them: they bring to mind the shape and fragility of decayed leaves, and their delicate beauty raises a question that I think ties directly to her concerns: If our own wanderings were as delicately plotted as the veins of a leaf – an organism whose structure is as complex as the interconnected systems of human body – would our treatment of the planet (and of each other) be as heedless and violent as it is today? Idealists like Holten who wish for the onset of higher consciousness, will likely answer no. Frazer, a Scottish anthropologist who documented all manner of ritualistic human behavior, surely would have some interesting thoughts on the subject.
–DAVID M. ROTH
“Amid a Space Between: Irish Artists in America” @ SFMOMA Artists Gallery through April 12, 2012.