Redhouse Irish: Galway Arts Centre returns a second year

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 03/19/10More articles
Sabina Mac Mahon, “The Levitation of St. Joseph of Cupertino” (2010), photograph on archival paper, unique, 33.75 x 24.5cm. © Sabina Mac Mahon, courtesy of Redhouse, used with permission.

On a blistering cold night late last January, fuelled by food from Kitty Hoynes and live music, Redhouse got started on an early St. Patrick’s Day celebration with the raucous, crowded opening of “Inishlacken: The Last Parish,” a group exhibition of 23 of the more than 50 artists who had gathered since 2001 for an annual summer residency on Inishlacken, an island off the west coast of Ireland near Galway. Co-curated by the painter Rosie McGurran, founder of the Inishlacken summer residency, and Maeve Mulrennan, visual arts officer at the Galway Arts Centre, this was the first North American showing of the new Inishlacken work. Neither narrowly sentimental nor sunk in the Troubles, this fresh and often startling work done in a range of media revealed artists seeking something pristine in the West’s ancient, expansive landscape, a means of reinvention after history’s upheavals – much like that of Americans who went West seeking renewal after this nation’s Civil War. Besides the enthusiastic support of Central New York’s large Irish-American community, the Inishlacken opening drew visitors from as far away as Philadelphia and one 93-year-old Inishlacken native who travelled from southern Ontario.

Now Redhouse has brought Galway Arts Centre’s Maeve Mulrennan back a second time. Mulrennan has been in town since late Monday, supervising the installation of a new group exhibition titled “{un}familiar,” which includes video, painting, drawing, collage and sculpture by Michelle Browne, Benjamin de Burca, Cecilia Danell, Vera Klute, Sabina Mac Mahon, and Julia Pallone. This is the premiere of “{un}familiar,” which will open in June in the Galway Arts Centre. Last night’s reception coincided with Th3, Syracuse’s city-wide monthly arts night, and also included Mulrennan’s gallery talk and Andy Blaikie’s performance downstairs of Mark Clare’s dramatic piece, “The World Could Wait No Longer.”

Recalling that last year’s show was the culmination of more than six years’ work, Mulrennan commented last night that this new show has been itself a nine-month project just working with these artists, adding “This is the way I like to work.”

Her starting point as curator of “{un}familiar” was earlier, in research by Switzerland’s Olaf Blanke on out-of-body-experiences. She met Blanke in 2008 at the Berlin Biennale, where he spoke one evening to a crowd of over 300 artists and curators about his efforts to figure out why people have out-of-body experiences such as seeing doubles and experiencing confused perceptions about their own body and space, and his having induced such experiences in healthy people.

“Artists go to Berlin for that city’s sense of space,” Mulrennan said last night. “And for what space holds – memory, trauma, and potential. My own master’s thesis work was about the architectural and the ‘uncanny’ in physical space and from there I narrowed it to internal alienation and the person in society. Lots of people feel at odds and disengaged from themselves. After Berlin I emailed Olaf and he sent me all his published papers. He’s very generous and wants people to know about this work. Though artists are interested in this, there’s no common vocabulary really. Maybe works in an exhibition like this are that vocabulary. Years ago I went to a lecture by the artist Dorothy Cross and she said, ‘It takes a while for language to catch up with images.’”

Mulrennan uses the German work “unheimlich” at times with regard to this condition of very familiar objects that come to seem strange. “It means ‘unhomely’ or not domestic – unfamiliar,” she said in response to an audience question. “It was the original term for ‘the uncanny’ and I like it better, I think.”

Earlier in the week on Wednesday afternoon, Mulrennan said in an interview at the gallery that she had done another show in 2009 about alienation in public spaces and she really considered that as “Part 1 of this show.” Except for de Burca’s four framed collages, which she had seen already, she invited each artist to make a work for this show and provided them with Blanke’s published case studies plus Foucault’s essay, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias,” and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventure’s In Wonderland.” None of the artists had really worked with this focus exactly, but Mulrennan says she looked at their practice over time and thought they might be open to this. And intriguingly – like the British sculptor Tim Scott across town right now at the Everson – both Mulrennan and a number of these artists have investigated architectural space and design.

On Wednesday she also recalled about last year’s Inishlacken show, “We had such a good response last year. There was really an enthusiastic interest here in seeing contemporary Irish work. When people have an understanding of what’s being made now and are really appreciative, you can bring work to them. There are more European artists in this year’s show, but most of them live in Ireland, have chosen to live in Ireland, because they’re finding Ireland is small enough to be able to do some things and then you’re only a cheap flight away from London or Amsterdam or Berlin.”

As for this second trip evolving into some regular arts exchange between Syracuse and Galway, Mulrennan said Wednesday, “Yes, I’ve thought about it. I plan to see some other work that’s opening Thursday afternoon and I hope to make a couple studio visits Friday morning before I have to leave in the afternoon.”

Mark Clare and Andy Blaikie, who had been rehearsing in the first-floor theatre space, took a break and sat down too. They’re old friends, and the Dublin-based Clare has asked Blaikie to develop the piece with him. Blaikie, now 40, only took up acting in 2005. Clare has previously shown this work in galleries abroad as a finished video installation, already studio-recorded. This was going to be the first time Blaikie has performed it live for an audience and this would be the video shown going forward as part of this exhibition. They worked out they could do the eleven-and-a-half-minute piece four times at half-hour intervals during the opening reception. Clare said his piece was not part of Mulrennan’s originally conceived exhibition.

“Maeve and I met last summer and we both knew people here. And I really came to Natalia through Andrew,” said Clare of Redhouse director Natalia Mount and her husband Andrew. “I first worked with Andrew down in Cortland doing video, when he was director of the O’Dowd Gallery there. Natalia had the idea of performing it live and videotaping it here.”

Clare based “The World Could Wait No Longer” on the Polish underground movement during the 1980s called The Orange Alternative. The piece opens with a recording of the Polish version of the Communist anthem, the “Internationale” – and closes with Rufus Wainwright’s rendition of words by Leonard Cohen about the dice-roll of life. With only two wooden crates as props, turn-on-a-dime timing and his limber delivery, Blaikie manages that most difficult of dramatic feats – making theory sound like speech. Railing against the fear-based, lonely rationalists, he suggests imagination lives in us only so long as it’s free.

“The Orange Alternative was artists and actors and writers and musicians and originally it was set up as a co-op,” said Clare. “Their manifesto was written by a Major Waldemar Fydrych. They mimicked Communism to show how absurd it was to live under the regime. So they would give away toilet paper during their street performances, because you couldn’t get things as basic as toilet paper – that’s how absurd living like that was – or dress up as KGB agents and ask real police for their papers. It was very influential in the downfall of Communism too. And that was covered over in the history of how Communism fell. When people are alive there’s such a battle about how they get written into history. I went to Poland and I met Waldemar Fydrych. He really wrote the manifesto as an extension of Andre Breton’s Surrealist manifesto and the idea that Surrealism was essentially a revolutionary movement, a way of using absurdist actions and humor to question everything. I was in Dublin when I got back and had a theatre residency so I had access to that space. It wasn’t written to be performed, but Andy and I adapted it into this monologue.”

“The whole bank thing was just coming off when this first appeared,” observed Mulrennan. “So with the timing people thought it was about the downfall of capitalism.”

The studio monologue was also filmed before with two shots – one straight on center, and the other then off-center to show the piece’s workings as a performance. The Redhouse version will comprise one continuous shot.

On Wednesday Mulrennan previewed her gallery talk for me in the second-floor Rothenberg Gallery. Commenting that “{un}familiar” comprises work of five women and one man, she added that there are many more women artists in Ireland than men.

“All these artists are young,” said Mulrennan, “but I think Sabina Mac Mahon and Cecilia Danell are the newest graduates, and Sabina is the youngest.”

Just inside the gallery entrance, in the right-hand corner, is Michelle Browne’s “Venus at Her Mirror – After Velázquez,” a four-minute looped digital video showing the artist from the back reclining naked on a couch inspecting in close-up every portion of her own body in a mirror. This and the video at the end of the show by Cecilia Danell are both screened on the same tiny eye-level wall-mounted monitors that Redhouse first used last year for the video portions of the Inishlacken show, and they seem inspired choices because of the intimate viewing experiences they create in the already-small gallery. Mulrennan said that Browne is nine months pregnant or she would have come to Syracuse to perform “Venus at Her Mirror” live.

“She’s a triplet,” said Mulrennan. “Her sisters are identical twins. I think they all are alike, but she says she is genetically different. She used to look in the mirror as a child and try to make herself look more like them. She would freak herself out when she’d see her sister looking back from the mirror.”

The Dublin-based Browne, a performance artist and curator, has exhibited internationally in Poland, Scotland, Germany and Kenya as well as across Ireland. She is founder and curator of the Dublin festival of live art in public spaces, OUT OF SITE, and she recently initiated Mind the Gap, a collaborative public arts project to consider new uses for open public spaces. She’ll next curate the exhibition at the Tulca Festival of Visual Arts – “tulca” is Irish for “wave” – later this year in Galway. Mulrennan, who’s in charge of Tulca, says she knows Browne the best of these artists and invited her to curate.

Sabina Mac Mahon has seven photographs in the show, made by scanning old photos and then digitally manipulating them. They’re hung in a cluster as family photos might be in a living room, in mismatched, salvaged frames. A girl in a garden smiles and strikes a pose, oblivious to the arrow in her chest. A dour priest floats above the ground. A girl in a lacey dress and veil looks upward, her hands clasped – this one is “The Apparition of St. Catherine of Alexandria to St. Joan of Arc on her Communion Day.” Two have faint hand-scrawled notes in their bottom margins indicating the year 1928, and the most obviously recent – a mom, dad and child floating on little individual cloud puffs a few feet in the air, titled “The Apparition of the Holy Family on the Patio” – looks 1950s-era. Three fellows on an outing in the country sit together on a stone wall. A pair of photos, each labeled “The Bi-Location of St. Gerard Majella,” hangs somewhat wittily apart from each other in the grouping, to be discovered as you look.

“She’s interested in photographs and the lies that they tell, and very much interested in the icons of the saints,” said Mulrennan. “Photography is taught somewhat differently in Ireland than here, I think – it’s generally outside fine arts, more as photojournalism. But she has a painting background in college – so did I – and so she came into fine arts and brought photography through that.”

Last night Mulrennan added, “These images are really familiar to the Irish. I have a snapshot of my parents in that pose; I know that Communion dress; my grandmother’s fireplace looks like that.”

Like Mac Mahon and Browne, German artist Vera Klute is based in Dublin now. “She got her degree in 2006, had a series of great opportunities and she’s been in Ireland ever since,” said Mulrennan. Klute has two pieces in this show. A large pencil drawing of two arms from the shoulder, floating side-by-side, is titled “Linkshänder” – German for “left-handed.”

“And you notice they both are left-handed,” Mulrennan says. “My own early research on the out-of-body experiences touched on this kind of Gothic imagery with twins and mirrors and so on. In the Gothic novel ‘Rebecca’ there are two women in the house. All the artists had a different reaction to the texts I gave them. Vera was into this syndrome where you feel an inner organ is missing or you may feel your hand is someone else’s.”

Klute received the Wexford Arts Centre Emerging Artist Award and just completed her first solo exhibition, so she “was a little under pressure for this show,” added Mulrennan. The second piece, “Gurgles” – Mulrennan calls the piece “Miss Noisy” – is a partial plaster bust on a pedestal, a torso cut off just below the shoulders and just at the top of the throat, showing a full-color, detailed cross-section of the neck with spine and throat and tissue, and containing a looped audio of periodic and disconcerting loud belches.

Mulrennan laughed. “Yes, people do find this sound disturbing and I suppose intrusive. I’m really used to it. People say they feel queasy. These are sounds that come from parts of the body that’s disembodied – it’s not there. She’s quite good at molding things and everything she makes has a very high finish to it. She’s very rigorous with materials. Even the case that this comes packed in has a cushioned molding that’s fitted exactly to the piece.”

Julia Pallone has a series of four pencil drawings titled “Presences 1 – 4.” Based now in Cork, she is French by birth and also has an Italian background. She’s the artist Mulrennan says she knows the least. Apparently naïve at first glance, Pallone’s four gradually fantastical drawings re-pay patient looking. They feature, first, a girl sitting against a rock in a garden and gazing at plants that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be body parts; a young woman unfurling a sheet in the wind; a girl perhaps daydreaming on a couch whose hair morphs into a phantom in the air above her; and an infant on a blanket playing with a wind-up toy ghost and blocks that spell out “alter ego.”

“She does installations and water colors and drawings,” said Mulrennan. “She’s a member of Backwater Studios in Cork, and they are celebrating their twentieth anniversary this year.”

Cecilia Danell is a Swedish artist who went to Galway for her painting degree and now lives there. Mulrennan says she spent a lot of the last year in Danell’s studio. Danell has two paintings in this show and a looped video installation titled “Doubles” from a larger project. Over Christmas she went home to Sweden and filmed two empty shelters where hunters wait for moose and deer – we would know them as “blinds” – in a bleak winter woods around her parents home, then made scale models, and then made paintings of the models.

Her video begins with a text attributed to the artist Eugene Delacroix from 1824, “There is always a thick crust to be broken before I can give my whole heart to anything.” We’re taken into a deep woods at dusk that fades to views of the shelters, dark stretches of trees, a distant fire-like glow through the forest, and the solarium-like porch of a house, lit from within – actually Danell’s own house – into which a seemingly doubled apparition of a long-haired woman enters and dances with herself. The video has an audio of spare music, which alternates tracks so you hear it first through one ear and then the other, available via headphones.

“She’s working here with the Jungian idea of ‘home’ and stages of removal from the truth and what you could believe,” said Mulrennan. “She loves Ireland, and she looks Irish too – she has red hair and an accent like Mayo – but she does lots of work elsewhere too. She’s done a residency in Berlin, for example, that’s about architectural spaces, about the emotional impact of space.”

Irish-born Benjamin de Burca – whose parents lived “down the road” from Mulrennan’s parents – lives in Berlin now. His series of collages under glass, built up painstakingly with tiny commercial stickers of plants, soldiers, animals and landscape fragments, some held in place with pins, is titled “Four Horsemen” and reads left to right as a narration. Last night Mulrennan noted how de Burca “unravels the reality of familiar things. There’s a standard set-up of four images, reading left to right – but then there are these piles of images, ominous planes zooming overhead, the themes of hunters and wild animals, stacks of memories.”

“If I had asked him to make new work for this exhibition, he’d only be half-done with one of these,” Mulrennan had said Wednesday. “They take an enormously long time to make. There is a certain level of sense to the story but it’s surreal – look at that tiger peeking out of the foliage. He’s very much a nomad and so is his artistic practice nomadic.”

On Wednesday afternoon, as the crowd was gathering down the street outside Kitty Hoynes, Mulrennan concluded, “I’m pretty much a hands-off curator. I give them lots of material and I talk with them a great deal, but then I let them decide what exactly they’ll make. The Lewis Carroll was just to remind them because everyone knows that so well, and the image of going through the mirror. Alice never fits in and a lot of the time it’s her own fault. I use the texts as tools – I’m a very practical person. ”

A shorter version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2010 print edition of the “Syracuse City Eagle” weekly on page 8. “{un}familiar” is on view through April 12th in the second-floor Joan Lukas Rothenberg Gallery at Redhouse Arts Center, corner of West and Fayette Sts. downtown. To see the exhibit Monday – Friday 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM, call 315.425.0415. For more information, go to or Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

TAGS: Redhouse Arts Center, Galway Arts Centre, Maeve Mulrennan, Michelle Browne, Benjamin de Burca, Cecillia Danell, Vera Klute, Sabina Mac Mahon, Julia Pallone, Olaf Blanke, Lewis Carroll, Mark Clare, Andy Blaikie, Rosie McGurran, Inishlacken artists, Irish art exhibitions, Syracuse arts, {un}familiar, Natalia Mount, Andrew Mount, Nancy Keefe Rhodes
EDITION: The Eagle

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