Through the looking-glass with Alice
Even those familiar with the mischievous work of Alice Maher over the past quarter of a century will find surprises in her ‘Becoming’ retrospective at Imma’s Earlsfort Terrace galleries, writes AIDAN DUNNE
FROM EARLY on, Alice Maher’s art has drawn on a rich, nutritive mix of myth, history, fairy tales and personal experience. She has imaginatively inhabited a transformative space, approaching it with a mischievous, disruptive intelligence and a distinctly feminist sensibility. Look to the set of muscular drawings that make up The Thicket, for example, made in 1990 and included in Becoming, her current midterm retrospective at Imma’s Earlsfort Terrace galleries, spanning 25 years of work.
They feature a wilful protagonist, a young girl who plays capriciously with the world around her and seems possessed of magical powers. She’s curious, brave and a bit reckless, powerful yet vulnerable, with a dawning, as yet irresponsible awareness of her untapped potential. It’s tempting to see her as an alter ego for the artist, a fictional persona, an Alice in Wonderland. Certainly Maher has not shied away from direct involvement in her work, becoming her own model in her 2003 photographic series Portraits (several are on view at Imma) or imprinting her painted body on bed linen for Celebration Robes in 1989.
She’s just as present, if less literally so, in virtually everything she’s done. One favoured device is a form of synecdoche, by which one detail or element symbolises the whole. Notably in her work, hair or head implies the person. The person in question, one feels, is the questioning, risk-taking, emergent artist.
In Familiar II from 1994, one of a particularly provocative and inventive series of works combining paintings with sculptural objects, a tiny bronze female head is partnered with a large, semi-abstract painting. It’s a problematic pairing, inescapably putting it up to us to think again about how to look at both, and not for a moment letting us rest easily with either.
On one level it is comparable to work like Janine Antoni’s, undermining the idiom of formalist abstraction by awkwardly situating the everyday, the human, the corporeal and, specifically, the feminine at its heart. Maher has used the image, and object, of the head many times in this way: “I don’t think of them as decapitated heads or that there is something missing,” she says. It’s not a cultural-historic reference – to the Celtic head cult, say – but a way of seeing and thinking.