A startling clash of civilisations in Dublin | Visual art round-up

A National Gallery show juxtaposes Jackie Nickerson photos from Africa with portraits of western privilege; and Makiko Nakamura’s abstract work is dramatic

 

Uniform – A collaboration with Jackie Nickerson

National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

*****

Long associated with privilege and prestige, formal portrait painting is traditionally a statement and guarantor of lineage and status, inescapably linked to a web of social and cultural codes.

Jackie Nickerson’s book Terrain, published in 2013, features a series of portrait photographs of farm workers in several countries in southern and east Africa, together with studies of the environments in which they work. Throughout several projects, in Africa and Ireland – Farm and Ten Miles Round as well as Terrain – Nickerson has pursued an interest in the living and working relationships that link people and land.

In Terrain each portrait subject has a statuesque, heroic presence, even though we often cannot see their face, either because they choose not to show it or because it is obscured by the material of their labour. The images were devised in collaboration with the subjects. Nickerson quickly establishes and develops the template of a monumental figure engaged in manual labour, with a disinclination to play a part.

It’s clear the work is tough, that there is not much of anything to spare, including time and energy. She had it in mind to convey something of the reality of these individuals’ lives, their dignity and resourcefulness.

She was especially aware that representations of Africans from a western perspective are problematic, that there are genres – notably the aid photograph, the conflict photograph and the ethnographic photograph – that cast the subjects as victims, aggressors or the exotic other, and she was keen to break those iconographic moulds.

Now, with Brendan Rooney of the National Gallery of Ireland, she has come up with a visually remarkable exhibition. Uniform pairs photographs from Terrain with portrait and figure paintings from the National Gallery’s collection. An unlikely idea, you may think, but it yields unexpected riches.

In fact, Rooney says, when they initially looked for potential matches, they came up with a shortlist of about 75. The more they looked, the more intriguing connections and correspondences they noticed.

The resultant pictorial dialogue is enacted on many levels. Not least, the photographs ask questions of the paintings, prompting us to look at them anew, with a critical eye.

So compelling are some of the relationships that it’s hard to believe Nickerson did not set out with a particular painterly dialogue in mind (she didn’t). Take, for example, the pairing of her Maria, a woman who has straightened up from her labours and regards us quizzically, with Paul Henry’s The Potato Diggers. There is a curious intimacy between these two disparate images of women working on the land. Nickerson points to practicality: Maria works in quite a different climate but many of the practical considerations are the same.

Time and again the practicality of the detail in the photographs is telling. For Garret Morphy’s Portrait of William, 4th Viscount Molyneux of Maryborough, his elaborately coiffured, poodle-like wig is symbolic. It is all about status, but that historical moment has passed, and now it looks pompous, even absurd. He is paired with Mutema, who holds a tangled mass of wire loosely wrapped in torn sacking. It is, as photographed by Nickerson, formally beautiful. His fingers curl around the bundle, but we do not see his head. Here the composition’s visual flourish derives from the reality of the task: to gather the wire while protecting oneself.

David, all but hidden behind a clutch of vast banana leaves, seems to mock the flamboyantly attired Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellamont, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The sheer excess of Coote’s finery places him beyond parody. He is a Goliath of pomp disarmed by David’s modest garland of leaves.

William Leech’s idyllic, sun-drenched A Convent Garden, Brittany is paired with Gift, in which a worker holds aloft a vast bundle of plastic sheeting. Catching the sunlight, the ghostly appearance of the anonymous worker bearing the folded plastic is accentuated through juxtaposition with the graceful, white-clad woman in Leech’s painting. Here, as throughout the show, there is an intimation of western privilege haunted by the hard work of unseen others.

The accompanying publication, edited by Rooney, expands considerably on the exhibited pairings. It is hardback and costs €12.95 from the Gallery Shop.

 

Journeys – Makiko Nakamura

Taylor Galleries, Dublin

*****

Makiko Nakamura’s abstract paintings are built on the armature of a simple, right-angled grid. They begin with an ideal grid, a perfect geometric pattern. But her working process is to apply successive thin layers of paint, sanding away much of the pigment each time a layer is applied. It is a time-consuming, painstaking way of working, and the meditative, almost ritual daily practice of painting and erasing is an integral aspect of the finished work, which is partly about duration and time.

As each layer is sanded back, some traces remain. By the time of its completion, each painting is a kind of palimpsest many times over. Look closely and you can make out the thinly foliated layers that form it. The effect can be three-dimensional in a highly compressed way. The grid can come through the process relatively intact, or it can be stretched and distorted to breaking point. Yet the energies within are usually contained, and the dominant mood of the finished pieces is calm.

In this recent work, made between the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig and Kyoto Art Centre in Japan, Nakamura has introduced a circular motif. Not surprising, perhaps, given the example of the Japanese flag. However, she uses it as a repeat element in the grid, evoking a circularity in time: journeys and returns, perhaps. She is sparing with colour, although she employs it to dramatic effect. Her layered technique and her use of gold and tin leaf, together with rich blues, yellows and reds, give her paintings a shimmering surface quality, in some ways like densely woven rugs or tapestry.

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