Sequences of substances impress and repel in Galway
GALWAY ARTS FESTIVAL:Though the city is still without a proper permanent gallery, the current Absolut Festival Gallery premises provides a fitting home to a fine collection of shows, writes AIDAN DUNNE
WHEN IT COMES to the visual arts, the Galway Arts Festival has a track record of making a virtue of necessity. For years, the need for a substantial, permanent gallery space in the city was noted. The Arts Centre was usefully revamped, the City Museum was built, other annual visual arts events – Tulca, Artisit? – sprang up, all without a gallery making it onto the agenda.
In recent years, with increasing success, vacant commercial spaces were co-opted to serve as festival galleries, drawing on the local art community’s considerable pool of expertise in theatrical construction and project management. Last year, a capacious vacant premises in Galway Shopping Centre was transformed into a very good gallery. The hope was that the venue might be used recurrently. In the event, it proved to be an on-off arrangement, but the good news is that it is on again for this year’s festival with an expanded, newly built internal layout and as the Absolut Festival Gallery it’s impressive.
It houses not just Precious Light, David Mach’s monumental reworking of the King James Bible, but a sequence of other substantial shows. In tackling the Bible, Mach didn’t set out to illustrate a venerable text but to filter it through a contemporary sensibility, seeing its grand narrative themes reflected in our own calamitous world. Recognisable books and episodes including Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, plagues and crucifixion are treated in frenetically detailed photo-collages, their imagery culled from tens of thousands of magazines, and a group of sculptural figures fashioned from numerous wire coat-hangers; a staple material for Mach, who eschews the high-art preciousness of, say, bronze.
While the myriad visual references, such as landmark locations and a cast of thousands of human and animal characters, are indeed workaday and familiar, the effect is both contemporary and positively medieval. One thinks of the prolific narrative density of Breughel’s paintings, or Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Like those two artists, Mach is a storyteller on a micro level and loves tiny, mischievous details. Examine his collages carefully and you’ll find he didn’t just draft in crowds from central casting.
It’s not all wit and levity, either. Apart from scenes of pandemonium, there is a real gravity to his monochromatically sombre sculptural treatment of Golgotha with its anguished, crucified figures on a larger-than-life scale. Appropriately, the next show in Festival Gallery is Prison Paintings by Brian Maguire. Always concerned with those punished and rejected by life and institutional authority, Maguire has been involved in educational programmes in prisons in Ireland and abroad since the mid-1980s.
While there is a sad, lyrical poetry to his paintings, which can teeter on the edge of incoherence in the sheer extremity of their expression, he has always tried to configure his prison work as a social exchange. That is, he has never seen prisoners as mute subjects but as involved actors in the process. Nor does he sentimentalise them as victimised and pitiable subjects. Rather they are unwillingly part of the system that judges, punishes and in a real sense possesses them, in life and, as we see in his stark image of the labelled bodies of slain prisoners in a Brazilian jail, even in death.
Joe Comerford’s powerful film sculpture, Roadside, makes sense in relation to Maguire’s work. It is disturbing. In fact if he managed to do what he set out to do, as he has, it couldn’t be anything but disturbing. However, the short film at the heart of the piece is beautifully made and works extremely well in its own right.