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.

Marina Abramovic’s video performance SSS, made with Charles Atlas, sees her in authoritative form, looking back on a few key moments of her life. Her ability as a self-mythologiser par excellence is clear, as is her talent for drifting into self-parody without, somehow, sacrificing credibility. The final piece in the Festival Gallery is a collaboration by the printmaker Lynne O’Loughlin and the film-maker Pete Ray, inviting us on a Ghost Train ride through some ghost estates. It is nicely understated and reflective.

YOU MAY BE A LITTLE sceptical about the George Grosz exhibition at the Galway City Museum, The Big No. After all it is a touring show, a package put together by the South Bank Centre consisting of sets of lithographic reproductions of two portfolios, Ecce Homo and Hintergrund. Overcome any scepticism, however, and make an effort to see it, bearing in mind that it is not for the faint-hearted. It’s very strong stuff indeed.

Grosz, plausibly described as one of the greatest satirical artists of the 20th century, took on the ills of Weimar Germany in graphic works that are scathingly cruel but superbly well made. An extraordinarily eloquent draughtsman, he had a gift for capturing both complex masses of detail and subtle nuances in just a few incisive lines.

Some of his more detailed, atmospheric visualizations of Berlin society, its mendacity and its self-deluded hypocrisy, mark him as the ideal illustrator of James Joyce. While he did describe the seamy side of outward respectability, a terrain of brothels and street prostitutes, and though he was ruthlessly critical of everyone and everything, it’s fair to say that, comparatively speaking, his depictions of women in his drawings, often brilliant, can be, on occasion, unsettling.

Jennifer Cunningham’s Just Add Water at NUI Galway Gallery consists, appropriately, of bodies of work united by a fascination with water. In a series of coloured drawings, she evokes the slightly melancholy, nostalgic appeal of “the dilapidated foreshores of traditional holiday resorts” in Galway, Dublin and Coney Island in New York. Cunningham is known for her finely sensitive, descriptive line in drawing and printworks. Here, delicate traceries map the facades of resort buildings and recreational structures against washes of pale colour, as though clouded by memory.

Film and video elaborate on the theme with a group of women performing an impromptu swimming routine. Their costumes recall an earlier time but are curiously timeless. The mature swimmers are juxtaposed with footage of two younger girls by the water, gracefully going through ballet movements, as though poised on the edge of plunging into adulthood. It’s a haunting, beautifully observed work.

Other visual arts highlights in Galway include Mick O’Dea at the Norman Villa Gallery, a terrifically diverse show of portraits, still life and landscape by a leading figurative painter; the exceptionally versatile and capable Ben Geoghegan in Iconoclast at 126 Gallery; The Performance Collective at the Galway Arts Centre, offering a chance to catch up with live performance and check out slide-show documentation by a five-artist group; Stoney Road, at the Kenny Gallery, marshals the superb prints made by leading artists at the Stoney Road Press, and Between Worlds, at the university hospital, explores different conceptual uses of paint in works by Emmet Kierans, Seán Guinan and Ramon Kassam.

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