Of loss and the fragility of life

Wed, May 27, 2009, 01:00

VISUAL ART: THERE IS A rueful humour to the title of Mary Fitzgerald’s exhibition Afterlifeat the Fenton Gallery. It is the first solo show she’s had since 1995.

During this prolonged hiatus it must have seemed to her that she might never work again. In 1986, she suffered serious spinal injuries in a car accident. Worse, although she did begin to recuperate, various complications ensued and she found herself struggling with a set of progressively debilitating symptoms, to the extent that she was left, by the mid-1990s, in what she has termed a chrysalis-like state, largely withdrawn from daily life and work. Not surprisingly, this period of relative isolation and enforced stasis, a kind of inner exile, informs her recent work.

Strikingly, in an interview with Felicity Wolf in 1991, she said: “The process of making art is my way of coming to terms with experiences which are difficult to accept or to fully comprehend. As all experience is qualified by the inevitability of the end, most art, and certainly mine, has a fundamental concern with death.”

Fitzgerald was born in Dublin and attended the National College of Art and Design there in the 1970s. In her early work, she employed abstract, gestural, linear marks. While this spontaneous mode of working is usually associated with emotionally charged, highly colourful expressionist painting, Fitzgerald used it in a distinctly cool, spare, monochromatic, even cautious way, underpinned by a strong sense of geometric order. These combined opposites – spontaneity and calculation, amorphousness and formal precision – remain characteristic of her work up to the present time.

After the NCAD, a post-graduate scholarship allowed her to continue her studies in Japan. Being plunged into a language and culture completely different to her own proved to be a formative experience. She says it heightened her awareness of the importance of language in itself, allowing her to see it as a world within which we live rather than just a medium of communication. Similarly, she gained an understanding of the importance of the architectural environment as a language of space and mass. Her sensitivity to architecture has been reciprocated: architects have consistently responded positively to her work.

In the late 1980s, it was not only her own injuries that prompted her to deal with questions of human vulnerability and evanescence. Two close personal losses also affected her greatly. She dealt with these concerns indirectly, though, in terms of the work, which features fleeting, incisive marks, many layers of erasures, and the jarring juxtaposition of tough and fragile materials. There is a certain force and violence implicit in her use of sheets of glass held in suspension by bolts in Orientation I, for example, a 1991 work that also features fearsome looking metal spikes.

In a more muted way, that sense of violence carries over into the pieces that make up Afterlife, which feature multiple allusions to bodily distress, therapeutic and palliative care, death, decay and disaster. At first glance, though, none of that might strike you, because it is all enshrined within a cool aesthetic language. The dominant colour in the paintings is a greyish off-white. Their surfaces are minutely textured. Only on closer inspection do they yield up clues to darker meanings. Sparkles of silver turn out to be flies. A rhythmic pattern of droplets spattered across a sheet of perspex is identified as blood in the list of exhibits. Gritty masses concentrated in part of the picture surface are built from “cremated bone”. Ghostly traces of MRI scans are murkily apparent. Opium poppies and acupuncture needles are embedded in pigment.

Further clues to Fitzgerald’s preoccupations are evident literally at the margins, if you look around the edges of some of the paintings. And the titles evoke calamity, loss and mourning on scales that seem to range from the individual to the global: Tsunami, Eruption, Whirlpool, Blizzard, Ossuary.The collaged image of a figure diving is taken from the Tomb of the Diver at Paestum in Italy. The tomb, discovered by an archaeologist in 1968, identified as Greek and dated to about 470BC, is remarkable for its state of preservation. Presumed to symbolise the passage from this world to the next, the diver has also featured in a painting by Hughie O’Donoghue.

Many of Fitzgerald’s works consist of canvases encased in perspex boxes or, even less substantial physically, of layers of glass and tracing paper. Opium smoke breathed onto the glass, or droplets that resemble tears, fix fleeting traces of the human presence. Such tenuous imprints of life recall some of Louis le Brocquy’s paintings from the 1950s, a series of predominantly white canvases of spectral, shadowy figures. As it happens, the main subject of these paintings was le Brocquy’s wife-to-be, Anne Madden, and the bony, vertebral pattern that is a recurrent motif in them refers to her prolonged recuperation after spinal surgery.

Pain, loss, the transience and fragility of life, our vulnerability to disaster: Fitzgerald’s concerns are fairly grim but, while it has an elegiac, meditative quality, her work doesn’t come across as depressing or mournful. As she said, work is a way of coming to terms with difficult things, and her aesthetic rigour is her way of making something positive, something meaningful, from what might otherwise overwhelm and destroy.

The humour evident in her choice of the show’s title is also evident in a video installation that forms part of the exhibition. Caoineadh (Crying Dog)offers a view of a closed door. Silence. Then, quietly, without much fuss, a dog whimpers, pleadingly. Its lament has to do with the fact that it wants to get through that door. It’s not unreasonable to interpret the piece as a self-portrait by Fitzgerald, a wry expression of her desire to get back to work, and back to life – which, it seems, she has done.

Afterlife. Recent work by Mary Fitzgerald. Fenton Gallery, Wandesford Quay, Cork. Until June 13.