Small cities that tell a big story
Tadhg McSweeney’s labyrinthine constructions are ingenious statements on the urban environment
The centrepiece of Tadhg McSweeney’s exhibition Edifice Complex at Carlow ’s Visual Centre for Contemporary Art is a kind of city in miniature, an architectonic, labyrinthine sculptural construction. This is not to say that it’s one of those sleek architectural models with huge, impassive blocks, little stylised trees and tiny happy people, designed to lull you into a state of utopian, Celtic Tiger inertia, so that you’d buy a penthouse off the plans for several times the annual GDP of Belgium.
No, while it would be wrong to describe McSweeney’s work as dystopian, he has from the first dealt with the idea of a damaged, broken world in need of repair. He habitually employs found objects and basic materials, such as sheets of plywood and other recycled scraps and fragments. He ingeniously cuts, combines, shapes and arranges such impoverished stuff so that it all becomes a world in miniature, even as we are aware of the visual trickery involved.
His Edifice Complex , a cobbled together but intriguing city, draws us into its complicated, interlocking forms and spaces in an hypnotic way. It can be read as an allegory of Ireland during the speculative building boom. It’s a vision of the bizarre world that, given a lot of money and a dysfunctional planning regime, we ended up making and, to our surprise, living in. The significance of the location, an enormously ambitious cultural venue initiated during the good times, and more recently faced with serious issues, is unmistakable.
Born in Dublin, McSweeney is the son of one of Ireland’s foremost landscape painters, Seán McSweeney. Tadhg’s early years were spent in Co Wicklow but the family then moved to Ballyconnell in rural Co Sligo, the birthplace of Seán’s mother. Growing up in the country, and involved in studio life, McSweeney developed a knack for working with materials in a practical way, including an involvement in making canvas stretchers and frames. He also accumulated objects and fragments that caught his interest.
Although he did think of studying architecture, he opted for fine art at NCAD. In his first year in the painting department, he says in an interview with curator Eamonn Maxwell, “there was a project where we were asked to bring in things of personal interest from which to work”. It was a turning point. Rather than bringing in one or two things and depicting them in paintings, he kept bringing in more and more stuff and “became interested in assembling objects and images on the wall”.
By the time of his degree show, he was making improvised “fantasy landscapes with some kinetic elements”. He continued to make paintings, often in conjunction with sculptural elements. Even his most painterly paintings, however, reveal an artist playing with suggestion and ambiguity, never really settling into a readymade pictorial language, preferring to tease out some potential image from the give and take of the process.
In his paintings, as well, he was drawn to using surfaces and materials with a prior use, such as paper or cardboard, old wood panels and off-cuts, recycled frames or bits of frames. It’s as if he was taking the conventions apart and reassembling them, not rejecting tradition but not taking it at face value either, looking both backwards and forwards, making new worlds from the residue of the old.