A rewardingly obsessive attention to artistic detail



Victor Treacy Award 2001, Butler Gallery, Kilkenny Castle, until January 6th (056-61106)

It so happens that part of Neva Elliott's contribution to the Victor Treacy Award 2001 exhibition is seasonally appropriate. She has made a fully functioning vending machine that, when you insert your money, dispenses either of two kinds of medicinal-looking boxes. One is labelled Self Assessment, the other Self Amendment. You open the box and . . . well, suffice it to say that the contents more than live up to the flawless standard of the presentation and packaging.

One of the several strengths of Elliott's work is her attention to detail. She never leaves a concept to fend for itself but follows it through to, dare one say, an almost obsessive degree. While there is an obvious and effective satirical edge to her vending-machine piece, it is also an incisive critique of our capacity for self-obsession, and the conviction that our neurotic insecurities can be ameliorated by a quick-fix pharmaceutical culture.


In All Apologies, the floor of the gallery is littered with handkerchiefs embroidered with tearful, typical phrases of apology. These ultimately amount to a distinctly masochistic wallow in guilt. In the sequence of photographs that make up Baby Bear, a discarded teddy bear takes its chances with the traffic and passers-by on a busy road. The images tactfully but forcefully convey a sense of the everyday callousness of life.

While collectively they make up a powerful picture of abandonment, this is all the more effective for being delivered with a deceptively light touch. Judging by the catalogue entries, Elliott could well be the youngest and least experienced artist in the shortlist of four. She didn't win, but given that the Victor Treacy Award is aimed at an emerging artist, on the basis of the focus, resourcefulness and energy of her work I would have given her the award.

Not that there isn't plenty of energy elsewhere. Eamon O'Kane, notably, is a prolific and versatile artist with an apparently limitless, omnivorous appetite for absorbing the world and reprocessing it as art.

An exceptionally capable individual, he is theoretically literate and fluently competent in whatever medium he turns to - here, photography, video and painting.

And yet, and yet . . . The sheer volume and promiscuity of his output is a bit perplexing. His After Kafka's Amerika project, for example, represented here and involving the painted transcription of masses and masses of photographs, while awesome in terms of its logistics, seems to rely on a tenuous underlying rationale, a not untypical state of affairs for him. Only an eye, one might say, but a curiously indiscriminate eye.

There is also an open-ended quality to the work of Daniel Jewesbury, who won the award. Both video pieces shown here portray examples of cultural dislocation.

In one we hear a recording of part of a Beethoven piano sonata played by Glenn Gould, but all we see is the bland facade of a red-brick house inside which the recording is being played. In the other we see, playing on a television monitor, a looped clip from Gillo Pontecorvo's propagandist classic The Battle of Algiers, in which the cynical French colonel cynically finds a name for his counter-insurgency operation.

Both are partly titled Cul De Sac, and both seem to be embedded in so many layers of irony - Beethoven's deafness, an inaudible performance rendered audible, France's imperialist cul-de-sac and other ironic elaborations - that there is an irony overload and the work is, literally, overwrought. Jewesbury comes across as rapturously absorbed in theoretical subtleties. But the pleasure and profit of parsing and dissecting meanings, media and nuances are ultimately offset by the law of diminishing returns.

Claire Halpin's paintings are greatly enlarged reworkings of typical family photographs. But in the process of translation the images become distorted to the point of illegibility.

For the most part Halpin achieves this effect by dragging wet pigment over a textured, irregularly corrugated ground.

We can read any or all of several implications into this. There is a sense of an ultimately elusive reality, of the difficulty of the fidelity of representation, photographic or painted. Or of the past as fundamentally coloured and recast by insights subsequently gained. The problem is that by now we are traversing well-trodden ground.

Since Gerhard Richter started dragging and smudging pigment to create his photographic-looking black-and-white paintings in the 1960s, the effect has been widely and variously used and developed.

While Halpin's work has going for it a slightly claustrophobic concentration on the family unit and family rituals, its execution is as yet uneasy.

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is visual arts critic and contributor to The Irish Times