A vulnerable, beautiful last goodbye Visual Arts

 

Reviewed The Long Goodbye, Margaret O'Brien. Droichead Arts Centre, Stockwell St, Drogheda. Until July 10. 041-9833946. Margaret O'Brien's site-specific installation at the Droichead Arts Centre, The Long Goodbye, is an extraordinary piece of work.

You realise that as soon as you enter the darkened gallery space, find yourself confronted by a high-walled, cube-shaped enclosure, and notice that the "walls" are composed of myriad individual teacups and saucers, all apparently crisscrossed with cracks. Make your way around the back of the enclosure and you find a way in. Inside you encounter several individual walls of cups and saucers, plus one individual pillar of fine bone china.

The installation inspires contradictory responses. On the one hand, it is a fortress-like structure, geometrically regular and impassive. On the other, it looks inherently fragile, so much so as to inspire anxiety. Apart from the inherent precariousness of stacks of cups and saucers, the free-standing, internal walls have an undulating, wavy form, as though they might crash at any moment. In the past, O'Brien's work has dealt very inventively with ideas relating broadly to self-image, notions of personal and public and how one is always slightly in between those two spaces, and with obsessive-compulsive behaviours as coping mechanisms.

We are surely in the same general area with The Long Goodbye.

Culturally, there is the ritual domesticity of tea-drinking, presented in an extreme context that imparts a sense of the construction of ritualistic behaviours as a defensive strategy. The ranks of cups also evoke time, like Eliot's Prufrock measuring out his life with coffee spoons, a long goodbye, in a definite sense.

Overall, we get a picture of an individual painstakingly erecting a barricade of therapeutic social behaviours - therapeutic partly because of the way the china is carefully patched and repaired - in the cause of protecting an inner, threatened self.

Yet despite the defences we construct, O'Brien seems to say, the self is inescapably vulnerable and open. In the scheme of her work - which is not at all fixed or prescriptive, incidentally - the protected self is perhaps the single pillar of fine china. But the protective environment is in itself fragile and inspires unease. The Long Goodbyeworks on several levels, not the least of which is that it's quite beautiful. The lighting is carefully controlled and the structure has the intricacy of a honeycomb. It draws you to it and then, wickedly, makes you nervous about brushing against it. It is site-specific, but it's a piece that deserves to be seen, and would work, in other contexts as well.

Imagined: Visions of Architecture, Eithne Jordan, Paul O'Connor.

The Dock, St George's Terrace, Carrick-on-Shannon. Until July 6. 071-9650828

After being based in the South of France for a number of years, Eithne Jordan made the landscape there her own. No mean feat given the many high-profile art-historical associations of the terrain. But what Jordan did was to approach the environment in her distinctively low-key way, a way that includes focusing on the overlooked and the nondescript. Rather than the picturesque, she looked to roadways, underpasses, verges and building sites, deserted in the tentative light of early morning or evening. Then, in 2005, she embarked on a residency at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris.

Some of the paintings she made in Paris have been on view at the Dock in Imagined - Visions of Architecture, paired with Paul O'Connor's photographs of contemporary architecture in Co Leitrim.

Again she goes for peripheral, vacant spaces, the corners of buildings rather than imposing facades, for example, or a courtyard dusted with snow. She is the most un-showy painter you could imagine.

There is no vanity in her brushwork, no expressive display. It's all functional. There's only as much there as it takes to get the job done, which is something she has in common with Velázquez, no less.

The paintings are outstanding and so understated that you have to give them time to appreciate their atmospheric subtlety. She picks up on the mean gleam of electric light reflected in puddles, in the chill air of a damp winter evening, and evokes a world of feelings.

The dominant feeling is perhaps a mood of paradoxically pleasant melancholy, a dreamy, reflective state. O'Connor's architectural photographs are exemplary, documenting the work of four practices.

It's good to see that there is such good contemporary domestic architecture being made in Leitrim and, more importantly, it's good to see a show in which people are encouraged to look critically and creatively at architectural possibilities, given the spectacular mess we've made of the development of the rural landscape in Ireland.

36DD, Bongi MacDermott.

Kevin Kavanagh, 66 Great Strand St., Dublin. Until July 14. 01-8740064

A huge image of a baby in a nappy, floating against a vivid pink background, dominates Bongi MacDermott's exhibition 36DDat Kevin Kavanagh. MacDermott has from the first been a bold, direct painter and that certainly applies to this work. As the show's title might suggest, the baby is flanked by paintings of breasts, much larger than life, depicted as separate from the body and mostly decorated in the manner of confectionery. The breast as a source of sustenance for the infant and as an object of consumption in other symbolic and literal contexts. The title, in fact, refers to the breasts measurement of one of the first page-three icons, Samantha Fox.

The breast has been fetishised to an extraordinary degree, a degree partly enabled by, and partly symptomatic of the rampant commodification of contemporary consumer culture. But MacDermott is not taking a high moral tone here, objecting to objectification. As the pivotal position occupied by the baby in her show suggests, her view is more complex. Babies are consumers par excellence, bundles of appetites. The Freudian view is that the breast is rediscovered later in life and again identified with pleasure, though in the modified terms of sexual gratification.

Previously, MacDermott's work has explored emotional intensity in terms of the absolute rule of desire, and she has consistently related desire to consumption, the consumption of expensive luxuries. The epic scale of the baby she paints refers to the scale of its desire, and earlier paintings situated a baby against sites of conspicuous consumption, rich pleasures. As you might realise, MacDermott doesn't take a sentimental view of things, and her show is worth seeing, not least for her forcefully incisive way with imagery.