A fair view of art


ART:An ambitious art project, with simultaneous shows in New York and Dublin, was dreamed up in a gallery on Dublin's northside. Have a look at 'Wildly Different Things'

LAST YEAR, Ciara Gibbons and Jane Ross of Dublin’s Blue Leaf Gallery went visiting art fairs to get a sense of what was going on in the art world internationally. “We went to all the major fairs, including Basel and Art Basel Miami, and we were building up contacts as we went along,” Gibbons recalls.

They were also both reading Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World. Thornton is a sociologist as well as an art historian, and she takes an ethnographic approach to the art world. She looks on it as a subculture to be figured out in terms of its structures, its social rules and meanings.

Thornton also quotes Robert Storr, late of MoMA in New York and currently dean of the Yale School of Art. A painter, writer and curator, he was director of the Venice Biennale in 2007. On that occasion, he observed that: “The dire predictions of global homogenisation are just not true. There’s a lot of shared information, but people do wildly different things with it.”

That struck a chord with Gibbons and Ross. “If you look back to the centuries prior to this one,” Gibbons says, “there was always a centre where everyone went to learn new techniques and possibilities.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was Paris, then at some point it became New York. “We thought that, with greater freedom of movement and instantaneous communication on the internet, not only would there not be a centre in that sense anymore, but also everything would incline towards sameness. Yet as we looked at the art fairs and talked to people, it seemed to both of us that while there was no obvious centre anymore, it was as Robert Storr described it, people were doing wildly different, totally unpredictable things, they weren’t all the same.”

They tried to think of a way to bring some of the diversity of what they were seeing to Dublin. “In the end we came up with this idea of what you might call a face-off between two different cities.” The cities they decided on are Dublin and New York. Giulia Coccia, who had just finished working at the Guggenheim, got involved and helped point them in the right direction. There are two main and two subsidiary curators involved in the New York half of the show – Karim Hamid and Andres Kuefer, and Elena Avesani and Coccie, respectively.

That’s the genesis of what has become a major exhibition, Wildly Different Things, its title taken from Storr, which opens in Dublin on Thursday. “At the moment,” Ross says, “we have confirmations from 36 artists.” That’s a lot of artists, each showing between one and three pieces, their work ranging across contemporary practice. “Initially we were concerned that we might have too many painters, but actually there’s painting, drawing, installation, sculpture, film, video and photography – the New York curators came up with a lot of photography.”

The Blue Leaf Gallery on Marino Mart in Dublin 3, is a modestly scaled space, obviously not remotely capable of holding so much work. Even the gallery’s occasional offsite space, in an office building in Hatch Street, wouldn’t quite suffice.

“Really we just walked around the city,” Ross explains. “We looked at what was available and knocked on doors.” Their search took them to a completed but not yet fitted out building, The Observatory, at 7-11 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. The show will occupy the ground floor of the building, comprising several different rooms. “We wanted to create a different space in each room. The lighting is very controlled in the back room, highlighting each installation, whereas the front room, with paintings and photographs, is well lit.”

“From our point of view,” Ross says, “what’s important is that it isn’t a Blue Leaf show as such. We tried to be very open about who we invited to participate. What we’re aiming for is a cross-section, to get a sense of what is going on. We didn’t want to say, now video is it, or photography, or whatever. Some people who’ve come to our gallery have said that they’re quite intimidated by contemporary art galleries. We want a show that doesn’t exclude the public in that way, something they’ll be able to look at and come to their own conclusions about.”

There is a huge range of work on view. Among the Irish artists are Margaret O’Brien, who is making a terrific installation piece; Sean Hillen, whose witty photographic collages can also be seen at Alliance Française; video and drawings by Aideen Barry; bravura paintings by Tom Climent, and Ronan McCrea’s detailed exploration of corporate culture. Oisin Byrne’s photographic and film record of his performance work, The Paper Ball, presents the extraordinary spectacle of 90 people in festive mode clad in “fantasy ball gown/robes created from paper.” The paper, as it happens, was obtained from The Irish Times. And the performance was filmed by highly regarded cinematographer Andrew Legge.

Among the New York artists is Hank Willis Thomas, whose extremely effective photographic works use the language and methods of advertising and corporate communications to comment on race, politics and economics. Also featured are Hamid’s incisive figurative paintings and photo-collages; Natalie Tyler’s sculptures exploring processes of natural decay; Ray Sell’s pictorial accounts of what it’s like to grow up and live in a televisual culture; Micaela Walker’s insightful, moody photographs; Dasha Shiskin’s elaborate, dreamlike fantasies and Will Cotton’s light-as-air, nostalgic but also slightly unsettling pictorial confections. It is, generally, very accessible work, not dependent on abstruse theoretical explanations.

Gibbons and Ross are particularly delighted that Theo Dorgan has agreed to curate an evening of responses to the work on view by a number of poets and performance artists, and an open, informal discussion evening is also planned. The US Embassy has also pitched in with its backing. March, Ross points out, will be “Irish-American Cultural Heritage Month” in the US.

Some observers have commented that they are either brave or foolhardy in the timing of such an ambitious event. “Foolish or not,” Ross notes, “we think it’s important to get art visible out there, to engage. It’s not a commercial undertaking in the conventional sense – though of course,” she adds quickly, “we really hope to cover our costs.”

Wildly Different Things: New York and Dublin, presented by Blue Leaf Unlimited, will be on show at The Observatory, 7-11 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, from next Thursday until March 20th. wildlydifferentthings.com