Swings and war games in Claremorris

An exhibition in Mayo explores the ways we read and process media images

Claremorris Open Exhibition 2014

Town Hall Gallery and other venues in Claremorris, Co Mayo

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Claremorris is a small town in Co Mayo with a population of about 4,000. In 1978, as a local initiative, a committee was set up and the first Claremorris Open Exhibition of contemporary art was held. The formula was simple. There was an open invitation for artists to submit work, and a single, invited selector-cum-adjudicator chose exhibitors and prize-winners.

With impressive consistency, the Claremorris Open has been held annually since, which means it is well on course for its 40th anniversary. The first adjudicator was sculptor John Behan, and he launched the most recent instalment. The very nature of contemporary art has shifted since 1978. Then, you were dealing with predictable, traditional fare – paintings and sculptures, essentially, and mostly representational works at that.

Paintings and sculptures still exist in that sense, and there’s a fair number of paintings in this year’s show, but in the wider context, painting and sculpture are now but one strand in the tangled fabric of contemporary art.

This year's selector, curator Michelle Cotton, alludes to this in her programme note: "Not many people go to the trouble of organising 'open call' exhibitions these days." With too many artists working within too many diverse traditions and media, she says, the default option is to get a curator to come up with a unifying concept and theme, then draft in artists who fit. That's a fair summary of how things work, and it highlights a problem: too much power is concentrated in the person of the curator.

Cotton found herself sifting through more than 500 submissions of works or proposals for works. The show emerged from what was on offer rather than any given concept. Still, in whittling the 500-plus down to 18, presumably she had freedom in shaping the result. No unifying theme emerges, though preoccupations recur.

Notably, for example, Ian Wieczorek, Jane Queally and Jackie Burke explore in different ways how we read and process media images. Wieczorek's paintings are based on low-res internet photographs of missing persons in the US.

Despite public fears about intrusive surveillance and invasion of privacy, his blurred images imply, the digital realm is but a pale, vague and unreliable reflection of a complex reality. Behind the depthless surface of the screen, real people fade away. Oddly enough the poor-quality screengrab image has become incredibly powerful in the contemporary visual environment. In her compelling Call of Duty: Portraits, Queally takes an iconic form of truthful photograph, the Polaroid, and creates hazy, fictional Polaroids of an ominous media archetype: the posed, armed combatant in a war zone.

Work that tends towards relational aesthetics is another recurrent presence. Lisa Fingleton spent a week visiting local horticulturalists and, day by day, recorded their polytunnels, sheds and plots in simple, bold, line drawings, creating a composite vision of a rural community from snapshots of personal industry.

Again unifying individual experiences, Padraic O’Hora complied and made a large-scale map of routes taken by local residents on walks around the town. It’s installed in a shop window. Marielle MacLeman devised retro travel posters based on the region’s landscape and history. They’re on view at the post office.

Giddy Biddy – a Galway-based four-artist collaborative comprising Yvonne Casburn, Maria Hutton, Derval Leahy and Philippa Maguire – wove their own version of a harvest knot, one of the usually small, graceful, decorative knots that marked the completion of the harvest. Giddy Biddy underline the communal effort by weaving their outsized knot from fire hose.

Prompted by a request from his young daughter, Michael Gannon set about photographing tyre swings – car tyres suspended on lengths of rope from tree branches – throughout his Westport locality. He expected to find few but found many, with owners more than willing to allow him to take photographs.

The resultant series of images amounts to a form of cultural archaeology, as does Gavin Murphy’s film on the demolished Imco building complex on Merrion Road in Dublin. With its thoughts on modernity, progress and environment, the film is exceptionally relevant when seen in the midst of a busy Irish town, a place that is constantly in the process of being revised and remade, always facing the question of what form the future should take.

In fact, Murphy's film provides a perfect example of how a really good work of general relevance can gain an edge in an unexpected setting, and underlines the enduring worth of the Claremorris Open as an enterprise that remains rooted in the community. Until Oct 4, coearts.org

Further Complications of Hybrid Notions – Allyson Keehan

Claremorris Gallery, Co Mayo

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Allyson Keehan is best-known for her sumptuous, exact paintings of draped fabrics. Initially her paintings were more conventionally classifiable as still lifes in that they included emblematic objects of personal or economic value positioned against precisely described fabric backgrounds. Gradually the folds of lush, velvet fabric took over. As she put it, her interest shifted from the object to the background and the fall of light across it.

In this recent work, exclusively featuring luxuriant, deep blue swathes, she is also looking beyond the fabric, exploring the nature of painting as representation in relation to the flat, structured support, and the way the flow of drapery both conceals and reveals. Bound up with her treatment of fabric and illusion are ideas of sensuality, luxury, desire, and the body.

All of these considerations, and more, are there, but not explicitly. Perhaps the strongest aspect of her art is that there is no easy, prescriptive meaning or interpretation. Until Oct 4, claremorrisgallery.com