Through the looking-glass with Alice

Even those familiar with the mischievous work of Alice Maher over the past quarter of a century will find surprises in her ‘Becoming…

Even those familiar with the mischievous work of Alice Maher over the past quarter of a century will find surprises in her 'Becoming' retrospective at Imma's Earlsfort Terrace galleries, writes AIDAN DUNNE

FROM EARLY on, Alice Maher’s art has drawn on a rich, nutritive mix of myth, history, fairy tales and personal experience. She has imaginatively inhabited a transformative space, approaching it with a mischievous, disruptive intelligence and a distinctly feminist sensibility. Look to the set of muscular drawings that make up The Thicket, for example, made in 1990 and included in Becoming, her current midterm retrospective at Imma’s Earlsfort Terrace galleries, spanning 25 years of work.

They feature a wilful protagonist, a young girl who plays capriciously with the world around her and seems possessed of magical powers. She’s curious, brave and a bit reckless, powerful yet vulnerable, with a dawning, as yet irresponsible awareness of her untapped potential. It’s tempting to see her as an alter ego for the artist, a fictional persona, an Alice in Wonderland. Certainly Maher has not shied away from direct involvement in her work, becoming her own model in her 2003 photographic series Portraits (several are on view at Imma) or imprinting her painted body on bed linen for Celebration Robes in 1989.

She’s just as present, if less literally so, in virtually everything she’s done. One favoured device is a form of synecdoche, by which one detail or element symbolises the whole. Notably in her work, hair or head implies the person. The person in question, one feels, is the questioning, risk-taking, emergent artist.

In Familiar II from 1994, one of a particularly provocative and inventive series of works combining paintings with sculptural objects, a tiny bronze female head is partnered with a large, semi-abstract painting. It’s a problematic pairing, inescapably putting it up to us to think again about how to look at both, and not for a moment letting us rest easily with either.

On one level it is comparable to work like Janine Antoni’s, undermining the idiom of formalist abstraction by awkwardly situating the everyday, the human, the corporeal and, specifically, the feminine at its heart. Maher has used the image, and object, of the head many times in this way: “I don’t think of them as decapitated heads or that there is something missing,” she says. It’s not a cultural-historic reference – to the Celtic head cult, say – but a way of seeing and thinking.

Similarly, Maher has used hair as a motif. In stories and artworks, hair can signify the female body that patriarchal hierarchical systems seek to police and control. Maher has said she was making drawings of long, braided hair, in the mid-1990s, while living in France, when someone said she was illustrating the story of Mélisande, the princess whose hair grows fantastically, until she is symbolically and violently “tamed” by a prince. She hadn’t heard the story, but acknowledged its relevance.

“The stories are out there,” she told Carol Eckman, of New York’s Nolan/Eckman Gallery, in 2000, “and you just refer to them without knowing.”

She inhabits her work in other ways. “I never draw from life,” she says, meaning she would never pose a model in front of her and make a representational image. Rather, she visualises the bodily attitude she has in mind and assumes that position herself. Literally.

To make an image of a woman lying on the ground, for example: “I lay on the ground, for a long time. I think if you feel what it’s like you can draw that feeling. Because for me it’s not about capturing a likeness – or capturing anything, in fact – it’s about extracting something, excavating something.”

With the Portraits series, Maher began working with actor and writer Olwen Fouéré as the model, and then realised she was in some way copping out by not putting herself in front of the camera. “They’re based on very formal Renaissance portraits of women, often where the nobleman gets a record of his bride, and I thought, no, make the artist the subject – and of course it’s the artist as woman.”

The portraits, like her more recent, drawn animation films, evoke the spirit of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “In which people undergo all sorts of transformations, into plants and even stones.”

Change and the possibility of change underlie a great of what Maher does. “So much of what I make seems to be fragile and perishable,” she says. Obviously so in the case of her bee or berry dresses, her nettle coat and Cell, the bristling globe of brambles originally made for Kilmainham Gaol. Less obviously so in the case of chalk drawings on velvet and huge charcoal drawings on paper. These could be chemically fixed and sealed, but she resists doing that. “It would be as if they’re lost behind a glaze of varnish, which makes them something else. Part of the point of them is their fragility, that they are susceptible to change.”

Even those familiar with Maher’s work will find Becoming full of surprises. Working with curator Seán Kissane and lighting designer Aedín Cosgrove of Pan Pan Theatre, she has done much more than merely assemble a selection of her existing pieces. She has reimagined them and designed the exhibition so each room is a distinct installation in itself. There’s also a new film, Cassandra’s Necklace, and a site-specific installation, L’Université.

Cassandra’s Necklace stems from a previously unpublished script by Anne Enright. At the beginning of the project, curator Seán Kissane asked her to name a writer she really liked. She immediately thought of Angela Carter. “He said he was thinking of a living writer who might contribute to the catalogue. I said Anne. I like her because she’s a very visceral writer who mixes the contemporary with the weirdly ancient.”

They approached Enright. “She came up with a short, unpublished script she’d written in the 1980s about the mythical prophetess Cassandra.” The revised script is included in the show’s accompanying publication and was the starting point for the short film. Spurned by Cassandra, Apollo’s revenge was to ensure no one would believe her infallible prophecies. Maher has visualised this by reworking an image from Portraits, a fairly grisly one in which she wears a necklace of tongues. In the film, actor Charlie Murphy, adrift in a strange, subterranean realm, dons the necklace.

Crucial to Becoming, Maher says, is the fact the show occupies Earlsfort Terrace and not the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. “I’m thrilled to be here. Kilmainham is a series of identical rooms; here virtually every room is a different size and shape, and I’ve even been able to use the lecture theatre and the real tennis court.”

Kissane echoes the sentiment, describing it as a labyrinthine exhibition for a labyrinthine building. Even the accompanying publication, designed by Peter Maybury, follows a labyrinthine pattern.

Maher is definite on one point: “I really don’t want anyone to visit the exhibition and be told: ‘Well, this piece means such and such.’ There is no simple key to meaning. I hope they really engage with it and see what they get from it, and in a way that depends on what they bring to it themselves.”

Alice Maher: Becoming is at Imma at NCH, Earlsfort Terrace, until February 3rd