Beneath the surface of ordinary family life | Visual art round-up

Sabine Lacey paints real photographs to explore the history of a family; Bridget O’Gorman’s sculptures point to some unspoken calamity; and Johnny Savage’s book is a thoughtful, valuable take on the 21st-century Irish landscape

Unspoken – Paintings by Sabine Lacey

Ballina Arts Centre, Co Mayo


Following the death of her mother-in-law, Sabine Lacey was helping to sort through her possessions. It struck her that in discarding belongings one is also discarding a life.


Further, as his mother’s death meant Sabine’s husband was an orphan, his last family bonds were in the process of dissolution just as he had to deal with a cancer diagnosis. A bundle of family photographs she came across in a drawer seemed an especially poignant reminder of that dissolution. She embarked on making paintings based on the family photographs as a means of retrieving memories and bringing them into the present.

This straightforward aim became more complicated as she immersed herself in the work. She began to identify with the individuals in the photographs, empathising with their hopes, feelings, strengths and vulnerabilities. Increasingly, the photographs seemed to her to "resist inner reality" in that they typified an idealisation of family life in the formulaic way that family photographs tend to do. Her exhibition, Unspoken, refers to what lies beneath the surfaces of the images, the more complex reality of the dynamics of family relationships over generations, the hidden stories of the individuals who make up families.

The paintings she has made revisit the photographs. Rather than ratcheting up the emotional temperature, she cools it down, inviting us to consider the subjects in a considered, nuanced way. Compositions are edited, forms simplified, the palette is muted and harmonious, the tones close and calm. Features are often minimally described. She encourages a certain distance, inviting our considered attention.

These family snapshots feature holidays, family gatherings, special events and other moments that encapsulate enthusiasms and pleasures. Lacey's titles nudge us towards the Unspoken with intimations of doubt, loneliness, vulnerability, pretence and other staples of family life. Good as the individual pieces are, the work's real strength is cumulative and collective. While there is no conventional, linear narrative, the series amounts to a study of a family through the idiom of the photograph album. The final work, Looking Forward, allows a burst of lively orange. It's a study of an infant with an adult on a beach. The infant is the artist's daughter.

Telling the Bees – Bridget O’Gorman

Galway Arts Centre


“A series of fabricated clay and glass objects contaminate the Galway Arts Centre.” Not the press release most artists would dream of, but it’s an accurate description of Bridget O’Gorman’s sculptures, consisting as they do of “petrified secretions, spillages, warped objects” and golden-yellow smears on swathes of silk. In that last case the liquid is honey, and the silk is draped over brass supports as though part of some oddly dysfunctional ritual – or anti-ritual. Equally the frozen secretions, consisting of slumped glass and glazed ceramic, seem to melt or slide over brass and wood frameworks.

They are also poised between beauty (very beautiful, if you look closely) and ugliness, suggesting both objects of value and messy organic decay. In mood and substance there is a correspondence between the work and the heraldic banners at half-mast that featured prominently in Isabel Nolan's show Bent Kness Are a Give, at the Kerlin earlier this year. O'Gorman does have something like dysfunctional ritual in mind when she creates "nonsensical and transgressive relics". The printed streaks of honey represent for her something irretrievably lost. It is hard not to think that she has current concerns over the future of honeybees in mind.

Her centrepiece, a slow, engrossing video called Telling the Bees alludes to this, citing an Irish folk saying: "They said that if you didn't tell the bees of a wedding, a birth or a death . . . they would take offence and leave." To a soundtrack of bee lore and extracts from 19th century science fiction, a camera prowls the rooms and corridors of an abandoned building, a vacated army barracks whose location, O'Gorman says, translates as "honey meadow" – presumably Kickham Barracks in Clonmel.

The rueful tone of the narrator, the prophetic scientific visions rooted in the past, a sense of some unspoken calamity centred on the empty, institutional building, all recall the mood of Martin Healy’s ongoing sequence of short, dystopian films. O’Gorman very effectively sets up the barracks as symbolising what might be termed the military-industrial complex, engineering its own ruin through the exploitation and domination of the natural world, represented here by the bees.

Fallout – Johnny Savage

The Velvet Cell, Limited Edition of 400, £10


Johnny Savage's Fallout is a compact book based on a series of photographs made for his MFA at the University of Ulster in 2014 and since exhibited at several venues. The photographs are contemporary landscapes. He travelled throughout Ireland looking at a particular kind of relic of the Celtic Tiger: large vacant buildings on the edge of urban precincts.

As he puts it, these buildings “quietly haunt the periphery of towns and cities: anonymous, identical, in a limbo between the real and unreal”. Savage pictures in the half-light of dawn or dusk, looking into expanses of plate-glass windows so that we see an eerie amalgam of the empty interiors and reflections of the surrounding landscapes.

The book, roughly A5 in a horizontal format, could be described as a visual essay. It is a thoughtful, valuable take on the 21st-century Irish landscape. It's published under the imprint of the Velvet Cell, an independent non-profit publisher established by Irish-born Éanna de Fréine in 2011, when he was doing an MA in photography and urban cultures at Goldsmiths University of London, having previously studied sociology at NUI Maynooth.

De Fréine, who is now based in Osaka, has said he set up the Velvet Cell “to give a home to urban photography that I felt a strong connection with” but that was under-represented in conventional publishing. That is, broadly speaking, urban photography with a sociological dimension, exploring the confluence of populations, architecture, planning and modernity. In its brief history to date, the imprint has been amazingly productive and adventurous.