Emotional Archaeology: Daphne Wright
RHA Gallagher Gallery, Dublin
While she is by no means unknown, and although exhibitions of her work in Ireland and elsewhere from the early 1990s onwards have been well received, Daphne Wright has not quite had the level of recognition she deserves.
On several occasions it seemed she was on the verge of attaining a breakthrough to wider public acclaim, which has never quite materialised. That may partly have to do with her own quiet temperament, which of course informs her work. As an artist, in terms of temperament, skills, industriousness and a rootedness in domestic life, she probably has a lot in common with Kathy Prendergast, who is also inclined to keep a low profile.
Also like Prendergast, Wright has been largely based in England – in Bristol since the mid-1990s – for much of her working life. She's won awards and exhibits with a first-class London gallery, Frith Street. Emotional Archaeology, a survey show that spans about 25 years of her work, was initiated and put together by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. Beautifully installed in the RHA Gallagher Gallery from the atrium to the vast Gallery I, it provides an ideal introduction to the range and quality of her achievement to date.
Don't expect razzmatazz. Wright has used the human voice in her installations pretty much from the beginning (and in her videos), and there are several memorable examples here, but, as Penelope Curtis notes in her essay, some of her sculpture is"so still, so quiet, noise might have been extinguished".
Strangely enough, silence plays its part, especially in those pieces in which the human voice plays a vital role. Wright is adept at creating those spaces in time that leave us waiting for the words – or, as often, sounds – that will dispel dramatic tension. Only to add to that tension.
She is quoted as using the phrase “soft, tender scrutiny”. She is that careful, scrupulous observer and, at first glance, all is usually calm and peaceful in her world. Sculpturally, she likes the soothing white of plaster, no alarms and no surprises, the innocuousness of the utterly familiar. But look again, spend a little time, and a much more unsettling, uneasy picture begins to emerge.
Moving on to actors and imagery, there is in I Know What it's Like, her 2012 video, the example of a neatly presented woman (Pameli Benham), who is an utter model of conventional decorum, until she alarms us with a sequence of odd, unpredictable, subtly transgressive observations and abstract, animal utterances, starting from the perspective of a mother suckling a baby and moving on via Lady Macbeth's homicidal urgings to the disintegration and distance of dementia. In six tense minutes the prosaic and potentially sentimental becomes troubling, estranged and other – but always uncomfortably recognisable.
The voice is equally effective in a sculptural installation from 20 years prior to that. Domestic Shrubbery is built to the proportions of a domestic sittingroom, in which the floral-patterned wallpaper has become three-dimensional and invaded the space. It is modelled and cast in plaster, replacing printed colours with a ghostly white. The suspended plaster is anxiously fragile and perhaps funereal. Worked into the regular pattern is a tiny heart. Home is where the heart is, perhaps: except that it is a rather brutal, butchered rendering of a heart and we can hear a voice imitating the call of a cuckoo.
Among other things, the cuckoo is known for insinuating its eggs into the nests of other birds. Wright has commented on her feelings of displacement at various points in her life, not least as an Irish person in England. But her installation doesn’t suggest any one line of meaning or interpretation. Rather its power derives from the way it reinterprets the domestic idyll as something infinitely more charged and complex, with received ideas of home, belonging and emotional comfort being thrown into question.
She was born into a farming background in Co Longford. "My mum's family were Huguenots and then Methodists, and my father's were Church of Ireland and Quakers, possibly Cromwellians." She clearly learned that identity is complex. Sure she wanted to be an artist, she went to study in Sligo RTC with Fred Conlon and Con Lynch. Materials and processes gave way to cool, adversarial conceptualism at NCAD in Dublin and then, after a brief interlude, she completed an MFA in Newcastle where, she says, young tutors from London provided "a Goldsmiths education." Several fellowships followed and she had begun making the work we see in Emotional Archaeology.
The first piece that greets you as you walk into Gallery I is Stallion. It is the startling antithesis of a classical monumental statue: a huge fallen beast on its back, its legs splayed in the air. Stallion is the most overtly dramatic of a series of sculptures cast from dead animals. Wright worked hard to find an appropriate medium, settling on a compound of marble dust and resin (she credits Mick O'Sullivan, a pioneer of resin as a sculptural material at NCAD).
The apparently partly flayed stallion is both a heroic and anti-heroic statement. Prize beasts are consigned to wretched ends on a routine basis. It’s like the other side of the story, the part never told in the victory monuments. Equally, the other animals in the series, from lamb to monkey, manage to convey that sense of an alternative, unsettling version of our notional relationships with our animal neighbours.
Wright’s tender but unflinching scrutiny is at the heart of her approach, plus the essential disconcerting note, deriving from sources as diverse as her wide reading and her liking for country and western lyrics.
Until February 26th, rhagallery.ie