Dreaminess and mystery abound


VISUAL ART:AROUND 1730 William Hogarth produced a series of six satirical paintings under the title The Harlot’s Progress. The series sprang from just one painting, which gave Hogarth the idea for an episodic story of a country girl who, after brief success as a fashionable courtesan in London, is cruelly used, falls into prostitution and is quickly dispatched by a brutal society, aged just 23. The paintings no longer survive, which is a pity, but Hogarth went on to make a popular series of engravings from them. They pre-date his better known The Rake’s Progress.

Hogarth was a sharp-eyed social observer, and his intricately detailed compositions hinge on subtle actions and gestures. It is these details, curled up within the images, so to speak, that Jaki Irvine has turned to as a source for her short film City of Women, a joint project on the part of Dublin City Council’s The Lab, and Draíocht in Blanchardstown. The Lab, located on the corner of Foley Street, is not just a gallery – it also houses the council’s arts office.

Irvine’s film chronicles a kind of vigil. She invited “a diverse range of women” volunteers to populate Foley Street through the darkness of one night.

There they enact a total of 29 gestures abstracted from Hogarth’s engravings. They are observed by a wandering camera. Between each scene the screen fades and then comes alive again. The film’s trajectory, to the extent that it has one, is episodic and circular rather than conforming to any kind of conventional linear arc. In fact, Irvine seems to set out to avoid any linear narrative or, indeed, any snippets of narrative. We are kept in the dark about what exactly is going on between the women clustered in various groups, but we do get a sense of the interactions involved, and what might be described as hints of stories.

We also get a sense of solidarity among the women in relation to the surrounding, impinging and vaguely threatening darkness. A strange, dreamy atmosphere prevails, and that is a recurrent feature evident in many of Irvine’s films.

The film is screened downstairs in The Lab and, in the upstairs space, Hogarth’s engravings, on loan from the Madden Arnholz Collection at Imma, are on view. Set against Hogarth’s visual and narrative precision, Irvine’s work seems to posit an alternative, an attempt to break free from the social as well as the pictorial conventions, in a bid to negotiate another kind of communal space. There are losses as well as gains in the process: after all, Hogarth’s commitment to telling a story clearly serves a useful purpose.

DREAMINESS IScharacteristic of Claire Carpenter’s paintings at the Cross Gallery as well. They are small in scale and made with thin layers of tempera on gesso. Images emerge from successive washes of colour, often applied very freely, so that it seems they might dissolve completely in waves of pigment. Yet they don’t, because Carpenter likes to pin her images down in an almost photographic way – that is, despite the free brushwork, with a few notable exceptions, there’s not much expressive distortion when she actually zeroes in on representational content. In terms of visual description she mostly retains her objectivity.

Taken collectively, her work suggests something like a dream diary, though the show’s accompanying note, describing it as “fantasy and recollection”, also seems reasonable. An air of mystery pervades as we glimpse scenes involving figures in different interior and exterior settings.

Murder at Swan Lake, as the title implies, features a ballet scene, overwritten by violent scratches. In Blue house longing the house is there as a tiny motif, in a different register to the turbulent image of two embracing figures. It is very much “as if each brush stroke hides a dark secret.”

Downstairs at the Cross, in Nag, Peter Burns shows paintings under the title The Wayfarer. A recent MA graduate from NCAD, Burns makes clotted, densely worked little compositions, stocked with references that are for the most part self explanatory. If memory serves, his student work inclined towards inventively re-stating iconic images and figures. Here too he revisits subjects including “myths, Biblical stories, art historical, literary and musical themes”. The show’s title comes from Hieronymous Bosch, evoking the idea of a traveler in search of something undefined.

While the paintings are almost sculptural in the rugged density of their textures, Burns has a light touch. His Young tiger hunting wildfowl is a casein point, a radiant fantasy that has a touch of magic about it. While the admission of doubt in Little bird(probably more like a duck) is very likeable. He simplifies images in a cartoonish way, but not at all awkwardly. There’s real elegance to what he does, just as his inclination towards heightened colour doesn’t contradict the fact that he has really good colour sense.

City of Women by Jaki Irvine, The Lab, Dublin City Arts Office, Foley Street Ends Saturday

Claire Carpenter Fantasy and recollection in sensitively observed painting. Plus at the Nag, The Wayfarer: Paintings by Peter Burns. The Cross Gallery, 59 Francis Street Until March 3