Hanging in the balance of order and chaos


If you can resist taking it literally, Isabel Nolan's solo exhibition could leave you feeling refreshed, writes GEMMA TIPTON

IT’S TEMPTING to think that things we can’t easily explain must be difficult. Looked at this way, Isabel Nolan’s exhibition, A Hole Into the Future, at The Model in Sligo, is very difficult indeed. There are paintings, wall hangings, drawings, delicately curving metal sculptural shapes covered in fabric, a line of white balls tracking its way across one of the galleries, like the spores of some strange alien being. But none of it is immediately open to explanation. Titles such as In a space, intimately unrelatedand Eventually into darkness, don’t exactly help, and it may take a leap of faith to get into the mental zone where none of this matters.

In fact, the thing one shouldn’t do with this work is to seek literal meaning. We live in a time in which we believe it ought to be possible to name, and understand everything fully. In physics this results in the convoluted intellectual knots tied by quantum and string theories, while in art it can engender tracts of texts seeking to explain the ineffable. It is not that Nolan’s work is anti-intellectual, rather that it operates on a plane where, if we park the urge to parse it all out in words and ideas, we can come to an understanding of feeling, and come away with a different sense of being in the world.

The artist summed up this idea when, in a talk presented at the exhibition’s opening, she described how, having been on a trip to the United States and coming face to face with some of the famous abstract works of the 1950s, the texts written about them faded into insignificance in the face of the incredible effect of simply standing in front of them: “it’s not what does an artwork mean, but what it is doing.”

Nolan’s large, meticulously made, fabric-covered metal sculptures describe bold arcs and curves in the gallery, calling to mind the philosophical idea that every object irrevocably alters and disrupts the space around it. Nolan acknowledges this, saying in her own text for the exhibition, “On one level, making an object is, I suppose, an opportunity to insert something else into one’s environment. What happens when we do this? Is something revealed? Does meaning get made?”

Everything affects everything – simply putting a work of art onto a plinth, a pedestal, changes how we see it. Meanwhile, many of Nolan’s drawings are bravely slight – in terms of form, though not of content. There are delicate pencil sketches, half-emerging ideas; dogs appear, and some lines of text, but everything is allusive, and elusive too.

In contrast, her paintings are full of bright colours, connected, if anything, to the paintings of Hilma af Klint, the Swedish artist and mystic, whose work developed in parallel to the birth of abstraction at the turn of the 20th century. Klint claimed her paintings derived from visions, brought to her by spirit guides.

Nolan, an Irish artist with an increasing international reputation (this exhibition is a co-production with the Musée d’Art Moderne de Saint-Etienne), makes no such claims, but she does want to make objects and images that are not too directly “tethered to the known world”.

Whether in the drawings, paintings, fabric wall hangings or wildly playful sculptures; colour, line and shape hang in the balance between order and chaos. And yet, as the artist experiments with each piece until it feels right, they coalesce into a strangely satisfying whole. Visit this exhibition looking for easily describable meaning, and it is irritatingly difficult. Go in the spirit of opening yourself up to the unknowable, and come away feeling changed and renewed.

A Hole into the Futureis at The Model, Sligo until February 12th