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Guggi: Them exhibition review – An exploration with an almost haunting sense of primordial kinship

This is one of the artist’s most autobiographical exhibitions, sharpened by the recent deaths of his parents

Guggi: Them

Kerlin Gallery

★★★★☆

Memory holds an endless fascination. The way it works and doesn’t work, the fact that moments we seem to remember so clearly are in fact shaped and altered by our mood, by our recent experiences, or warped by a deficit of attention that is conveniently forgotten afterward. A friend remarked to me recently that memory is more like “archived imagination” than a record of what happened, acknowledging the debt that every recollection owes to our individual perspective.

Guggi’s work at the Kerlin renders this theatre of memory visible. Affectingly, the artist’s exhibition, his latest in a 30-odd-year career, reflects on his parents. We understand from the exhibition notes that he considers this show one of his most autobiographical, and the personal stakes are raised when we realise that the artist’s parents recently died: his father in 2022, his mother in 2023.

The password to unlock the show is found in the eponymous painting Them. The indefinite pronoun speaks to the profound attachment that the work explores, as though the presence of the artist’s mother and father dwells at a more subterranean level of consciousness than explicit references or names can reach. The four-letter word conjures an almost haunting sense of primordial kinship: before you knew others, before you even knew yourself, you were only aware of “them”.

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The painting itself is split in two. The larger part is a simple plane of white acrylic paint, lightly and unevenly applied, creating an evanescent, fog-like effect that reveals the brown paper underneath. Four equal semicircles, like two-dimensional cups, are layered in graphite on the surface. The smaller part, a black parcel on the edge of the painting, features two long and abstract shapes; slim, exiguous forms, heavier on top than below. These shapes elicit and reinforce the uncanny sense of primordiality: they are like ancient, prefigurative icons daubed in charcoal on a cave wall.

The other paintings, such as Rememory, Robertstown, and For Winnie, develop the visual template established by Them. They mostly feature two distinct panels of contrasting colours and brushstrokes: one half a pale, pearlescent field, the other a darkly hued zone. Several motifs link the series: black crosses, for instance, appear in a number of places, sometimes positioned prominently over the surface of the base-layer, sometimes near-imperceptible, as though vanishing into the background. The swooping line of the graphite semicircles also return, manifesting in much larger iterations than the original, at times barely fitting on to the canvas.

The relevance of these geometrical shapes is further illuminated by the Robbie and Me work. These involve photographs of items that Guggi’s father, a bicycle wholesaler, amassed at home and in his business. Superimposed on images of rotten metal plates and broken-down vans, pale shapes float by, like ghostly organisms. These entities mediate and transform the photographic record, diminishing any claim to objective observation. Instead, these images are invested with an elegiac spirit, wrapped in a perceptible veil of memory like a muslin shroud.

Highly affecting and personal work.

Them continues at Kerlin Gallery until Saturday February 24th, 2024.