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Alan Phelan and Mark Swords: The List and the Line review - A riveting dialogue between past and contemporary aesthetic attitudes

The artists’ work, with its overt sensuousness and colourful bombast, is perfect for show at Casino Marino

Alan Phelan and Mark Swords: The List and the Line

Casino Marino, Dublin

If you haven’t visited Casino Marino, in north Dublin, there has perhaps never been a better time than now. This 18th-century national monument, which contains 16 impeccable rooms across three floors, is the fruit of the architectural and aesthetic education of James Caulfeild, 4th Viscount Charlemont, who as a young man travelled for many years, immersing himself in the cultures of Europe, Turkey and north Africa.

Amid the splendour of a building described as “perhaps our finest neoclassical jewel”, the work of artists Alan Phelan and Mark Swords sets in motion a riveting dialogue between past and contemporary aesthetic attitudes.

Phelan and Swords are perfect collaborators for an endeavour such as this: their practices are sharply distinct, but the styles of their artworks are, on a formal level, complementary, and they clearly share a penchant for playful interrogations of institutional space. In his last solo exhibition, for instance, Swords hacked the architectural infrastructure of the RHA by constructing a small enclosure at the centre of the room, like an extemporised artist sanctuary, which forced his expansive paintings to cluster together in anxious proximity.

In this setting, however, there is an abundance of space, and the pair take great advantage of the Casino’s layout, including a magnificent state room, the Zodiac room, and basement kitchens, as well as of architectural features such as its hidden recesses and parquet flooring. Phelan deserves credit for his imaginative opening salvo along the lower floors: at the entrance, his sculpture The Other Hand of Victory subversively nestles among some forlorn stonework; when you step inside, his Joly screen photographs proliferate throughout, the antique technology producing primary colours that contrast vividly with the cool, dimly lit interior, all of which serves to firmly set the tone, a performative dynamic that stages the interplay between old and new, past and present.


Fittingly, Swords and Phelan’s work is characterised by an overt sensuousness and colourful bombast, perfect for an exhibition within a historical pleasure demesne. Unlike a white-cube gallery, the Casino is, in the words of the critic James Merrigan, “a novel opportunity” to encounter work “not refrigerated from the outside world”. The state room in particular provides a sumptuous experience: the luxury of the environs, including gold-filigreed Ionic columns, amplifies the large-scale works Quelle Etoile, by Swords, and I Am the Goat (After Charlotte Devaney), by Phelan.

Phelan’s preoccupation with the red-green-blue colour model is writ large here, imbuing the oblique language and half-formed sentences splashed across the canvas with a visual heat. Swords’s offering is a painterly tapestry, where childlike abstractions mutate into butterflies and ambiguous plantlife, and black starfish swim gracefully within the borders of a rainbow mosaic that frames the centrepiece. The artworks pulse with an electric current, lighting up the room, giving its flavour of old licentiousness a thrilling nuance.

The List and the Line continues at Casino Marino, Dublin 3, until Monday, July 29th