'Build it and they will come'


VISUAL ARTS:Its opening exhibitions show off the character and strength of the impressive new Visual arts centre in Carlow, which had the vision and the nerve to build it

THE LAUNCH of Carlow’s Visual Centre for Contemporary Art during an economic downturn is a bold, even boldly counter-intuitive, act. Yet Visual was conceived well before the advent of the Celtic Tiger, to fulfil a perceived need and, significantly, to energise and enhance visual culture not alone in Carlow but in the country as a whole. For many years the town organised and hosted its own visual arts festival, Éigse, which next year will take the form of a retrospective, appropriately based in Visual. More recently, Carlow has also been home to a preparatory series of arts events under the title Visualise.

Three individuals, among many, were closely associated with these two projects: Carlow College President Fr Caoimhín Ó Néill, Éigse’s indefatigable advocate Paddy McGovern, and Carlow’s resident arts officer for several years Caoimhín Corrigan (now based in Leitrim where The Dock in Carrick-on-Shannon is the central exhibition venue), who played a central role in the inception of Visual and the strategy of Visualise. The significance of both it and Éigse lies in the fact that over a period of years Carlow has hosted a huge, outstanding range of contemporary visual art, habituating the local population to its sometimes arcane but usually rewarding ways, and establishing Carlow as a visual arts venue in a national and international context.

The leap from there to the opening of what is a genuinely impressive building, with its sequence of carefully considered exhibition and project spaces, has been more than brave and has entailed an extraordinary level of commitment from everyone involved, not least the administrative and political staff of the town and county, who displayed a resolve that would put their national counterparts to shame.

The opening exhibitions and related events are ideally suited to showing off Visual’s character, strengths and potential. At the heart of the building is a monumental space, not by chance the largest single gallery in Ireland. Visual’s director, Carissa Farrell, who was previously at Draíocht and IMMA, has created a show for the main gallery called The Weight of Light, an exploration of Irish abstraction. It was inspired by the gallery itself. “When I saw it,” she says, “I thought it was fantastic. It seemed cathedral-like, and it called out for work with a sense of the sublime about it – in the way that Rothko’s has. So I asked myself, who fits that bill?

“I wanted very little work, in the sense that I really didn’t want to clutter the space. And I wanted generally large, calm pieces, because it’s partly a homage to the achievement of the architect , Terry Pawson.”

She had other priorities as well. “It was important that the artists were Irish, or that Ireland was especially important to them. I wanted the show to be a tribute to an established generation of artists, because I feel they worked so hard to create a context for the visual arts in Ireland. There are many young artists now in Ireland who are doing tremendous work, and that’s largely because of what’s come before.”

As it happens, large and calm is a mostly apt description for what’s on view. Maud Cotter’s modular sculpture sets out to colonise the room, though in a subtle, understated way. Sean Scully’s four-piece painting has the end wall to itself. Restrained and spare in terms of its composition and tonal range, it’s grave and serene, and works brilliantly in the space. Like everything else there, it rewards sustained attention rather than a passing glance.

Charles Tyrrell and Richard Gorman have provided huge paintings in which several panels are combined to make single, overall compositions. Eilís O’Connell’s elliptical cone-shaped sculpture is characteristically elegant and invites consideration from every aspect. Not to gender stereotype, but it does recall a generation of women artists whose achievements include what might be called the humanisation of modernism. Michael Warren’s massive rectangular wooden block reads as two interlocking forms but is carved from a single tree trunk, a simple idea that generates complex effects. A Patrick Scott painting has all the symmetry and restraint that defines his work, and there’s a sense of purposeful movement built into the order of the Cecil King composition. Sean Shanahan’s corner piece leapfrogs its way up the wall in blocks of colour. Outside the main room, in the Link Gallery, Polly Apfelbaum’s colour floor installation, one of her “fallen paintings”, picks up the reflected light from a pool outside and is like a continuation of The Weight of Light.

Upstairs there’s a distinct change of emphasis in the Digital Gallery. Farrell approached Irish performance artist Amanda Cooganto do something for the opening. She came back with a counter-proposal – which has been enthusiastically taken up – to curate a sequence of performance events with a continuous element.

“Performance is often seen as an extra,” Coogan says. “As something that is almost an addition to an exhibition. What I wanted to do was to make a continuous sequence of performance events, so that they form the exhibition in themselves.” Her Beckettian performance, in which she shredded a vast, voluminous “skirt” of canvas, formed the opening event, and she’s invited five other artists to contribute six live performance hours each, until the end of November. If you don’t manage to catch the performances themselves, you can see edited 10-minute recordings of each, together with compact video documentation of the work of all six artists, in the Digital Gallery. They all use the same space, inhabited by the same props and materials – notably a table that will play a vital role in Brian Connelly’s performance. Alistair McLennan, a pioneering performance artist in the Irish context and an enormously influential artist and teacher, is the final participant, on November 28th. By then, Connelly, Neva Elliott, Declan Rooney and Berlin-based, Chinese-born Yingmei Duan (who studied with Marina Abramovic at the same time as Coogan), will have performed. Coogan makes light of her first role as curator but she’s come up with a fascinating line-up representing a wide range of approaches.

That’s not all there is to see in Visual. Tadhg McSweeney and Ciarán Walsh each have atmospheric sculptural installations.

McSweeney’s stairwell piece expands on his interest in kinetic sculptures and he has devised a projected work that evokes animated cinematic imagery and effects in a wistful, haunting way. Walsh looks to psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich’s controversial theories of ‘Orgone’ energy and the technologies he concocted to harness it. There are echoes of Joseph Beuys as well in Walsh’s marshalling of workaday materials to generate this “esoteric energy”.

Part of Walsh’s piece is a projection of coloured primary forms. They draw on devices from chromotherapy (colour therapy) and neatly complement the terrific exhibition of screenprints by Josef Albers who, as artist and as teacher at the Bauhaus, and in the US, was a central figure in Modernism (across the fields of art, design and architecture). The show, from the Southbank Centre in London, is a perfect choice for this architectural setting.

It’s appropriate, as well, that a Visualise project, Daphne Wright’s Stallion, featuring a death cast of its subject, should form part of the opening season. Farrell emphasises that there was no compunction, its inclusion was left entirely to her but, as she acknowledges, she would have been mad to say no.

Like the Kevin Costner character in Field of Dreams, who hears a voice telling him, “If you build it, he will come,” Carlow has built what sets out to be a national facility, and is now reckoning on the audience turning up. What’s on offer more than justifies a visit. Among the questions Farrell is most frequently asked is: why is this happening in Carlow? The answer isn’t just: why not?

“It’s because Carlow had the vision and the nerve to do it, and was prepared to raise the money.”

Visual Centre for Contemporary Arts, Old Dublin Road, Carlow