Not for the faint hearted

 

Gabby Dowling's work is not for the faint-hearted. In their intensity, their dark theatricality and the unforgiving view of existence that they suggest, her Caged Portraits at the Hallward Gallery make for uneasy viewing. Mind you, it takes a while for all this to sink in. While her sculptures and drawings are literally quite dark, with leather and charcoal the dominant media, at first glance they seem pretty jokey - in a Gothic sort of way. In fact it is all pretty jokey, but the humour, like the sculpture, is barbed.

The drawings are not preparatory studies, as you might expect them to be. They are her own Enigma Variations, a group of cryptic portraits of friends and acquaintances, who may not be too pleased if they find out who's who. A pair of dice rattle around in a fleshless ribcage. A knife and fork, joined by a cord, are about to make a meal of a rose. Two feet, brutally truncated just above the ankles, are surmounted by wings, like a sardonic, self-defeating version of Mercury's sandals.

These are, you'd have to say, fairly acerbic character sketches. All are made in austere black and white, sometimes with a measured embellishment of gold pigment. The sculptures are masks or heads, and sometimes a bit of both. A catalogue note suggests they are self-portraits. Dowling has used the metaphor of imprisonment before, with fate, or conditioning or perhaps genetic destiny, in mind. Here, again, there are images of cages, constriction, containment, bondage.

The face of Baby is already set, its mouth a rigid buttonhole. In Blow, exhaled breath is transmuted into a bristling mat of quills. Tower is an Ozymandian folly, a castle in the mind. The puckered lips of Mouth are immured behind self-protective bars. In short, every option is a trap, every gesture misleading. The sculptures are virtuoso pieces of work, and in that virtuosity there is a kind of Nabokovian exultation, an awareness that art allows us the room for manoeuvre that life progressively closes down. Certainly there is exhilaration in the sheer inventiveness, the ingenuity with materials and the quick-witted interweaving of disparate influences. New Still Life at Jo Rain is a group show that sets out to see if there's still life in still life. And apparently there is.

The majority of the 21 participating artists have a contemporary take on the genre. Mark O'Kelly's flat, hard-edged paintings of calculators are a good humoured example. More critically, Francis Carthy sees Plato's Cave in the combination of domestic hearth and the television set. There's a metaphysical edge to Alan Connell's crisply painted record of what looks like a holiday residence in I Can't Stay Long. Perhaps he has in mind the out-of-time nature of holidays.

Something like this comes across in Niall McCormack's Cogitation as well. Mark Pepper explicitly stills life via time with his meticulous view of a wristwatch. Beth O' Halloran's little tent of sky is also a suspended moment. More conventional still life subjects are given imaginative treatment in David Quinn's subtle and atmospheric Yellow Head, Clea Van der Grijn's sensitively painted India and Geraldine O'Neill's ironic Flower Painting, with three dimensional paint brushes and flat, printed flowers.

In Stephen Loughman's meticulously rendered Hitchcockian Still Life a group of otherwise relatively neutral props - including phone, binoculars, a knife - evoke both individual films and the essence of the director's style in an agreeably understated way.

Caged Portraits by Gabby Dowling is at the Hallward Gallery until September 11th. New Still Life is at the Jo Rain Gallery until September 5th.