Searching for an alternative in Brit Art's wake


VISUAL ARTS:In her introduction to this year's Degree Show at the Cork's Crawford College, Sarah Foster points out, quite accurately, that "memory is a key element in many students' work." It is a preoccupation that manifests itself in a number of ways, including a recurrent, elegiac musing on family and self, a wistful, nostalgic retrospection that seems almost premature in the context of a student show.


Fine Art Degree Shows, Crawford

College Cork, Limerick School of Art and Design, Sligo Institute of Technology

One underlying implication is that, rather than becoming hard-headed materialists in the mould of 1990s Brit Artists, the rising generation of Irish artists might be looking inwards and searching for alternative values.

This theme was also evident in work in the Dublin colleges, but it is strikingly apparent in Cork. Tom Tracey's video installation sums up the mood effectively. A large-scale projection of flickering family snapshots is augmented by chill-out sequences of shoreline and sea. The idea is to make a space for the viewer to stop and reflect. In her perhaps overly elaborate but, taken piece by piece, exceptional installation, Siobhan Ryan explores a world of spiritual nurture and self-awareness.

Spectral images of the past, personal and communal, also surface in the work of Sinead Barry and Aoife McGovern.

Kathleen Kelly achieves some nicely wistful, atmospheric effects with images of mannequins. There is a dreamy, distant quality to Margaret Collins's evocation of the absent body in the form of garments and accessories. In her outstanding series of works, Lorraine Neeson engineers some remarkable effects, conjuring up a sense of the uncanny in miniature and life-size domestic settings that combine elements of memory, dreams and hallucinations in their visual qualities, and, striking a different note, she manages a coup de théâtre with her caller at the door.

The example of Neeson underlines something apparent throughout the Crawford show: the extraordinary level of commitment and hard work that has gone into the exhibition. Throughout most of the exhibits there is a gratifying feeling that these are young artists who are making the most of the opportunity. The phantasmagoric note sounded in Neeson's work is also central to Maria Blake's strange, soft-focus paintings, which are, in turn, not unakin to Claire Meade's mutable, free-floating imagery.

Not that it is all ethereal and intangible. There is a large complement of harder-edged body and identity work, not to mention Amelia Norman's robustly jocular sexual imagery.

Deirdre Finn's conflates inner and outer, physical and mental, worlds in her tough exploration of specific disease. Fiona Frisby's paintings offer schematic images of femininity into which she quietly infiltrates some less homogenised sugar-and-spice facts of life. At Limerick, Louise Somers explores a similar subject in a series of crisply-made images that parody advertising and instructional diagrams.

Back in Cork, obsessive compulsive and other fixations and constructions are treated in Sheelagh White's and Claire Stubbs's work. There is a note of menace in Roseanne's Franane's dark encounters.

Phillipa Kennedy fragments bodily processes and Lynda Loughnane visualises edge-of-consciousness experiences into sculptural objects. Twisted into expressive poses, Tima Wagner's life-like ceramic figures have a strangely forlorn, abject quality, a pathos that also characterises the work of another very capable figurative sculptor, Cara McGrath. Jacky Dillon's elegant forms hint at organic associations in ways that recall Eilis O'Connell and perhaps Alice Maher.

Dawn Lee's linked print and video pieces certainly come as something of a corrective to any touchy-feely tendencies. Appropriately sited in marginal spaces, at the end of a corridor and in a hard, functional stairwell, her work has an abrasive, uncomfortable edge. Made with understated precision, it focuses on minor anomalies, mishaps and events in a way that draws out larger underlying anxieties.

In terms of painting qua painting, a number of graduates set about programmes of deconstruction, including Deirdre Levins, whose easel paintings are carefully and methodically dissected. Her two small pieces incorporating skins of paint are especially effective. As with Siobhan Tattan's exhaustively deconstructed squares, there is always the possibility of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Taking the grammar of painting apart, rather than its physical constituents, was very much a feature of the Sligo Institute of Technology's fine art degree show. Several graduates attacked their work with an analytical rigour that didn't deter them from the acceptance of an incalculable, irrational something else in the finished product. Hence John Maguire's highly effective strategy of colonising the exhibition space in a variety of unorthodox ways, in a series of self-reflexive, fragmented and reconstructed artworks that cleverly draw you into a careful consideration of their make- up.

Though different in approach and appearance, there is a certain similarity in the way Shane O'Gorman's casually layered accumulations of images and expanses take off into irregular formats and then beyond the confines of the pictorial edge altogether, to explore and incorporate the surrounding wall-space. In this area, Jessica Brouder in Limerick does extremely good work, using materials and techniques inventively and flexibly, as does Philip Doyle, who makes subtle paintings that combine chance formulations with exacting, deliberate method, making pieces that pose any number of questions of the viewer.

Back in Sligo, Teresa Loughlin references fabric in her woven patterned paintings, building up symphonic blocks of colour, sometimes in bold, atonal combinations. Like Tattan in Cork, Lisa Carroll recalls the classical abstract exploration of the square. Katrina Regan builds up convincingly minimal compositions in successive layers of colour and to a consistent format. Many people, assuming this kind of minimal painting is easy, try and fail. To do it well, as Regan does, is rare and difficult.

It is notable that, while lens-based media are in the ascendant in Dublin, a more hands-on emphasis is still evident elsewhere. In particular, the strong showing photography in Dublin is nowhere matched in the other colleges. Conversely, the relative dearth of painting in Dublin is in marked contrast to elsewhere. There is a strong feeling in the Limerick Degree show that things can still be worked out in terms of painting.

So, Allyson Keehan appropriates media images of rugby matches and subjects ambiguous details of male physical contact and effort to a voyeuristic female gaze. But rather than doing so in purely photographic terms, she reworks and augments the images in paint. Martin O'Callaghan's paintings could also form the substance of a photographic project, but they too work well as he chose to do them. His idea was to take innocuous images of houses that have been burgled, burned or have been otherwise the subject of intrusive events and make paintings that suggest an unease underlying the domestic calm.

Something similar emerges in quite a different way in Henna Halonen's intriguing domestic dramas which occasionally project a disturbing tension. The exploration of the domestic is something of a common thread in much of the Limerick work.

Among the sculptors in Limerick, Rebekah Wall stands out for her single, spectacular installation, based on the idea of ornament and display in animals as translated to humans and so swapping gender, from male to female. It convinces not so much as a cultural argument, more as a brilliantly conceived and executed physical object. Tom Flanagan's film boasts exceptionally high production values and some striking imagery. That, it should be said, is by no means all. Aisling Flynn, Belinda Power, Annie Harrison, Karen Normoyle, Rebecca Babington, Sinead Barry, Rose Foley, Catriona Hanley, Myriam Leyden and Brigid Corcoran are also among those who produced work of note. But doubtless we will be hearing more of them in time.