The silence of the lamb

Natural history, cookery and travel are all tried and trusted television staples, and all grist to the mill for a half-dozen …

Natural history, cookery and travel are all tried and trusted television staples, and all grist to the mill for a half-dozen artists whose shows opened in the last week or so. Cookery first: Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has launched an ambitious series of installations in the stunning Concourse Space of the revamped County Hall. The first, How to Butterfly a Leg of Lamb, is by Abigail O'Brien and Mary Kelly, which as aficionados of O'Brien's work will know, can mean only one thing: high production values. As indeed it does.

A stylised kitchen work surface stands in the centre of the Concourse, a small television perched on top. Onscreen, Elaine Hartigan plays the part of Delia Smith, showing us how to butterfly a leg of lamb. The visceral aspects of the exercise are played up, with close views of tearing tissue and loud squelching and rending noises. O'Brien has so far concentrated on a re-reading of "women's work"; here, she and Kelly refer to Artemisia Gentileschi's celebrated painting of Judith matter-of-factly cutting off the head of Holofernes.

Given the reference, there is an implication that in the case of her contemporary counterpart, Judith's strengths have been domesticated, channelled into the ritualised role of family cook and mainstay, equal to the gritty everyday reality but contained and taken for granted (though mind you, just look at Darina Allen's Judith, currently squaring up to the Holofernes of G.M. foods) Surely, though, the link with Gentileschi should have been worked into the piece, rather than forming part of an accompanying, over-elaborated and strangely self-congratulatory commentary?

Both Tom Molloy and Breeda Mooney venture into areas of natural history in their exhibitions. The conceptual dimension of Molloy's work becomes more firmly consolidated with each successive show. The largest of just three pieces in his current, very striking one consists of some 92 pencil drawings of individual oak leaves from one tree gathered on a single day in the autumn of 1997. Each is precisely and meticulously drawn. Each is doubly unique, in that no two leaves are alike, and no two drawings are alike. Yet they are also all the same, all oak leaves, all drawings of identically presented oak leaves. So there is some play on the notion of originals and copies, and on the general and the particular.


Molloy's obsessive methodologies recall the writings of Georges Perec, who famously imposed on himself various arbitrary rules and schemes, including, incredibly, writing one novel without using the letter e. For compelling reasons of personal history, Perec was fascinated by the void, absence and disappearance. If, and it seems likely, there is a similar sense of void in Molloy's work it has to do with the notion of the original. Everything, he seems to imply, is a copy of a copy of a copy, leaving us staring into the abyss of Derridean metaphysics, with every image a frantic substitution for a heart of absence.

Mooney's Petrified at the Droichead Arts Centre, presents us with a series of very large-scale photographs of the Petrified Forests of Namibia and Arizona. They are not picturesque landscapes, however, but close-up details that revel in pattern, texture and the beautiful colours produced by minerals. It is as if the images aspire to be abstract paintings, but they are held in check by their simple veracity. By juxtaposing such abstracted details Mooney dispenses with our habitual way of thinking of these places, collapsing the geographical distance between them by emphasising their geological congruity. Yet as a show it comes across as unresolved, because she doesn't manage to articulate her evident attraction to the landscapes, or what it is in them that so attracts her. The images are agreeable but curiously inert.

By contrast, Danish photographer Kirsten Klein, at the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre, is thoroughly conventional in her approach to Irish landscape. In fact it could even be argued that her pictures merely serve to reinforce outmoded stereotypes. She concentrates on the Western Seaboard and, in cultural terms, looks backwards rather than forwards. Yet she is a wonderful photographer, and images that might have been hackneyed and superficial are subtly, beautifully observed.

Klein works in black-and-white, but there isn't much of either in her pictures. There is, instead, a fantastic range of moody greys. Her study of a November Storm, for example, is simply magical. Wisely, she has printed it very small, so that the titanic energies it contains feel even more compressed. She is particularly good in rich tonal studies of drenched, desolate landscapes. The images have an unphotographic density and slowness, as if, like their subjects, they have gradually coalesced over time. She manages to encapsulate in her images her own intense feelings for the landscape and the culture.

Scottish-born Jean Duncan's In Stillness and Heat at the Guinness Gallery in Foxrock tackles landscape at another extreme. Her show is a kind of painter-printmaker's diary of a visit to a village in Andalusia. This isn't to say that it is an anecdotal account of her stay. Rather she uses the physical fabric and the atmosphere of the village as a theme on which to base a number of relaxed variations, from small, relatively naturalistic scenes to grid-like abstractions, via stylised vignettes. She is particularly good at capturing the sun-baked textures of the buildings and intensities of light and shade.

How to Butterfly a Leg of Lamb is in the Concourse Space of County Hall, Dun Laoghaire until March 18th. Tom Molloy's Drawings are at the Rubicon Gallery until March 27th. Petrified by Breeda Mooney is at the Droighead Arts Centre, Drogheda until March 27th. Kirsten Klein's photographs are at the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre until March 12th. Jean Duncan's In Stillness and Heat is at the Guinness Gallery until March 28th.

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is visual arts critic and contributor to The Irish Times