I’ve been finding it hard to enjoy art. I go see a show and it was interesting but. The artist was competent but. The subject was topical but. I go to a gallery and they have a strong programme but. They have a good roster but. They take some risks but. Maybe I’m depressed (yes), maybe art is eating itself alive (yes), maybe Dublin murders motivation and drive (yes), but any and either way, it’s been decided that I’m going to go see and review two exhibitions.
I visit the Kerlin Gallery. It’s the Saturday of the heatwave and town is packed. The gallery is empty. I flick through the visitors book and see who I know. Nobody I have ever fancied has visited the show. This is surely an indicator of something.
“Just because a work of art is self-referential somehow, or concerned with its own nature and condition as art, doesn’t make it especially interesting. Very academic art can have those concerns. That self-referentiality in itself can be very tedious. When I first went to art school I was making installations that critiqued ideas about painting, and it just got glib and boring.”
– from Merlin James, SIGNAL BOX (Leipzig, 2013)
To the Present is a survey exhibition of over 30 paintings and charcoal drawings made by British painting devotee Merlin James, where architectures, intimacies, and formal interrogations are traceable through paint, charcoal, mixed media and 30 years of practice and process. But it remains the kind of show where you can compare favourites with a mate or your mam. For me, the Untitled (2000) calligraphic charcoals of four houses, wrested from time and space, make a lot of sense, the handsome gauze and structure of Crossed (2011) runs a little dry and a bit knowing, the lithic unity of Ruin (1995), flattened with texture and expanded with cut outs, was a delight, and the charcoaled genitals and sex scenes revealed my prudishness, making me cackle and feel glad I was alone.
To the Present isn’t a glamorous show. Works are muted and modest with a clarity of vision and simplicity of subject. James is occupied with the language and history of painting, and by virtue of being the form most closely synonymous with the word “art”, and thanks to the appearance of The Taking of Christ in Ordinary Decent Criminal, Whistler’s Mother in Bean: The Movie and Frida Kahlo at Hallowe’en parties, not even to mention the visual-temporal flattening of the internet age, paint is a visual vocabulary that people generally have some grounding in. And James uses this vernacular, producing work that continues to give for as long as you are willing to take. You could even describe the show as, God forbid, accessible.
I head down the stairs and up the road. There’s still a heatwave. I buy a half-price frappuccino and head to Kevin Kavanagh. The frappuccino is delicious if not fully pulverised.
“A large and appreciative gathering of friends and acquaintances from the metropolis and greater Dublin assembled in their thousands to bid farewell to Nagyaságos uram Lipóti Virag, late of Messrs Alexander Thom’s, printers to His Majesty, on the occasion of his departure for the distant clime of Százharminczbrojúglyás-Dugulás (Meadow of Murmuring Waters). […] The departing guest was the recipient of a hearty ovation, many of those who were present being visibly moved when the select orchestra of Irish pipes struck up the well known strains of Come back to Erin, followed immediately by Rakóczy’s March.”
– from James Joyce, Ulysses.
Elaine Byrne’s Whenceness which takes the ‘Cyclops’ episode of Ulysses as its source material, welcomes me with the sound of Rakóczy’s March (video, 2015) and I’m instantly sold. The tune circles and spirals, stops and starts. Two uilleann pipe players are sitting, reading music, trying to play what was once the unofficial national anthem of Hungary. They are projected onto the far wall of the gallery, larger than life and sumptuous like a big bold painting in a great big great hall. They try to play the song through but it’s impossible to, so revealing one of Joyce’s insider jokes. I sit on a bench, watching, for five minutes before my back starts to complain. I spend a lot of time in bed, I’m not used to this, I have a weak core, but really quite frankly I’m looking forward to the day that white cube fetishism dies and we are all let lounge while we enjoy the art. The bench has won this time, but the March is magnetic and I’m drawn back to it again and again during my time in the gallery. It’s a fully formed work which is complemented by its backstory but which by no means needs it.
Pure Codology (2015) is the second video in the show, and it delves into Hungary and its linguistic, genealogical and political links to Ulysses, threading them through space and time. Headphones on, and I’m told the stories of people-passed, of Lipóti Virag, of a world that once was. Then I’m told that Százharminczbrojúglyás-Dugulás doesn’t actually translate as “Meadow of Murmuring Waters” but is in fact instead a goulash-related poo joke. The talking head is charming and articulate, the story light relief, and the goulash-making is spliced in expertly. I can’t remember the last time having a man explain a joke to me was such good fun. I slurp the last of my frappuccino as the tone of the film quickly and adroitly shifts and the topic moves to the concretes of ideology. A past is plainly and startlingly planted in the present. Venn diagrams of anti-Semitism, nationhood and politics are drawn. The work ends with the hope that Bloomsday celebrations will, politics-permitting, go ahead this year. It all hangs in the air. I feel strange. I’m disconcerted. How have we (people) learned so little. I was smiling over family trees and toilet humour just a moment ago. How what why why what how.
The back wall is occupied by a grid of works on newspaper. The shapes and colours of modernism are used to direct audience attentions around the historical date of the fictional Bloomsday, i.e. 16th June 1904. It’s in these works that the show is at its weakest. The newspapers are interesting, but I feel like I’m being told how to read them. Byrne’s talents – for storytelling, for great details, for holding the audience’s gaze, for clarity of idea – are lost in these pieces. They seem to me to be sketches – charting connections, exploring aesthetics – but if they are sketches I don’t understand why they have been given the centre stage primacy of an altarpiece. My ego is too large and too tender for this. I miss my frappuccino. I go back to Rakóczy’s March. Rakóczky’s March respects me.
That Whenceness was not absorbed by the behemoth Ulysses says something. There is craft in the show, and there is artistry in the realisation of the research. The 2,000 or so words accompanying the show are overkill though. It’s frustrating to see such clear-sighted art muddied by so much explanation. To the Present may not have been the stronger exhibition, but by showing and not telling it was allowed to belong to the audience and grew larger for it. But I am definitely less afraid of Ulysses than I was before and I am definitely obsessed with Rakóczy’s March. Interesting, yes. Competent, yes. Topical, yes.
To The Present is exhibited at the Kerlin Gallery until Saturday 25th June.
Words: CSO Keeffe