As the class of ’22 finally get to put on a show, we drop in to NCAD and see what some of them have been up to.
The opening of NCAD’s annual degree show is always a notable event for artists and art-lovers alike in Dublin. This year’s show is the first one to be held onsite since the implementation of the pandemic restrictions in 2020, and confirmation that it could go ahead came quite late in the year, according to NCAD director Sarah Glennie. In spite of their “very accelerated time-frame,” the director was excited “to invite people back to NCAD to celebrate the extraordinary work that our graduates have made and to experience first-hand the breadth and ambition of their work.” Glennie’s characterisation is apt, because as ever, this large, expansive show lived up to its promise; it is a window into the city’s incipient artscene, offering a wide and diverse range of developing perspectives and practices from Dublin’s newest generation of artists.
Before discussing the show, I’ll just make two quick points. Given the constraint of my wordcount and the focus of this column, I only refer to the contributions made by the students of fine art media, but let’s not forget that there were also shows dedicated to design, textiles, fashion, communications, ceramics etc. that were products of a large effort and, from what I saw, were equally worthy and deserving of careful attention. Secondly, this month’s edition of the Arts Desk is slightly different to others inasmuch as the exhibition will be over by the time you’re reading these words. Consequently, rather than try to sketch the exhibition as a whole (impossible to do given the scale of the show anyway), my only aim here is to discuss several of the works by reporting on my experience as I wandered through the floors amid different buildings. Unless I specify otherwise, my choice of works to discuss isn’t tantamount to claiming that these are the most representative, the most professional, the most sophisticated etc. They are simply the ones that compelled me to look closer and that left an impression on me, in the days after I saw them.
I largely split my time between the sculpture, painting and print undergraduates and the MFA students. On the main campus, on the ground floor of the Granary building, was the undergraduate sculpture exhibition. As I walked into the main room, darkened by the stormy weather outside, my eye was drawn to Aoife McCloughlin’s installation ‘Gleanings’. If you were fortunate enough to catch Interconnections, an exhibition curated by Neil Dunne and Robyn Carey in April, you will already be familiar with the tenor of McCloughlin’s found objects, which are arresting interventions into both domestic and urban settings. In her own words, the artist is interested in “gleaning”, as an activity that involves gathering “excess material from disparate sources.” There was a clear line of continuity with her previous work and the trio of street-signage sculptures that formed the core of her new installation.
These dense floor-works were contrasted by a pair of wall-mounted metallic objects, one of which was made from a severed washing-machine drum. In this pair we saw a departure from McCloughlin’s established aesthetic; here the artist takes a more abstract approach to her found material, breaking down and effacing the original template in order to produce a set of light, delicate structures. These were clearly an audience favourite – I noticed a number of people standing quietly and contemplating each in turn.
At the top of the building was the painting exhibition. As I moved from room to room, I was struck by the influence that Francis Bacon still exerts on young artists working in this medium. Bacon’s mature paintings, which vividly depict “the force of inertia that is of the flesh itself,” in the words of one notable philosopher, are renowned for their configuration of bodies in the process of agonised mutation. In many instances this influence is directly acknowledged and referenced in the show, but the instances where this influence is indirect, or combated, stood out to me.
In this vein, I was particularly drawn to Anna Byrne’s psychotic series ‘The Hidden Realities of Motherhood’. Byrne’s work transacts in some of the themes that are emblematic of Bacon’s oeuvre, but the realist aesthetic of her figuration is absolutely distinct, and her attention is intensely and narrowly focused on the maternal experience, or “mother smother,” as she describes so well.
In ‘Self Portrait’, a woman, transformed into a column of milking breasts, watches tiredly as she is pumped by industrial tubes, one of which is attached to a white-haired woman on a ventilator. In ‘The Beheading of the Mother by the Mother’, a wailing head is placed on a plate above an unwashed laundry bin, surrounded by soothers, and passed from one woman to the next, each of whom carry a newborn infant. It is difficult to convey how uncanny Byrne’s images are, and none more so than the brilliant ‘Untitled, perhaps the most terrifying of the lot, which features an oversized toddler sitting vacantly on his mother’s lap.
As many times as I stopped and paid attention to the sculptural and painted works, I think I spent the same amount of time in the print exhibit as the previous two combined. As was mentioned by the artist Richard Lawlor in one of my recent Arts Desk columns, print-making is experiencing something of a resurgence in Dublin at the moment, and this energy is captured by the graduates of NCAD’s department. ‘Beneath The Surface’ was an evocative installation artwork by the artist Alice Timmons O’Brien, involving lightbox X-ray scans of her spinal condition and small tiled constructions filled with water, poetically evoking the swimming pools she used for rehabilitation. Aisling Fowler’s ‘D24’ was an uneasy meditation on the stifling urban environment during lockdown, where a series of cold, dark images foregrounded all of the barriers to passage that fracture our public spaces.
Kate Power also drew on the surroundings that occupied her during lockdown in her tranquil ‘Airmid’s Cloak’, in which the botanical variations of weed that typically grow in Dublin’s inner city were analysed and given new form. And Maya Brezing’s installation ‘Traces of Tomorrow’ similarly staged the relationship between urban spaces and plantlife, though under more troubling circumstances, as a means to effect an aesthetic of architectural degradation and dereliction.
After taking in the undergraduate degree show, I left the central campus and walked towards the Guinness Storehouse, near which the MFA building is located. In the basement a small screening room exhibited Cathal Luddy’s documentary-like ‘On the Float/Lads Chat’, which investigated the borders of masculinity through a propulsive mixture of football match footage, late-night walks, and surfing trips, accompanied by the recording of young men speaking to one another about what it means to be a man. A floor above, Ava Marie Downey further explored the subject of masculinity in a different light, addressing the issue of domestic abuse in a profound, oblique installation called ‘The Wrong Spoon’. In one corner were two pairs of shoes, a man’s and a woman’s, placed opposite one another. The man’s were spread wide, toes pointed at an acute angle, as the woman’s shoes were close together, one overlapping the other. On the far wall, an enormous mosaic of cutlery rose and fell, with the forks and spoons becoming gradually distorted and broken in the sweep from left to right. The effect in the room was palpable, Downey conjuring a psychic space that throbbed with untrammelled rage and all-too-real fear.
It’s impossible to finish an article like this and to not feel like a disservice has been done to all the art left unmentioned. Nevertheless, I hope it’s clear from what I’ve written that, as Sarah Glennie noted, all of “the students remained so committed to their work and found incredible ways to keep their focus and adapt creatively to the challenges they faced.” For those of us who care about the future of culture in Dublin, this show was a reminder of what a healthy, vibrant art world can look like.
Words: Tom Lordan
Images of work by Aoife McCloughlin – Scott Li