Last month saw the launch of the new Artist-Initiated Projects series at Pallas Projects, an artist-run studio and gallery space in Dublin 8. The series will run throughout 2018 and offers a space for emerging or lesser-seen artists to show work with a shorter lead-in time than usual.
“Addressing what artists need to develop is at the crux of what we do as an artist-run space,” says Gavin Murphy, co-director of Pallas alongside Mark Cullen.
Arts Editor Rachel Donnelly speaks to three artists who are part of the inaugural series.
“I’m definitely a sculptor who doesn’t want to put more objects in the world.”
Multidisciplinary artist Sibyl Montague is drawn to the supermundane. By this she means the things around us that are “so part of our environment that we don’t notice them anymore. We’re in this moment of intense overproduction, so in that sense I’m really looking for materials that already exist in abundance”. She’s intrigued by energy drinks, including them in her recent work (Super Critical Liquid, 2016). For Montague, the energy drink is a particularly colourful example of how objects perform in our economy. “You buy an object but you’re not really paying attention to the material or its source – it’s what the object represents. We’re all guilty of that to a certain extent. We’re exchanging symbols or signifiers all the time, rather than the physical thing.”
She’s interested in the different attitudes to material that exist in the different corners of our capitalist economy. Montague has been working for the last two and a half years with a group of individuals who are on probation, running workshops around improvising with materials. She found the members of the group worked with the materials she gave them in a very ‘intuitive, gut-driven’ way. Given the scarcity of materials, including tools, in a prison environment, the former prisoners were naturally highly creative in their manipulation of objects. “What I was highlighting to them was the sculptural interventions of their actions. They wouldn’t consider art on their radar whatsoever, but within a prison environment they were always being highly creative with material.”
The conditions of their imprisonment dictated that this creativity was mostly directed towards creating objects for defence, ‘out of fear’. This means that, as prisoners, these individuals relate to the materials around them in a very different way to how we as consumers relate to objects in our world. They bend the objects to their needs; we, as consumers, often find ourselves bending to the influence of objects. So in parallel to the work with the probation group, Montague is also looking to work with a UX designer. “All their training, all their knowledge is directed towards getting humans to consume, making design seamless, seductive. I guess when you’re looking at objects in the world, you realise that most material now is manipulated towards human consumption.”
The artist is interested in learning more about the principles of UX design to apply them to the sculptural objects she’s making for her show at Pallas. The show is provisionally titled ‘The Bottle’ and there’s a particularly personal story behind it. Montague’s great-uncle ran a speakeasy in New York in the 1920s, where her grandfather, her father’s father, worked and drank until its closure during prohibition. Montague’s father and his sibilings were sent home to Ireland. The artist draws a line from her grandfather’s relationship with ‘the bottle’ to the path her family took, including her own birth. Her current work for Pallas takes this very personal starting point to explore the relationship between objects and our ‘inner experience’ as individuals, extending this exploration out through the work with the probation group and an appropriation of UX principles. In doing so it inevitably touches on the ecological implications of our often dysfunctional relationship to the materials in the world around us. “It’s problematic where we are now in the world, how we do things without intention because we’re so addicted to consuming.”
“There are these really active materials that have a life of their own that will probably go on to live longer than you do.”
For recent graduate (2017) Emma McKeagney, her time at university was marked by feeling a pressure to intellectualise her work. “I was very self-conscious about ‘just’ making. I’d always work very directly with materials and then feel I had to bring in political concepts to create deep reasons for what I was doing.” It was only after discovering New Materialism, a school of thought that collapses the hierarchy that places humans above and separate to the rest of the material in the world, that McKeagney came to feel that ‘just’ working intuitively with the materials without preconceptions was an equally valid way of art making.
“I was interested in this symbiotic relationship between myself and the material I was working with. And I realised there’s so little you can plan at the start of a process – the more you try to control what you’re working with, the more you take away from what it is. In my grad show, I was working with clay. I felt I wanted to get to the very source of where clay comes from, so I refined my own clay. It was almost like stepping back from the process and allowing the clay to be more of a vital component in that process, and like I’m almost a catalyst for this material doing its thing.”
For her show at Pallas, McKeagney is working with a rock she found while walking on Killiney beach. She felt immediately attracted to it in the way that sometimes happens with inanimate objects – its shape and size and texture highly alluring.
“It fits perfectly in your hand and you get this immediate reaction to it. The sensation you feel when you pick up the rock is a really primitive thing – it’s the perfect shape of rock you’d be looking for to craft an axe-head to go and hunt.”
McKeagney is interested in the apparent differences between ‘natural’ and ‘designed’ objects, and the idea that, while we might think we’re methodically shaping the world to our needs and desires, the world is pushing back and shaping us in equal measure. A strand of her current research focuses on the origins of the word ‘ergonomic’, and trying to overturn that concept to look at how objects shape humans.
“I think people separate the materials around us into things that are manmade and designed, and things that are just ‘natural’. But our relationship with all objects, whether designed or natural, is completely symbiotic. The piece in Pallas is kind of about the way we obsess over certain commodities, and then there are all these other objects we gravitate towards, like the way people collect rocks. We commodify them in a different way, where it seems like this really natural thing, but actually it’s very similar to the relationship we have with, say, a phone or something that’s very designed.”
Inescapably, and much like Sibyl Montague’s work, there’s an ecological resonance in the ideas the artist is interested in. Really looking at the materials in the world around us as animate in their own particular manner might go some way towards starting to shift ideas around waste and consumption.
“I think now it’s really coming to the mainstream, the idea that everything you interact with is a material and it’s not going to disappear once you throw it in a bin.”
Salvatore of Lucan
“I always like to think of the show Wife Swap – the family is this weird little subculture.”
Talking about painter Salvatore of Lucan’s (aka Salvatore Fullam) work leads inexorably to talking about the artist himself. Fullam, who graduted in 2016 from NCAD, paints human subjects, mainly his family, and most often self-portraits. The context is usually domestic, mundane scenes of eating or playing video games in his family home in Lucan, where he lives with his mother. The series of oil on canvas figurative paintings he’s working on for the upcoming Pallas show are a little grotesque, a little humourous, quite dark in tone. The version of himself the artist commits to canvas is a warped, darkened and at times demonic variant of the warm and open individual he is in person.
“People always ask me where I’m from. And because I didn’t know my Dad, it’s kind of annoying. And also, I’m not Italian at all, I just have an Italian name. I used to have to tell my whole life story when people asked me where I was from. I always had to explain that I was named after a film. I think my Mum might have named me ‘Salvatore’ so I would pass for European. She was always really afraid of people racially abusing me.”
Fullam’s father is Bangladeshi, his mother Irish, and he grew up in Dublin. Not knowing his father throughout his childhood and teenage years, and having an unusual name for Dublin, fed into a feeling of confusion about his identity.
“The show I’m making is called ‘A Show of Himself’. It’s all portraits of me and my family, apart from my girlfriend, who’ll be in it as well. I’m obsessed with my own identity a little bit. That’s my main buzz, trying to work that out.”
Fullam points to the early twentieth century German painter Christian Schad as an influence, saying ‘he’s not a flatterer’. There’s little in the way of flattery in Fullam’s own work, though there’s a healthy measure of wry humour (one self-portrait is titled ‘Me and Ghostie Kissing’). The artist denies this is intentional. There’s something both subversive and sensitive about the work. Fullam’s not a painter’s painter – he doesn’t obsess over the medium or its materials. “I’m not particularly into painting – it’s just the thing I’m best at, so I use that to express myself. The painting itself is not important.”
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Image Credits: Sibyl Montague, Super Critical Liquid (2017), Energy Drinks/Mixers, 2lt, 1ltr Plaster, 35 x 12 cm (approx.) Photo: Kasia Kaminska
Emma McKeagney, The Plastic Human
Salvatore of Lucan, Me and Ghostie Kissing
Salvatore of Lucan, My Nan and My Ma