CIRCA Issue #42 – ROSC ’88
How does a Journal review a big national exhibition? Rather than pass on the challenge to our usual reviewers we decided to Invite a number of new contributors — not all of them accustomed to writing on the visual arts, but all people we thought who would have something pertinent to say.
PATRICK T. MURPHY
Director — Douglas Hyde Gallery
ROSC ’88 has opened. Twenty-one years old and six exhibitions later, this recent ROSC is a quieter affair than its predecessors. Adhering to the criterion of art of the last four years, earlier ROSC’s had the benefit of dealing with a predominant aesthetic, resulting in a group exhibition where work inter-related to each other in a cogent fashion. However, the fragmentation of stylistic hierarchies we have come to know in the eighties creates an altogether more incoherent and diverse event.
The Guinness Hop Store is well presented and gains considerably as a space from the addition of temporary white walls to face its brick surface. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s black and white photographs are a real revelation not least for their high technical production. The works, three sets of four dating from 1976 to 1988, depict movie theatres, natural history tableaux, and seascapes. They raise interesting issues of illusionism, theatricality (literally and metaphorically) and comment on the perception of photography itself. His countryman Shigeo Toya shows his lyrical and sensual wood-hewn landscapes. Kathy Prendergast’s irregular Irish drystone wall built out of Devonshire chalk with an overlapping rectangular drawing of cartographic contour lines, addresses the nature of external geography and psychic landscape. Her bronzes, irritatingly shown in a different area, are based on “The Broighter Boat” and further illuminate this exploration of journey and exile. Jonathan Borofsky’s Male Aggression Now Playing Everywhere and Neil Jenney’s Them And Us seem rather glib political statements this side of the Atlantic. However, Jenney’s American Urbania must be one of the most impressive pieces in this exhibition. A small work from the early seventies, its monumental black frame holds the golden lettered title, while set inside sits a small horizontal canvas of a grass verge Imbued with notions of death, suburbia and commodification it is reminiscent of Hopper and Cornell but is most certainly of this generation. Elizabeth Murray is under-selected, the two canvases shown give little idea of the athleticism of this artist who attempts to do for representation what Stella has done for abstraction. Jeff Wall’s back-lit colour photographs looked particularly strong. In Diatribe, two women, one carrying a baby, walk down a dirt road; the image is inappropriately glamourised by the medium, an expansion on McLuhan’s message.
Richard Deacon continues his ocular metaphors with two fine pieces, one of laminated wood, the other of boxed aluminium. Jean-Charles Blais shows two very interesting paintings. Worked on tom billboard posters they seem to comment on the validity of painting and image making in a society where the rapidity of visual communications is awesome. Their truncated heavy figures add to the overall pathos of the paintings.
At Kilmainham. the Royal Hospital works well as a venue with each artist receiving a room off the corridors. Gerhard Merc’s full corridor installation helps to bind the space. The Italians. Fabro, Anselmo and Zorio, all originators of Arte Povera, create a context for each other’s work that provides a strength in their presentation. Particularly impressive is Fabro’s steel hawsers encasing two lines of marble eggs, entitled Ovaries. Eggs of a different kind, this time more testicular than ovarial, are to be found in Rebecca Horn’s The Little Painting School — Oscar. A tribute to Oscar Wilde, a repeatedly released feather brush set high on the wall splashes paint onto the ceiling and onto a pair of eggs mounted on an open copy of Wilde’s Salome. Mechanical hammers set in the fire place and the doorway add to the enigma of this dance of desire. Davida Allen’s installation causes an ambivalent response. On one hand one is enchanted by this evocation of domesticity, with its images of vacuum cleaners, family cars, children and erotica. The woman living in a conventional urban situation is not often the subject of art. On the other hand one is struck by the absolute lack of any questioning. especially given the feminist discourse of the past twenty-five years. Mary Fitzgerald’s The Drawing Room works extremely well on its modernist aesthetic basis, whilst James Coleman’s Seeing for Oneself must be one of his most successful presentations and productions. As for the content, as always with Coleman it requires repeated viewings which could not be achieved in time for this article. Jenny Holzer again needs revisiting, her work having developed in a more poetic vein than her original and successful Truism series.
ROSC is a vital and essential element in the Irish art scene. For nearly two decades it was the only conduit for international contemporary art to this island There are now more opportunities for international art to be seen in Ireland and the nature of art itself has changed as we move towards the end of the century. The most satisfying exhibits in ROSC ’88 are those where there is enough work and context to form an opinion of the artist. Perhaps, this points the way for future ROSC’s with fewer artists and a more generous selection of work.
Theatre Critic and Journalist
I don’t know whether or not ROSC ’88 is genuinely representative of all that is happening in contemporary visual art but it does seem to be representative in one specific sense. Its eclecticism, its lack of an apparent point of view, its determinate pluralism are all more or less typical of the problems of post-modernism. If there is a crisis of novelty in contemporary art., where, because nothing is really unacceptable, nothing is really new, then ROSC reflects it. If the art of the eighties is caught in a perpetual spiral of conflicting styles and available choices, then ROSC genuinely gives us a flavour of that endless succession of choices. It may be true to life, but it remains very unsatisfactory.
I have often felt that Mother of 24 from Drumcondra and Councillor Phil O’Styne are the best friends that the contemporary visual arts ever had, their occasional fulminations about the decadence of art being the only suggestion that there is anything to react against. Much more prevalent in the popular mind is the notion of the artist as heroic voyager into the future, showing us things we are as yet too stupid to understand. (There were for instance three different plays on Van Gogh at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, and two others touring Ireland at the same time). Much of the potential audience for an event like ROSC is so intimidated by its notion of what an artist is that it does not expect to appreciate the works on show. The audience overstates the artist’s moral stature, the artists understate it, disavowing standards, values, traditions, and the whole thing takes on an air of the utmost unreality. It is small wonder that an event like ROSC seems to take place in such a vacuum.
It is obvious, of course, that most of the artists in the exhibition are deeply aware of their own situation. With a few exceptions, some of them Irish, they tend to implicitly disavow the moral claims of high art and to look instead either to the popular or the primitive. But much of this visual slumming, whether in the wall-hung stones of a Giovanni Anselmo or the post pop imagery of Neil Jenney and Jonathan Borofsky seems forced and vicarious. Everything depends on context — without the artificiality and unreality of the art gallery, the cartoon consciousness or the rough trade of stone age imagery cease to have their impact. The primitivism only appears visceral and real in an eviscerated and highly unreal context. This stuff doesn’t challenge the in-bred nature of the art business, it presupposes it.
There are. also, more convincing exercises in both populism and primitivism. The work of both Jenny Holzer and Jean-Michel Basquiat seems at once richer and more genuinely populist, the accessibility going hand-in-hand with a more highly wrought style, showing again that visual complexity and immediate impact are not opposites. Kathy Prendergast’s walls and ships and mountains may depend to an extent on images of a wild, earthy past, her mythic tendencies and use of materials in a relatively raw state may strive for a primitive impact, but ultimately it is the shaping imagination and not the mysterious force of the materials that we are confronted with. With Anselmo and others here it is the incongruity of the materials that determine the effect; with Prendergast’s wall it is not the raw stone but the delicate colouring and delineations on it that we are drawn to.
Prendergast and another of the Irish artists in the exhibition, Brian Bourke, seem to me to be doing something very important in attempting to restore a common language that visual art might share with the rest of contemporary culture. Whether it’s Prendergast’s ships or Bourke’s Sweeney — and Basquiat or the Catalan Ferran Garcia Sevilla seem to attempt something similar with their own cultures — they take given, historical images and show us the workings of their own subjective imaginations upon them. Without surrendering its autonomy, the visual includes and incorporates and transforms images which we already know about from history and literature. These artists give the impression of adding to a common cultural heritage rather than merely disavowing it.
The cool, minimalist tendency of so much of this ROSC precludes many such complex and rich images. The greatest irony of the exhibition is that its supreme Orientalist is not one of the three Japanese artists on show but an Irishman. The luminous, visionary quality of Tony O’Malley’s breathtaking series of Bahamian landscapes seems much closer to the spirit of Zen which has influenced them than do the ridiculous black rectangles of Tomoharu Murakami or the severe, tight- lipped sculptures of Shigeo Toya. O’Malley’s breadth of vision makes it difficult to take much of the unambitious, clever, minimal work of other artists seriously.
I was the victim of a happy accident — so intrigued by the Costakis Collection in the Royal Hospital that I left myself with no time to visit the Hop Store in the same day, and so avoided the inevitable trap of milking spurious comparisons. I think time for adjustment was necessary. ROSC is by definition a miscellany but the nearby presence of these wonderful Russian paintings with their strong sense of unity (provided possibly by their having been chosen by a single collector as well as their common nationality) puts the modem works in ROSC under considerable pressure. In the end ROSC worked where it was most diverse and in some cases, wacky, jars of pollen may not be beautiful but I reckon they won a disproportionate amount of comment and in the way of such things became a sly comment on the onlooker.
I remember that the favourite word of people who studied History of Art at Trinity while I was there was ‘derivative’. It was practically a term of abuse or at best derision and I always wondered why — images seemed to me to be derivative by definition, artistry lying in the design and placing in context of images, with the use of style as commentator
I think, however, that with some of the works at the Hop Store I began to suspect the artists of bogus root-searching. The painters and sculptors of the eighties seem to have this obsession with a self conscious reconstruction of primitive forms such as Shigeo Toya’s Magic Symbols and his almost druidic wood-like giant sheaves of wheat. The American Neil Jenney delves into his country’s more recent past with American Urbania, a deep set landscape framed by what looks like the mouldings of a frontier town signpost. Shoichi lola uses layers of fabric with batik methods to make three dimensional compositions. Now I began to find this slightly predictable — some sculpture was simply pleasing (and why not) like Christina Iglesias’ arrangements in burnished metal. But there were too many heavy-handed, if cryptic visual statements and although Erik Dutman’s mock iron age grouping had an interesting layout and texture, there was a fake primitivism that made me feel a little uncomfortable. I got the sense of looking at a squeaky clean, newly minted, genuine antique.
Where I felt the contemporary exhibits showed real strength was in a few of the installations, in some of the Irish painting and in Tim Rollins’ remarkable collaboration with Kids Of Survival. Here was source material used with wit and invention and in a provoking way it was extremely funny — C.J. Haughey via Animal Farm. The care with which Rollins and the kids reconstruct their images does not inhibit the sense of fun and chance that other artists leave behind in their desire to be significant. Rollins gives his audience direct statement with common points of reference, but the visuals have a very individual anarchy.
Among the Irish paintings Tony O’Malley’s Carribean studies are as fresh as Kandinsky while Brian Bourke’s Sweeney series combines a cartoonist’s vicious expressiveness with a painterly sense of colour. Neither are drawing on a kitsch Irishness or woolly ideas of myth, but an inbred flair for pattern and story I found them really lively.
The most obvious assault on the senses comes with the installations. In general I approach these for their wackiness and pure entertainment value. The most startling experience was provided by Jenny Holzer who gave us four prose poems in two different and contemporary settings. I’m not sure what her original idea was but I felt a severe warning about the sheer power of words and images when linked. Firstly she carved her writing on marble tablets, with the moral authority that implies. Secondly she flashed them vertically on electric screens, so fast moving it felt like the classic brain-washing technique. The poems themselves seemed subversive in the end the effect was overpowering and I felt a little stunned
So that was ROSC ’88. The impression I took away was that after experimenting with pop and media forms in the last two decades the artists of this one were attempting to reach back to some kind of ethnic origin or symbol, like Jose Maria Sicilia’s red on black, reminiscent of the matador’s cloak. Perhaps time will show whether any of them find the same sense of purpose as the earlier Russians. My preference was definitely with them.
In his notebooks, Stan Brakhage talks about people he knows who have made great films, but because they’re not in distribution they’re not seen as representing a legitimate voice. These film makers are people who have refused to deal with the unrealistic demands of the mainstream distribution system, not from a position of cultural elitism, but from wanting to create a viable economic structure whereby money work can support the making of films on a continuing basis; a conversation between a small group of people being as important as a speech made in a vast and filled hall. Walking around big exhibitions like ROSC reminds me a bit of a film festival I find myself wondering what’s been left out, about the artists who don’t happen to fit into this kind of overview of endorsed trends.
There are no real surprises at this year’s ROSC, but this sense of an art world continuing along diverse but well-established lines is not to make any accusation of complacency. One of the things which has emerged in the last ten or fifteen years is the absolute toughness of apparently fragile work. The awareness of how much effort it takes to continue to pursue the line of transient or process work in the face of an art world which has relentlessly contracted back into a need to supply commodities to hang on walls.
Wolfgang Laib’s Rice Houses and Jars with Dandelion, Sorrel, Hazelnut, Pine and Buttercup Pollen are a gentle alchemy, with no grail at the end other than the chance to observe the growth and decay of organic processes, which need to be approached on their own terms. The arrangement of the installations at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham works really well in that we are allowed to perceive each work intact in its own world.
Sometimes with big exhibitions, what remains is often inadvertent dialogue which goes on between pieces temporarily occupying the same space. In the Hop Store, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s animal photographs face Ricardo Cavallos’ Autour Du Roi. This long triptych, one of the most popular pieces in the show, is on the cover of the ROSC na n’OG catalogue. This is an ultimately unsuccessful painting although the ideas are intriguing — this reaching back into the fictionalised and mediated view of animals which we have as children — whether through visits to the zoo, collecting plastic models or those cut-out animal masks that used to appear on the back of cornflakes packets. Cardboard trophies. But the ghastly kitsch of these fake creatures, the power they have because children will them into their own reality is missing from Cavallos painting Everything is evened out into a blurred and painterly style and there is a curious relationship created with Sugimoto’s photographs. These look like the elaborate dioramas in the Natural History Museum in New York. And in drawing attention to their own form, the photographs actually touch on the magic of that voyeuristic divide between humans and the ‘other’ separate world of animals.
Also by Sugimoto is part of a series of photographs of old American movie palaces. At first you think the photographs were made with the projector running blind. Your eye is led through the proscenium arch of the photograph, through the elaborate and decorated dark to the point of all this intensity and concentration, an ironically blank, white screen. The overall impression is too formal to be nostalgic. But then, when you read the text relating to these pieces In the catalogue, you realise that the hidden narrative is so extraordinary that the description should be included as part of the show it says “He (Sugimoto) photographed them during a showing, adjusting his time exposure to the length of each film Westerns were the most suitable films as the numerous outdoor scenes give most of the bright light which he requires.”
So there you have it A still photograph with an exposure the length of a feature film, which obliterates the film whilst recording the cinema.
I found this work interesting — so intense and definitive about the worlds it proposes and so disturbing at the same time, as if the reality of the spectator is lessened, in comparison with the photographs, and made somehow more conditional.
The overtly political work in the Hop Store is a bit tame. The work of Tim Rollins and the K.O.S. seems pre determined, as if the important thing was the collaborative effort and not what ends up on the wall. I found Borofsky’s Male Aggression Now Playing Everywhere just irritating. It’s the ultimate in co-opted art to see slogans like that in a gallery and not out working on a gable wall. Also, if a woman had done it, I bet there’d have been a shower of denouncements about ‘rabid feminism’.
Danger in safety. The biological function of art is to keep humanity alert. Pace the great artist Matisse, art is not like a comfortable armchair. Art continually renews itself to ensure the survival of the species; if the species falls asleep in the armchair, it will eventually die out.
ROSC ’88 is a comfortable exhibition, with much pleasant painting and sculpture, much reassuring, acquiescent art. Even Jenny Holzer’s hectoring voice is faltering, her arrogant messages tipping an expedient nod towards electronic communication while safely retreating into the consecrated permanence of carved stone. Abstract sound, which achieved such dramatic integration with monumental steel sculpture in the works of Takis, for example, in the mid-seventies, has been strangled away to bleak shrieks in the work of Zorio, although his 1982 airborne still For purifying words planing over the stairwell in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, admonishes us, with its metaphor of distillation and its symbol of a spear, to aim for accuracy in our words about art.
He is right. Comfort inevitably breeds sloppiness, and sloppiness inaccuracy. Thus to call the work in the Royal Hospital ‘installations’ is not only inaccurate but misleading.
These are not installations but a series of mini solo shows in individual rooms, many of them actually roped off like the lady of the manor’s bedroom in great houses open to the public. ROSC ’80 had fourteen real installations in which artists like Buren, Gere or Simmonds, used the actual environment of the building to make site-specific works which could not be recreated elsewhere. The only genuinely site-specific piece in ROSC ’88 is Davida Allen’s in situ wall painting in the alcove of her private gallery. This is a fresh, brave extension of her housewife’s mania for domestic decoration into the sacrosanct location of an important art exhibition, even unto the ironically placed potted plant and the cheap woman’s magazine. The six small paintings done in Dublin, of happily married love, to be glimpsed in voyeur fashion through the corridor window. also have that thrust of intensified reality which live work, in itself, brings to an exhibition. I become more and more convinced that in situ work, whether of mural painting, of performance, or of genuine installation, is absolutely necessary to an exhibition of contemporary art. Otherwise, one goes from one soothing, excellent exhibition to another, with one’s perceptions stroked rather than stimulated.
I am also convinced that I am the only person in the world, along with his devoted young son Averick, who has seen all of James Coleman’s works, with the exception of one in the Ulster Museum in 1974, and the original version of Clara and Dario in Milan in 1973. But I have sat enthralled through Strongbow, Ochon, Box, Guaire, Living Presumed Dead, the later version of Clara and Dario, and all the other complex and simple pieces over the years I am therefore writing from a position of convinced authority on the work in maintaining that Seeing for Oneself is some thirty minutes too long. One grasps fairly soon his, as ever, paradoxical treatment of a long melodramatic tale, told in comic-strip style with live actors and actresses in a sequence of still black-and-white photographs, with voice-over quoting their words while their bodies and faces remain print-still.
I find that Coleman’s reversion to a normal start-to-finish mode undermines the wonderful ambiguity of earlier pieces which, being looped, had no beginning or no end. As with all of Coleman’s work, there are Infinitely subtle layers of metaphor and association, together with immensely stylish visual images.
Still photographs also embodied quite delicious paradoxes in the work of Japanese artist. Hiroshi Sugimoto. The dead calm images of the ever-moving sea made a counterpoint to the blank screens of baroque cinema proscenia, the sea images — so quiet as to look like land — were reminiscent of Roger Palmer’s photographs of 1,000 square miles of County Clare in ROSC ’80. The other three Japanese artists, the sculptor Toya, and the painter Murakami, and Shokrhi Ida. were among those who provided the highest points of aesthetic enjoyment in ROSC. If these did not match the high points of ROSC ’84 — Scully’s paintings, Ellsworth Kelly’s sculpture. Long’s stone line and hand-print circles, Woodworth’s Elephant and Raven, and Schnabel’s Memorial to Tennessee Williams, one was.,however, given a fair Irish selection, with the exception of Francis Tansey, who strikes me as promising but as yet young and unformed. It is still so curious that in an age of unparalleled Expressionism, the major Irish Expressionists, Michael Mulcahy. Michael Cullen, Patrick Graham, Brian Maguire, Eithne Jordan, have yet to be seen in a ROSC of the 1980’s. They should have been in ROSC ’84, but the jurors of ROSC ’88 were not even brought to their studios to see their work.
That said, the veteran Tony O’Malley’s paintings were more fresh and vigorous than ever, while Kathy Prendergast’s sculpture was more profound and exquisite in its visual poetry than any of the previous work in her short career. If the ‘poetry of vision’ can be said to have a single practitioner, rooted in the native culture, it surely must be Kathy Prendergast.
The almost official Australian artist Mike Parr showed a series of Stations of the Cross in which his infinitely redrawn drawings embodied the idea of two thousand years of evolving images of the same subject, while his huge twin works of photography and drawing on the end wall of the Hop Store gallery counterpointed the hand-drawn image against the mechanically produced photographic image. The official ROSC version of the photograph of the pretty girl is that she is sucking a bar of chocolate.
The French artist Combas at this stage is really over-vu, nor is he as interesting as the young painter Jean-Michel Basquiat who died at the tragically early age of twenty-eight the week before ROSC opened. A new generation of youngsters has been introduced onto the punishing circuit of the international art market by their teacher Tim Rollins. Their work did not quite live up to the advance hype and publicity given to their rather tame portrait of the Taoiseach as a wolfhound.
For working critics who actually use catalogues, at least ROSC ’88 avoided some of the howlers of the ’84 bibliography, but the confusing layout of the pages to artist is still maddening to both artist and reviewer
Lecturer In Film
Postmodernism is loosely characterised in the ROSC ’88 catalogue as a pluralist free-for-all If the ROSC show is, as it claims, truly representative of current trends in international as well as Irish art, then the visitors could be forgiven the impression that post-modernism is for the most part certain tendencies in modernism revisited — a kind of historico-aesthetic tourism. One large-scale example is La Ville by Cavallo, an enormous pastiche of Delauney cubism; but it is the ghost of Malevich which haunts this show. He is specifically invoked or evoked in the work of Frenchman Blais, the Japanese Murakami and the Hungarian Nadler. Nadler’s large canvases are neo-expressionists revisitings of Malevich’s formal meditations. Blais’ mixed media (oil and gouache on poster) paintings acknowledge his influence, and Murakami’s untitled (black on black) minimalism is a negative time capsule. It was Malevich’s expressed intention to free art from the burden of the subject. Having done this, he had abandoned abstract painting by 1922, confining himself to figures of work and design illustrations thereafter. In his mind, one of the projects of modernism — the formal exploration of materials, a concern with the inner logic of artistic practices — had been exhausted. Blais, in his own words, is “an artist without an Idea of a subject” who nevertheless works “with great confidence In the process of painting”. This preoccupation with formal problems to the exclusion of other considerations is typical of much of ROSC ’88, and calls to mind Julia Kristera’s exasperated “enough of this signifier — now show me something of the signified.
With the Irish painter Francis Tansey we are also back to the future — four meticulously finished acrylics which are neo-Vasarely, but without the tension or the energy. What is not retro is often too obviously tendentious — Fabro’s Ovaries for over stated example. There is also a tendency towards mannerism and self-repetition. as In the work of Blackshaw — tending towards the bland — and Tony O’Malley, who grows more and more Matisse in the Bahamian canvases presented here: more colourful than ever in his lyrical recombining of elemental natural motifs into evocative forms — an art of pattern, an an of pleasure.
There is little in this show that picks up on that other aspect of modernism — the political avant-garde. What there is here is not only unchallenging formally but also rhetorically simplistic — Neil Jenney’s Them and Us — or simple-minded — Borofsky’s Male Aggression Now Flaying Everywhere. In contrast Davida Allen’s installation is exceptional. This is neo-expressionism with a subject. She employs a naked-lunch aesthetic to deal with the conflicting desires and responsibilities of being both an artist and a mother. Her paintings, especially The Domestic and the Dream are not subtle but they are strong. Her installation domesticates the gallery space while at the same time it vibrates with an intense sexual force that threatens to burst that space apart. This, very much a personal piece which includes family snap-shots, is more political in effect than any of the overt sloganising elsewhere.
Another aspect of post-modernism — its cutting edge — is the erosion of ‘high art’ by popular culture — a challenge to canon and category that has been taking place within fine art at least since Rauschenberg and Oldenberg, Lichtenstein and Warhol, and which has been mounted from without mainly but not exclusively by photography and film. Some of this semiotic shift is reflected in ROSC, with varying degrees of success. James Coleman’s tape-slide installation Seeing for Oneself is a tongue-in-cheek melodramatic bncolage of genres and tones which plays with the codes, and is less challenging than entertaining. Jeff Wall’s hyperreal transparencies seem to be addressing the question of illusion/representation, but if so. the debate is none the richer for this intervention. Jenny Holzer’s electronic sign boards use the technology of the advertising media to grab our attention, but the medium turns out to be the only message. More intriguing are Hiroshi Sugimoto’s technically superb photographs which set off chains of ambiguities in their interplay between subject and medium, image and caption. Four seascapes, each a virtual copy of the other, are identified as being oceans apart. Four picture-palaces, whose baroque proscenia frame blank screens, are nostalgically recorded in all their splendid detail In both cases the picture frame encloses images of the ‘real’ which in series are a play of images. In Bandrillard’s terminology, the real becomes its own simulacrum, its status as such fastened by the fidelity of its representation. In the sea series, four nearly identical (self-referential) images from nature, whose only difference from one another lies in the caption; in the cinema series, four images of the image world, each different from one another only in their framing decor: photographic, representational and reproducible images of empty sites/sights, each a mirror of the other. Formal game, or apotheosis of simulacrum? Postmodernist free-for-all.
As a mere working artist, I was slightly amused at the protocol of preciousness surrounding this year’s ROSC. Given the predominantly cavalier attitude towards art in Ireland, it’s interesting to observe the occasional efforts made to shift contemporary art into the rarefied atmosphere of money and prestige and, above all, seriousness. For there is absolutely no doubt that this ROSC is a serious affair, claiming as it does to give “both delight and interesting philosophical insights into the complex evolution of contemporary visual expression”.
So much money and effort expended to bring international contemporary art to Ireland must be commended; and, of course, most of the work on show must be or should be taken ‘seriously’ by those of us involved, in whatever capacity, in the Irish art world. It’s not often that we get the opportunity to see what’s presumably some of the best of international art presented to us on our doorstep. But somewhere along the line in almost all of these huge ventures the ‘delight’ gets left behind. In other words, ROSC ’88 is hard work.
The split venue, the erratic layout, and the seemingly arbitrary placement of some of the artworks in isolated positions or within unrelated groups, leaves the viewer bobbing and weaving from piece to piece trying to make connections and find equivalences or comparisons. The ‘uninitiated’ must surely find themselves totally confused by the babble of names, titles, nationalities and diversity of works. Jonathan Borofsky’s Shapes With Chattering Man seemed appropriate at the Hop Store — the incessant chatter, chatter, chatter of the tape mirrored the mental chatter necessary to take it all in.
In order to keep my attention from wandering all over the place I started to search for some kind of pattern within the works and I found myself dividing the artists roughly into two groups — the purists and the strategists. The purists were those who seemed to follow a certain path irrespective of trends, groupings and art fashions, and the strategists were those who seemed to play the art-game a bit more self-consciously, i.e. those who were, at least, very aware of the latest trends and current visual vocabularies.
More by coincidence than by any kind of moral inclination I enjoyed the purists much more. The most ‘pure’ of all was Neil Jenney, an artist I have long admired. His Them and Us was part of a totally innovative series of works made around 1970, and it still looks fresh today. Jenney’s professional and aesthetic individualism and his success in following his own vision despite current fads should be an inspiration to artists everywhere. Terry Winters and Rolf Hanson also came across, in the purist league, as artists of great accomplishment and individual sensibility, both working within traditions of ‘painterliness’ but with unique results. Jose Maria Sicilia’s paintings with their dry, worn surfaces, though obviously related to a familiar minimalist/tactilist aesthetic, could be seen as purist in their stubbornness and refusal to be compromised, and were impressive works of art. The other side of the purist coin was, inevitably, the ubiquitous all-over black paintings with little or no inherent visual interest, this time from Tomoharu Murakami. On the positive side, other contenders in the purist camp were Bill Jensen, Richard Deacon, going from strength to strength and getting more aggressive, Basil Blackshaw, and Elizabeth Murray with her excellent Duck Foot.
Among the strategists, Ricardo Cavallo seemed the most shameless with his rip off of Imants Tilliers in La Ville, a large work painted on individual small panels creating a visually seductive disjuncture of space and form. I didn’t see the reason for the shift in style — he seemed to be doing fine in his earlier work. Ian McKeever, an artist of recognised talent, is unfortunately in danger of becoming one of the Kiefer crowd with his latest pseudo apocalyptic offerings, even though they were strong images Ferran Garcia Sevilla is a style strategist but deliberately so which gives his work a slightly anarchic edge, while Antony Gormley, as serious as ever in his variation-on-a theme strategy, does not seem to notice the comic implications keeping into his work Tim Rollins, with the Kids of Survival, demonstrated a canny use of right-up-to-the moment contextualising with social relevance that was very impressive, at least in the more poetic Amerika. In a completely different way and with different ways of working Robert Combas and Jean-Charles Blais still managed to have the right look for today and maybe even tomorrow, which probably says something about the healthy acceptance of variety in very recent art, so obviously demonstrated in this exhibition
Despite my early reservations (and everyone has them about ROSC) I left this year’s exhibition certainly inspired, if not delighted, by many of the works on show, disappointed again in some of the Irish contributions, and determined for ROSC ’92 to get more serious.
ROSC ’88 is divided between two centres, the Guinness Hop Store and the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. In the Hop Store most of the works are relentlessly ordinary and by the time the top floor is reached one is groaning under the dullness of it all.
There are three works by Shotchl Ida “By inserting paper between two objects or materials he draws attention to what he sees as a new understanding of surface. namely, that surface exists between, rather than independently of the existence of a reverse side.” Tut. “Surface is the Between — Between Vertical and Horizon.” The works belong to the Garden Project — Locus Sutra series and are entitled Descended Level — Well From Karma No’s 4.9, and 13. This is Fast Food Art and calls for a stronger stomach than mine. There are other bland offerings by Richard Deacon (anonymous twisted shapes), pretty photographic prints by Hiroshi Sugimoto (just the thing for your apartment watts), cheap imitations of Rothko by Tomoharu Murakami “Facing myself through the act of putting layer after layer of paint on canvas. I try to transcend my ego and to come closer to the truth, thus ultimately capturing the Absolute in my work.” (Ouch ), and so on and on.
Among the Irish contributions are twee fidgetings by Mary Fitzgerald and Kathy Prendergast. The latter’s Another Country consists of an Aran type wall with a splotch of ink in the middle In taking such an object, the artist has a duty to match the power of the original and shed new light on it. To present it feebly tarted up in a gallery is to debase it. The problem with many of the artists in ROSC is that they are so busy transmitting messages, the materials are completely bypassed.
There are some good things — a powerful evocation of trees by Christopher le Brun (like a blown up detail from an impressionist canvas) and an upright man with screamingly long, outstretched arms by Anthony Gormley. Both works have a clarity and intensity missing from the rest of the exhibition. There is a rather nice piece by Neil Jenney catted American Urbania. Hopper minus the grit.
Gormley has another powerful work in the Kilmainham exhibition Dozens of tiny figures process by the head of a sleeping man, a few of them attempting to move in the opposite direction. The feeling is unsettling and nightmarish.
Simplicity is a complex business. It is a matter of shaking oneself free of expectations and reaching for the core of the material. Davida Allen is well on the way to this I’m not really about art…. my art is being, having four children, living here and the by-product happens to be art. Her view of her domestic surroundings is direct, intense and humorous The same could be said of Rebecca Hom’s The Little Painting School, an installation of great wit and elegance “Two little hammers freed from dormancy, travel toward each other in a circular movement until their heads touch in a fleeting kiss and then, suddenly startled, fall downwards and remain two minutes long in a state of unconsciousness”. A fragile, languid arm dips to a bowl of paint and in one lurching, sensuous movement splashes it on the ceil Ing, the envy of every Prima Ballerina. A preoccupied hammer knocks quietly on the door jamb. Unfortunately, on the day that I was there the bowl was empty and the arm evoked the exertions of a castrate “We can’t be always filling it. We do it once a week”, said a ROSC attendant. There will be five performances of Hamlet and Ophelia will be in two of them.
The other work which delights is James Coleman’s Seeing for Oneself, a tape slide installation of 40 minutes duration. It is a lurid, gothic tale narrated in Lady Bracknell-like tones by Daphne Carroll. Even though the changing of slides and the occasional dark moments of rest gives il a certain hypnotic quality. I would have liked it tighter. Still, it is very imaginative and in an exhibition of such crushing anonymity, a great pleasure.