Cora Cummins’ show Retreat at the Dunamaise Arts Centre in Portlaoise examines the paradox at the heart of our desire for escape and isolation. It presents the retreat from worldly concerns and the hard facts of real life as a conflict where both realms ultimately must be knotted together in ways that make each necessary to the other. The show comprises etchings, found objects and sculptures which draw together real and imagined places where retreat is possible.
Cummins’ rationale has its foundations in our innate need for others. She addresses the problem of how we can feel linked again to our world and feel whole again within ourselves. At times we feel a need to make a tactical withdrawal, to regroup and re-gather our resources, to find again the source of our energies in a place real or imagined where we can become centred and avoid conflict. In the romantic tradition an artist, in order to mirror the world, felt the need to remain solitary; a watcher of events, a stranger not a participant. The urge to retreat may also be narcissism in disguise: isolation can be a more complex form of selfishness and egoism. So the withdrawal from everyday life is both necessary for clear thought and where self-delusion is most likely.
Cummins’ Retreat suite is a wall of eight framed etchings. Their titles are allusive and unspecific: Cave, Shack, Pink island, Blue grotto. But meaning slowly emerges as the images invite you to reflect imaginatively. Philosopher’s retreat is surely where Martin Heidegger retreated in the Black Forest to write Being and time. The Writer’s retreat must be the Overlook Lodge where “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in Stephen King’s novel and Kubrick’s film The Shining. Does The Castle on the opposite wall refer to the Brotherhood of St Luke who painted in complete seclusion in the early 1800s? These are my own imagined connections, but the workings of the imagination are inherent to the notion of retreat. In the imagination there is beauty that doesn’t exist in the real world and also horrors that can destroy. Cummins has selected specific sites of retreat that make us realise this. Looking at them, other places come to mind – Herman Hesse’s garden in Montagnola, Gauguin’s Tahiti, Coleridge’s Lake District.
The last etching in the suite is called Cloud horizon. The cloud is a perfect visual metaphor for a retreat, something that draws us away from the world, holds us for a while and then returns us transformed. Retreat can only be beneficent if there are traces of change.
And here is Cummins’ achievement. Her subject matter is a complex human need, as relevant to the popularity of computer games as it is to artistic creativity. Her etchings, found objects and images function extraordinarily well in communicating simple and complex ideas with little fuss, just the right line and colours that hit not every note, just the correct one.
There is in the exhibition a large central sculpture. Mirrored island is a merging of subject and object, or the dissolving of subject and object that is replaced by a presence. The show’s presence makes it in itself a retreat, which means it must be functioning properly.
A return to the world means involvement in many different conversations. In the hands of Cummins feelings of vulnerability and hope can be held within a line and a tone.
Jonathan Hunter is an artist based in Dublin.