Waterford, like many towns of a similar size, seems to exist in a state of contradiction. Famously acknowledged as a defiant city by Henry VII in 1497 for twice resisting invasion, it has perpetuated the cosmopolitan conceit in spite of a small, mainly working-class population, persistent emigration and the accumulating losses of trademark industries. Today Waterford seems to be in crisis both regarding its identity, predicated in large part on its historical significance strategically and economically as a deep-water port, and regarding the pressing urgency of replacing lost industries in a civic climate which could never frankly have been said to be visionary with regard to nurturing and developing that which wasn’t self-evidently commercial and profitable.
However, in terms of the arts, and more specifically the visual arts, the problem that exists isn’t really one of identity. Relatively speaking, in an urban population of about 50,000 there are many well travelled, talented and energetic people who continue their practices determinedly but almost unseen. In a sense, Waterford might be said to be a victim of its size, neither big enough to act as a hub nor small enough to use its size to its advantage in the way many smaller towns around the country have done, for example Lismore and Kilkenny. Appropriately for a city with an innate suspicion of the outwardly oblique, the activities that have flourished have been theatre and music. There is a passion for the immediacy of performance that befits the hard-working city and its somewhat obdurate arts audience. While the relative successes of theatre and music in Waterford are to be applauded, generating interest and support for the visual arts has often proven to be quite a different proposition.
There is a new project, however, which seems set to inject fresh enthusiasm into a previously floundering visual arts scene. SOMA Contemporary Art Box is an exhibition venue and studio complex that has just opened in a central location of Waterford City. The City Arts Officer, Conor Nolan, and artist Paul Hallahan have been working hard to set up an artist-run venue and last year they secured the current space in a former office building on Lombard Street that they were given permission to develop. In the spirit of a number of other recently established artist-run, projects the building was brought up to spec on a shoestring budget with the help of volunteers.
For the first show at its new premises (SOMA had a previous incarnation in a temporary premises nearby), director Paul Hallahan has curated an exhibition of skate art or, more specifically, work inspired by the considerable skateboarding scene that exists in Waterford and other cities around the country. With Pop won’t eat itself, SOMA has produced just the kind of show with which to lay out its stall; the show has been conceived with a knowingly lo-fi aesthetic appropriate to the theme and the ethos of the space. It consists of painting, installation, photography and video. The video work occupies a purpose-built darkened room that demonstrates a commitment to new media in the gallery programme.
The five artists in the show (incidentally all male) are immersed in skateboarding culture, and the photography in particular has the feel of an intimate document of a scene, more a labour of love than slick observation. Darren Carlin, Neill Sheehan and Tony O’Keefe exhibit photographs hung in clusters that convey an unfussy aesthetic that doesn’t complicate the individual images. This is not what might be termed ‘art photography’. Of the three only Neill Sheehan’s edgy images seem to acknowledge any function for the photograph outside of the immediate subject matter. In fact in spite of the gallery being competently modelled on the standard white-cube-style space, the work manages to assert itself with a quiet honesty.
The painting in the show, in particular work by Phil Evans and Tony O’Keefe, is closer at times to graphic design and graffiti. There is no attempt to break new ground and this work is less about the work of painting itself than it is simply another activity. At no stage in any case does it set itself up as anything other than uncomplicated image making. The other paintings in the show, by Paul Hallahan, do seem to have larger ambitions. His awareness of scale and use of the medium of paint and resin indicate a preoccupation with issues related to painting itself. The largest piece, Roller, shows a deftness of touch that could easily have been negated by overworking the surface. Knowing when to stop is a hard-earned skill to have as a painter. Indeed Hallahan’s paintings and even his quite painterly but functional skate ramps stand out in this show for the strength of their formal vocabulary.
In the video room at SOMA, The Scrum Tully lush by Phil Evans is an engaging skateboarding tour of various cities around the world set to a backing track. Again this is more of an uncomplicated insider’s view, a paean to the vibrancy and energy of a community united by a simple activity.
It is difficult to quantify the effect of economic downturn on the visual arts. Painting, for example, is essentially a solitary activity with no guarantee of commercial success. However, the impetus behind a space like SOMA is more creative and social than commercial. Art does not have to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of financial struggle, but it may be easier to retain a certain freshness outside of the nakedly self-serving atmosphere of economic boom. With Pop won’t eat itself SOMA is off to a promising start. Given the perceptible change of focus and priorities in the art world away from the obsession with monetary worth and towards substance and integrity, this could be an ideal chance for Waterford to showcase its potential.
Robbie O’Halloran is an artist from Waterford, based in London; he will be exhibiting in SOMA Gallery this September; his work can be viewed at www.robbieohalloran.com