Pleasing Pictures
December 2013

Dave Beech’s talk on Beauty at the Irish Museum of Modern Art was a development of the subject of the Anthology he edited back in 2009. At IMMA, Beech acknowledged he is now embarking on a project which pursues the various strands that interest him from Beauty’s fall from favour in art in the mid-twentieth century, the attendant concepts of taste, the ugly and the monstrous, to the potential for the emergence of a new universal that may counter the global reach of the commodity. He seemed undaunted by the scale of a task which will embrace Aesthetics and Philosophy, Art History, and Social Theory from at least the Industrial Revolution and, if his remarks at IMMA are anything to go by, he has yet to come to terms with how the conceptual and empirical domains involved might interlock into a coherent argument. One of the peculiarities of Beech’s pitch was to place Desire in the realm of commodification, and to ignore for example psychoanalytic writings on the subject. As someone who upholds the contingency of history this seems pretty absolute; surely all these concepts are subject to change in interpretation and favour over time. This raises the question of how the principle of Beauty became unfashionable in western art in the mid-twentieth century which is central to Beech’s claims.

To mark its re-opening at Royal Hospital Kilmainham after refurbishment IMMA has organized an exhibition of works from its Collection, entitled One Foot in the Real World. Included is Michael Craig-Martin’s Film which was filmed in Connemara in 1962 and edited the following year. In a number of respects this film, under twenty minutes in length, may be taken as paradigmatic of changes occurring in mid-twentieth century art. Craig-Martin filmed the remote Connemara landscape in black and white using a 16 mm Bolex. Made while a student at Yale he has described it as a youthful experiment for which he had no clear plan of action. It remains his only film. Film, as the title suggests, is no picturesque depiction of Connemara but rather a series of set camera pieces taking in land and water, whitewashed cottages, stone walls, a road with electricity poles trailing along it, a school. The camera reinforces the horizontality of a landscape where little grows above the eye line. Movement is limited to that which is created through wind and water, bar a postman on his bicycle crossing a bridge or laundry on a clothes line. One is conscious that an account of Film can quickly lapse into nostalgia for a bygone era. There is little within that isn’t directly connected to nature; exceptions are the bicycle, the rudimentary school house, and the plastic shoes of some of the children shown gathered to watch this stranger with his strange camera. Reflection on these glimpses of a past touched by poverty but largely untouched by modernity suggest that these children may not have seen film much less a movie camera. Film however is not affected by such anthropological concerns; it is intent on the record established through the position of the camera and that which is before the lens.

Film, then, can be positioned along with Warhol and work that within a couple of years will be grouped together in Minimalism. In 1965 Donald Judd decreed that a work need only be interesting. This implies the dumping of sensibility in favour of sense. A variant of the time was Frank Stella’s dictum WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). Five decades on we tend to see these statements of intent, not only as anti-aesthetic (anti-establishment) polemic, but as a shift in possibility for image-making which brings with it a different formation of the aesthetic compared to what went before. The genesis of Film is curious in this respect because what started as an Irish-American’s holiday project ends up very much in the milieu of the avant-garde of New York and its hinterland. Yet the subject of Film may be understood as outside the experience of the American avant-garde of the sixties; at the time, it could have been read as too romantic or picturesque. That may partly explain why it was moth-balled for over three decades until it was discovered and donated to IMMA in 2000: if Film was contemporary in form, the subject was too foreign for distribution.

If we can hypothesize that Film would have been strange for an American art audience it surely would have been alien in Ireland where in the early sixties the prevalent art form was landscape painting. Generally speaking, the mode was very much one of individual, subjective response to the Irish landscape with semi-abstract, expressive representations. It would be more than a decade before Late Modernist mediums and philosophies took hold amongst mainly younger artists. Returning to Dave Beech’s remarks, the decline of Beauty as an aesthetic category may be seen in relation to the Art World marginalization of pre-modernist art forms, with landscape painting as a case in point.  Discursive and temporal formations were the primary focus in ‘advanced’ art from the 1960s. This is not to say that representations of landscape did not remain a significant part of the Irish art scene but its audience (its market) is perceived as traditionalist or conservative by the ‘advanced’ circle.

What then can be said of Niamh O’Malley, a new generation Irish artist whose central concern is precisely, landscape? Where more traditional Irish landscape artists basically work outside the art world created by younger artists, O’Malley is very much formed within it. She employs several mediums in installations which have several points of entry; these have video, objects, and drawing and paint, often in combination with glass. For sure O’Malley is part motivated by environmental issues, a fashionable enough concern, but also by the beauty in nature as appears through all aspects of her practice, notably in this context by drawing/painting with associations in tradition. Is another paradigm at stake in work such as this?

In the autumn of 2013 O’Malley was the featured artist in an exhibition spread across the five art venues of Mayo, her birth county. The newly formed Mayo Arts Collaborative, representing the five venues, wanted to showcase this rural western County in a strength in numbers fashion as behoves these straightened times. O’Malley was an obvious if risky choice, as the work of one artist across five widely dispersed locations was a challenge to put it mildly. However, it provided opportunity for viewing O’Malley’s work over several years. Videos such as Bridge or Quarry bear comparison with Craig-Martin’s Film with its single-directional camera fixed on the landscape and man’s imprint on it, the recording of slight movement, the tonal palette though the affective quality is very different with the change from the Bolex to digital. O’Malley’s Glass works though contain both smudgy and decorative paintwork, while remaining most restrained in colour. These works operate more as symbol of the real world rather than as representations of actual landscape. Almost in the manner of medieval relief work leaves are a pretext for pattern-making; elements of nature are extracted and transplanted onto glass which will be viewed from both sides in a gallery context and will incorporate all the incidental reflections of the space. The paint stands opaque on parts of the glass but its film is seen to be so thin as to lack depth. The Glass works might be thought of as fragile but there is also strength in these panes on their wood and metal stands.

One such Glass work was exhibited in O’Malley’s Dublin gallery, Green on Red, in the end of year Group Show. This was in conjunction with two O’Malley landscape drawings on coloured glass, though ‘colour’ here is again subdued. While O’Malley’s output is conceived in relational terms, when taken alone these drawings refer back a generation or two in their dedication to the practice of drawing and in their representation of landscape within the shallow space of the picture surface. Yet these drawings remain contemporary, not only in the self-consciousness in the choice of medium where the glass is a significant component that makes it difficult to see what lies beneath, but they also function as quotations, re: earlier art-making. Self-consciousness in art-making came to the fore with the Minimalist generation who threw scepticism on the concept of beauty which they saw as obscuring the increasing commodification of the art object. More fundamentally however, they were sceptical of the concept of art. In comparison, O’Malley’s works are an act of faith. This may be one major difference between some of the work produced today compared with the immediate past.


Illustration: Niamh O’Malley, Mountains, walls (2013), Pencil on paper, coloured glass, 442 x 615mm. Courtesy Green on Red Gallery.

Niamh O'Malley, Mountains walls, 2013