A New Tradition: Irish Art of the Eighties was a five-part, thematic exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery at Trinity College Dublin between 1990 and 1991, curated by Gallery Director Medb Ruane. I contributed to two of the exhibitions in which the themes were Sexuality and Politics respectively. Below is a slightly shortened version of the catalogue essay I wrote for the first.
An omission from the essay is any reference to Directions Out, an exhibition at the Douglas Hyde in 1987 which had caused strong response because of the all-male representation of artists. I think it was felt at the time that Directions Out had already received attention elsewhere.
The visual arts rarely received the intensity of attention as with the arrival of Neo-Expressionism in the early 1980s. Word had gone out that a new, figurative and dynamic style of painting had assumed dominance in the international art scene; a style which broke the mould of abstraction and conceptualism, that had created a shift in the trends from the United States back to Europe and in Germany in particular.1 What was more, it seemed that Ireland could boast its own home-grown Expressionists, so at last Irish art was up-to-the-minute in the latest style in international art. Armed with the knowledge of an emerging success story from Europe with paintings exuberant in content compared to the abstracts of the seventies, and with artists whose biographies were rich in personality value, the Press splashed art and artists across their colour sections: ‘The Magical Adventures of Mick Mulcahy’ ran an In Dublin front cover story.2
Neo-Expressionism was the first, and last, ‘art movement’ of the 1980s at least as far as the art public was concerned. The artists involved always avoided the Neo-Expressionist label3 as too restrictive and, for the moment, too fashionable. They were, and are, keen to point out that their work was not ‘new’ but a continuation of the principles established by the Independent Artists since their formation in 1960: ‘The Independents are a broad group that have showed commitment to human rather than stylistic issues’.4 Nonetheless, Neo-Expressionism achieved attention and appeal on a relatively broad front, and with it the names of Michael Mulcahy, Paddy Graham and Brian Maguire among others. The groundwork had been somewhat fortuitously prepared by the Lincoln Gallery in Dublin. Charles Cullen and Michael Cullen had shown there in 1979, followed in 1980 by Michael Kane. In 1982 there was a succession of exhibitions at the Gallery starting with a group show which included many who were loosely associated with Expressionism, and then one-man shows by Mulcahy, Graham and Maguire. In the course of that same year, 1982, Aidan Dunne wrote an article ‘A Quiet Revolution in Irish Art’5 which was clearly intended to signal, as he puts it, ‘an upsurge of coherent artistic activity’ that was specifically related to painting. While the article was wide-ranging and referenced many artists remote from Expressionism, it was very much on the crest of the ‘Neo’ bubble.
In January 1983 Making Sense: ten painters, 1963-19866 opened at the Project Arts Centre. Curated by Henry Sharpe, the exhibition in many ways represented the pinnacle of intensity of Neo-Expressionism in its identity with a group of artists. Capitalizing on the new international trend the catalogue read, ‘Something has been happening to painting the past couple of years—something smacking of sheer excitement of a new direction, or a new way out at least’. That it was happening abroad and in Ireland was as far as Henry Sharpe’s catalogue essay went in aligning the Making Sense artists with international Expressionism, and it also emerged in the essay that, of the ten selected artists, it was Paddy Graham and Brian Maguire who were at the ‘neo-expressionist end’. So what then, was Neo-Expressionism in its Irish form?
As the German Neo-Expressionist artists developed their work, and as we have come to know more about this work, we have for the most part come to see that it is less expressionist per se and more about the general (and German specific) condition of humanity in modem society. Anselm Kiefer’s work is a case in point. Kiefer wishes to convey a spiritual quest through evocation and a sensuous tactile use of the material at his disposal. His work is not therefore engaged with the most basic understanding of expressionism as representing felt emotions through line, mark or colour or through one or all of these combinations. His project is more ambitious, attempting as it does to explore human existence. This is in keeping with the idea of the Making Sense exhibition where, as the catalogue claimed, a common denominator was that the ten artists were not complacent about ‘the failure of material values’ in our society. Just as Kiefer is concerned with the absence of spirituality in our lives, so in some measure in Making Sense.
However, problems tend to arise at just about every juncture in what was loosely called this ‘Neo-Expressionist venture’. At its most basic level where it is the artist’s intention to imbue the painting with an emotion, let’s say ‘anger’, then the mark, line or colour the artist employs in the representation of ‘anger’ is already inscribed in the painting by a set of conventions through which the viewer may be able to ‘see’ anger. In other words the emotional quality of the painting is something assimilated, reproduced and extended through conventions developed in painting as a medium, and is not the unique expression—even if the unique experience—of the artist in the act of painting. How else would the artist’s work be communicable for what it is and says? Scepticism may be voiced over whether the artist is authentic; whether the artist is simulating an emotional state.7 But equally we might be sceptical over the artist’s assumed soothsayer’s role in guiding us to a more spiritual perspective. Is the artist the vehicle through which we gain insight of our spiritual loss? From a material, or a materialist, point of view this requires a suspension of disbelief.
In his book on Expressionism, Roger Cardinal identifies characteristics. He argues that ‘while there may be a place for intellectual appraisal of the products of Expressionism, it remains the case that the primary mode of their appeal is non-intellectual. Aesthetic appreciation becomes a work of sympathetic adjustment in which the receiving sensibility settles itself in relation to the shapes of the expressive work’.8 If we accept this view then we might say that Kiefer’s work is effective on a visual and tactile level though it is also open to an intellectual understanding.9 But, for Paddy Graham: ‘To me the “experience” or the event of the painting is all’.10 Among Cardinal’s salient points about Expressionism is that it is a ‘celebration of creativity as pure transcription of feeling’,11 it is a ‘discovery of one’s self as a unique and independent case’.12 Again, Cardinal argues that the ‘vision of the continuity of inner spirit and form-giving gesture is a … faith in the virtue of works produced out of specific kinds of states which it becomes the artist’s vocation to facilitate within himself ’.13 While Cardinal bases his observations on Expressionist work from around the time of World War I, these apply directly to Paddy Graham. For Graham ‘(art’s) real effort is to describe the invisible, the reality that subverts the collective rationale of rationalized truth and seeks the individual truth of ourselves as individual and unique’.14 This spiritual truth according to Graham is a unity of self to world and self to ‘Godness’. The chasm between world and Godness ‘involves a forever realization of humanness and vulnerability. It is full of death and resurrection’.15 Somewhere therein lies sexual encounter with the other16 and entry into ecstasy. Roger Cardinal describes the sexual encounter as ‘the vulnerable exposure of subjectivity’: the artist constantly rehearses a dramatic swing from a giving up of the self in ecstasy, to, a ‘retreat back to the old definition of its unique and specific identity.’17
The reason for this patchwork of quotation is indicate Paddy Graham’s kinship with the original Expressionists and the privileging of male subjectivity. Certainly the woman, the Christ-figure (man and woman), the self-portrait, the references to a Church-ridden Irish society recur again and again in his work, but the encounter between artist and canvas seems more important than the images. The ultimate subject is self and ecstasy and this entails the sense of identity, sexuality, religion and fantasy in which the sexual goal is inseparable from death and resurrection. It is notable that Roger Cardinal in his account of Expressionism does not reference Freud’s analysis of Eros and Thanatos. Rather, Cardinal restricts his analysis to the more traditionally Christian concept of the mystical which is more in keeping with the Expressionists. If Graham’s paintings involve body and soul, then Michael Mulcahy is engaged with what Cardinal calls ‘nature mysticism’, where the artist entertains ‘feelings of intimate connection through sensation and intuition, with the unitary whole of nature’.18 This has evolved in Mulcahy’s work over the course of the decade. In a painting exhibited in Making Sense and entitled You Forgot Your Present Mary (1982), the man depicted offers a woman a penis-like flower. The woman is like a flower as she blossoms forth from her genitalia. Again, in his 1985 painting The name they gave her is Mary, a painting which resulted from a trip to Australia and New Guinea, a tree lurches towards the top half of a (non-white) woman while the line of her breast appears as the stem of a flower. Mulcahy seeks out remnants of nature at its most extreme often based in exotic climes, and he also seeks out indigenous inhabitants whom he regards as close to nature and therefore more spiritual than Westerners. In Mulcahy’s paintings metaphors of desire are abundant, and the analogy between woman and nature is explicit. However, his 1989 exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery veered towards abstraction. He said of it ‘When you look at the paintings, you see that they are wide open. Before I was very much the master in control: I put in a figure, and there was a certain narrative. These pictures are like nature—they have no beginning and no end’.19 Man enters the bliss of endless Nature as these large canvasses demonstrate.
What is suggested is that Paddy Graham and to a lesser extent Michael Mulcahy share an Expressionist ethos in so far as both have a belief in the function of art as facilitating a more intense experience than in ‘ordinary’ existence. In this sexuality plays a part because sexual experience and art experience can be seen as similar and are sometimes synonymous. Henry Sharpe wrote in a catalogue introduction: ‘Expressionist artists feel strongly and seek to translate … feelings as directly and in as undiluted a form as possible, into the medium with which they are working. Style does not enter into it. And real feeling cannot be adequately mimed—you either feel intensely or you don’t’.20
Brian Maguire maintains the Expressionist principle of emotional response to his environment but his concerns are different to Graham or Mulcahy in that he is more particularly interested in social and political issues. Yet his work is often concentrated in a sense of isolation which is a result of social discrimination or as alienation. The context through which Maguire has explored the state of isolation ranges from sexuality and the family, to the street and prisons. A drawing exhibited in Making Sense and entitled Alone (1981) is of a stark almost faceless male at the edge of a bed trying to fantasize his way to sexual release. In a similar vein the theme of two lovers is one that Maguire has often returned to. The romantic concept of a lover is that he or she will provide union and will be a source of well-being but Maguire’s lovers never totally fulfil the role for each other and the desire for the impossible remains frustrated. In this way Maguire’s work is more oriented towards the incompleteness and deficiencies of the world than are Graham’s or Mulcahy’s. In such explicit images as these the sexual act is intimated, but male pleasure is seen as momentary and the mental and physical separation of the two lovers prevails.
Maguire’s art operates down a fine line between self-indulgence and a statement about the individual at a loss in modem society. The work may be seen as self-indulgent in its concentration on ‘I’—how I feel and react. This though is part of the enterprise of Expressionism, and expressionist work often creates strong positive and strong negative reactions in viewers because of its focus on the ego. And so it is with Neo-Expressionism in the way the personal experiences of the artist are profiled both in the artwork and outside the artwork. In reviewing an exhibition of work by Paddy Graham and Brian Maguire in Belfast in 1984, Micky Donnelly had this to say: ‘the net result is that we now have quite a few neo-or-non-neo-expressionists with large reputations and even semi-mythical status if they happened to drink a lot in their younger days. The catalogue here predictably (though only occasionally) lapses into soap-opera, casting the artist in the role of heroic victim who having been forged in the white-heat of personal traumas, emerge tough and triumphant and totally committed to their authentic art’.21 In emphasizing the past or present life-style of these artists there was a conflation between the intensity of expression accredited to the work and the intensity of the life which could be seen as awesome, or, as melodrama. However, Donnelly had correctly noted that some of Maguire’s paintings in this exhibition were overladen with high-minded seriousness while Paddy Graham’s religious and sexual references were ‘sometimes bordering on the sadomasochistic in the true Judaeo-Christian tradition of salvation through suffering …’22
By 1984 Neo-Expressionism was widely perceived as the most exciting phenomenon in Irish art for many years. Yet none of the artists associated with the movement was selected among the Irish artists included in Rosc ’84. [Rosc was an exhibition of international art which took place approximately every four years between 1967 and 1988.] This was considered remarkable especially as the international Neo-Expressionists were quite well represented. In the wake of this rejection by the Rosc establishment The October Exhibition was launched in Temple Bar Gallery in Dublin and included sixteen artists. The show was predominantly figurative and expressionist and in view of the discussion raging over the selection of Irish artists for Rosc ’84 its title, The October Exhibition, was hardly co-incidental in its allusion to radical or revolutionary activity. Sixteen artists made this exhibition more extensive than the ten artists in Making Sense and, of these sixteen, three were women. The fact that Making Sense included an unprecedented display of the male penis in both quantity and scale was a source of some astonishment but there was little comment on the fact that no women artists were included. Mairead Byrne, writing in Magill magazine, made the intriguing though vague comment on Making Sense that ‘As a visual record of a facet of late twentieth century, self-aware, Irish male life, the exhibition is of great interest. It is probably the last such exhibition that will take place’.23 Perhaps Byrne had in mind ‘the longest revolution’ (feminism) rather than the October Revolution, for indeed it now seems unlikely that such an exhibition could take place without provoking strong reaction on the representation of male sexuality and on the absence of women artists.
In order to see this change in perception it is necessary to note the advances made through the Women’s Movement since the 1970s, and to attempt to identify the effects on the visual arts in Ireland. During the 1970s pressure was exerted for ‘equality’ with men in the workplace and in marriage. In the 1970s and in the early 1980s there was a series of law reforms in these areas both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic.24 But if the 1970s was a decade of growing momentum and optimism within the Women’s Movement, in the 1980s there was an apparent slowing down of momentum as the issues and practices entailed in these changes impacted throughout Ireland, and as the movement itself diversified from its original closely-knit groupings.25 In the South there was also a substantial and co-ordinated reaction from conservative groups which militated against social change, and these forces were notably successful during the Abortion Referendum (1983) and the Divorce Referendum (1986). Many women activists were discouraged by these setbacks, especially when set against the individual tragedies of Joanne Hayes, Anne Lovett and Eileen Flynn which suggested that the changes were superficial.
While ‘equality’ for women is more elusive and complex than it at first appeared, the concept has enabled women artists to work for changes in women’s representation in art exhibitions and art institutions. In 1986 an ‘Irish Women Artists’ seminar was held in the Women Artists Slide Library in London attended by many Irish women artists living in both Ireland and Britain. Later that year a Women on Women exhibition was held in the Fenderesky Gallery in Belfast which included a discussion forum. The following year an international women’s conference was held in Dublin and, to coincide with the event, the National Gallery, the Municipal Gallery and Douglas Hyde Gallery co-organized an exhibition, Irish Women Artists, which included women artists from the eighteenth century to the contemporary. The exhibition suffered from a lack of overall co-ordination and was neither a survey nor an issue-based event, and to some extent it provoked the creation of the Women Artists Action Group in Dublin and a group in Belfast who organized an exhibition entitled, Identities, which was specifically feminist based.26
These events ranged from the simple curatorial premise of an exhibition of or by women artists (Women on Women and Irish Women Artists) to events by women artists for women in order to establish some form of agenda, (Identities). For many these were unnecessary since, it was argued, in the twentieth century Irish women artists had been to the forefront of Irish art. Although there has not been extensive research on women artist’s representation in group exhibitions, in one-person exhibitions, in education, in committees, and in the media, preliminary investigation suggests that while a few individual women artists may have been involved at crucial stages of Irish art of the century, the general picture is very different.27 One of the functions of women’s exhibitions in the 1980s was therefore to highlight women artist’s representation and, judging from the response at seminars and the letters pages of the press,28 some advance has been made. This in itself however is but a small and quantifiable part of a much more complex set of issues surrounding gender. On the one hand, the question of ‘equality’ has emerged on a number of levels, and on the other, a number of related and at times over-riding questions have arisen with regard to gender relationships. Just as the Women’s Movement can no longer be seen as a unified pressure group so, in the visual arts, women’s issues cannot be summarized within a single range of aims and practices. This is not to say that there is no distinct consciousness, it is simply to say that a consciousness of women’s issues is manifested at different times, in different mediums, and often with different objectives.
A fundamental question of feminism is if humanity is constituted by men and women, why is it that men dominate in terms of wealth, power, and sexuality? Is this natural, or is it somehow inscribed in the history of social relations; and how is gender constituted and reproduced in economics, politics and the family? Are we biologically defined as either man or woman, or is the split between the sexes socially constructed in the interests of men? What is it to be a ‘woman’, and what is (are) our image(s) of ourselves, what image(s) have men constructed of us, and what does this tell us about the construction of gender? And how do race and class affect relationships between men and women, and women with other women? The questions are in a sense as important as the answers because they enable a questioning of social practices and institutions. The premise is that nothing in our social relations is gender free. Moreover, the principle of achieving equal status to men in social relations is no longer straightforward because if gender is at the basis of the social order, and if the social order is permeated by the domination of men over women, and that in turn is based—as psychoanalytic theory informs us—on psychic associations, fears and taboos concerning sexuality which are reproduced through the social order then concepts of ‘equality’ also carry the prejudice of existing social relations. These most complex questions indicate how feminism has not so much slowed down, as that during the 1970s and ‘80s there was an extension of the line between social/political activity and theoretical practice; the latter asked increasingly fundamental questions about the construction of society and within that individual experiences and identities, including the artist.
To say that nothing in social relations is gender-free is to say that gender is implicated in the production and reception of art. This is particularly contentious in the representation of the body, both male and female. If for example a depiction of a female nude is regarded as ‘sensuous’, then it is possible to say that this representation is an object of desire for the pleasure of the spectator. We might be in a position to argue that the artist has been party to the scenario by constructing the artwork in a manner which invites the ‘sensuous’ reading in the first place. To criticize an artwork on the basis of its pleasure in the female body might be in itself pedantic and inconsequential, but according to feminism such representations are perpetuated throughout art history and are another manifestation of men’s dominant relationship with women where men have determined the forms and practices of art.29 Equally, an argument might be made about depiction of the male nude in that the prevalent representation of the male nude throughout the history of art is invested with power and dominance.30 This is to say that in looking at artworks, the spectator brings with him or her the ‘baggage’ of social conditioning and this is consciously or unconsciously reinforced through art production. In the 1980s, feminism created an awareness of such issues. To take up a position on these issues is now an ideological act; art is no longer ‘innocent’ in regard to gender determinants.
The nude is the most obvious example in art where gender relationships arise. But gender positioning may feature in any art, even where the body as such is not represented. Micky Donnelly did an extended series of drawings and paintings between 1984 and ‘85 which are based on the idea of an urn or a vessel. This form has an opening at the top and it pivots to a narrow curved bottom. The mark which Donnelly repeats in shaping these vessels is a slanting stroke, creating an elliptical movement across the picture-plane. This is echoed in the ground of the painting which suggests that the vessel is creating a space around itself. The work is intended to evoke sensations, not specific but general sensations ranging from containment to release, and in that sense they can be read as a metaphor for the body. But are these images about psychic and sexual stresses on the male body, or is the female body the point at which these vessels will disintegrate in their spatial motion? The series does not provide an answer because it is the anticipation of the revelation of male or female properties that Donnelly works with. These works are intentionally incomplete and it is the anticipation of completeness with one or other of the sexes that gives them tension.
Micky Donnelly’s untitled series on the vessel has sexual overtones and while it could be interpreted in purely formal terms that I think would rob it of much of its import. It is the case that with the ‘return’ to figurative art in the 1980s there has been a re-interpretation of the work of a number of abstract and semi-abstract artists in regard to figurative allusions. Eilis O’Connell has worked with abstract shapes and forms since the 1970s yet Conor Joyce, in his essay on O’Connell for the catalogue for her 1986 exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, interprets her work using psychoanalytic categories of gender, desire and fetish.31 This is a substantial re-reading of work by an artist who was regarded as working with material processes in an abstract way. The strongest evidence in favour of Joyce’s interpretation was in some of the new sculptures for that exhibition. In Bundu Uprights (1986) male and female characteristics are present in two forms who turn slightly away from one another, one with a spiked head, the other with a vulva shape cut in its middle. …Save Nine (1986) also has the semblance of male and female genitalia and the sculpture re-presents the psychoanalytic concept that the one sex recognizes its identity only in relation to the other.32 Joyce anticipates these sculptures in his re-reading of O’Connell’s earlier reliefs, but there is nevertheless some importance in the matter of the conditions within which the work was produced, and how the artist understood those conditions in regard to the production of the work. What is missing from Joyce’s account of Eilis O’Connell’s reliefs and sculptures is an explanation of why he compares her early sculptures to David Smith’s vertical monoliths (masculine) while her later work is compared to Anish Kapoor’s bulbous sculpture forms and Shirazeh Houshiary’s horizontal floor sculptures (feminine). The feminist question to be asked of O’Connell’s work is how is the artist conscious of gender issues, and how are these articulated in the work. If these cannot be said to be articulated in the work, the feminist question is then what are the conditions in the production of the work by which gender is un-problematized? The point is that the masculine and feminine shapes and forms in O’Connell’s art are not necessarily an indicator that the artist is consciously working with gender as an issue, and that the reading of gender in artwork can be exaggerated.
In an essay on cultural politics, Michele Barrett33 goes some way towards delineating ‘feminist art’ though as she points out a definition is not possible. She criticizes Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) on a number of counts—Chicago’s use of women workers in the project, how it created a hierarchy of historical women figures, and the retrieval of women’s crafts into the realm of ‘high art’—none of which Barrett regards as feminist principles. However, since The Dinner Party was publicly received as ‘feminist art’ then Barrett is obliged to regard it as such. Judy Chicago had proclaimed herself a feminist artist, therefore The Dinner Party was perceived as feminist art. Barrett goes on to argue that a condition for feminist art is women’s experience, though that in itself is not sufficient. Two further points emerge from Barrett’s comments: one is that for art to be feminist, women’s experience of oppression has to be taken to the level of engagement with cultural politics, and the second is that the experience is the experience of women, i.e. men may intellectualize and/or empathize with women’s experience, but this is different. This latter point seems to bar men from any role in ‘feminist art’, but in fact it says that feminism emerges through women’s experience which does not preclude interchange between men and women over issues of oppression, gender, sexuality, and so on. The upshot is that women’s art is not necessarily feminist though work by women or men may inform feminism; further, men’s art and women’s art may contain elements which are open to a feminist reading.
This might best be seen through some examples. A premise of feminism is that society is patriarchal, and a work which exposes one specific operation of patriarchy is Colin McGookin’s Sons of the Fathers (1981). The work is in the form of an Orange banner on which are painted emblems and symbols such as are found within the Orange and Black Orders.35 The Orange and Black organizations have roots in Masonic ceremonies and in Northern Ireland these members are Protestants, with Protestant women confined to a sub-rank within the Order. Another work which is a somewhat similar criticism of patriarchy is Dorothy Cross’s Four-Faced Liar (1985), where the sculpture represents a church tower but also operates as a phallic symbol which is bent over and seems empty. Like the Orange Order in the North, the Catholic Church in the South has had a pervasive influence in moral, cultural and political matters,36 and Four-Faced Liar is a statement on the patriarchal nature of the Church and its central position in Irish society. Marie Barrett’s work has dealt with male identification with power symbols including the Church and State. In Irish Tribesman with Tatoo (1988), a naked impoverished male holds a large sword in one hand and a portrait of John F. Kennedy in the other. He is shown from the knees up and on a plinth but he is far from assuming monumentality despite these symbols of power and authority. While none of these three artists would regard themselves as feminist, these examples of their work echo a feminist critique of patriarchy.
One of the aims of feminism is to disrupt the prevalent representations of femininity and of woman since women are too often represented as the desired sex who are without economic or political power. A striking feature of Dorothy Cross’s work is the way in which concepts of femininity and masculinity and the biological male and female are problematized. In Ebb, an installation at the Douglas Hyde Gallery (1988), the Gallery space was taken over by a series of sculptures and photographs which invited the viewer into the world of the unconscious, a world of dreams inhabited by half-human, half-vertebrate, half-male, and half-female figures. Freud’s theories of the unconscious and of sexuality have revolutionized our perceptions of gender and of sexuality; they suggest that the split between the sexes is not at all clear-cut and that sexual orientation involves unconscious drives and energies across the sexes. Ebb contained representations of experiences, dreams, the fish as both spiritual and dream symbol, the male and female figure, and the mother, father and child figures. As a concept Ebb was not located in time or place, but was an exploration of dream and fantasy, desires and fears. The figure physically placed in the centre of Ebb was The Shark Lady in a Balldress whose head can be viewed either as female breasts, or as male genitalia. Around Shark Lady were several standing sculptures grouped as couples. Erotic Couple has male and female characteristics while Mr and Mrs Holy Joe, of all the work in Ebb, comes closest to allusions to the social order in which sexuality is kept hidden. However, in Bath, both male and female features are together in a single construction which contains the disturbing image of a penis-like shape cutting its way into the surface of the ‘water’ (wood) in the bath-tub.
Alice Maher both disrupts the conventional representations of women and transforms her images with an energizing exuberance. Maher’s sources extend across an array of material from Catholic and rural Ireland, magazine cut-outs, art history, to the exotic and the fantastic. These sources do not emerge in any singular way but are combined together and are split through one another. The drawing or painting surface may be viewed from different angles and perspectives. Each figure within the work is not whole because of overlapping figures or by a change in perspective. In Maher’s feminism there is no such image as the unified, complete woman; and there is no such concept as an intact, invulnerable identity. Each individual is fractured by the conflicting and contradictory influences involved in upbringing and in adult life; culture, politics and feminism are complex and partial. Maher’s drawings and paintings have evolved from the dense sombre images of 1986 where human forms and surgical farm implements intertwine in a quite deadly manner, to the small collages of her exhibition at the On the Wall Gallery in 1988 which used contemporary magazine images alongside her interest in mythology and Christian iconography. This exhibition also included larger scale drawings such as The Expulsion (after Masaccio) (1988) in which the male and female bodies are engaged in struggle: Adam, a manic figure comprised of several different parts and with a dagger between his shoulder blades, pushes Eve away even while their ‘beads’ are attached by a cord. Maher has continued to work in both small and large scale, though her images have become less dense, more conscious of the space surrounding figures, and this has enabled a break with narrative and its replacement with a spatial vitality as her predominantly female subjects create their space in various stages of transformation. In her exhibition Tryst (1989) in the Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick three circular ‘tents’ were hung from the ceiling. Each was painted with women figures, organic symbols and animals, and, as the viewer steps inside the tent a motion is created whereby the painted figures swirl around and envelope the viewer.
In the 1970s the Women’s Movement exerted considerable energy in seeking equal opportunity in the workplace, and in seeking rights over career choices in respect to access to contraceptives and for maternity leave. In the 1980s more attention was given to the home environment as equally important in the construction and reproduction of gender roles. Traditionally within the family men have had a relatively public life at work while women have led more private existence within the home but as more women have gone out to work, so they have carried the double burden of looking after job and home. Even while men have begun to assume more responsibilities in the home, surveys indicate that in the nuclear, double-wage earning family, women continue to do most of the house-work and child-minding. The public/private dichotomy within the context of lack of equal opportunity for women was a feminist issue during the 1980s.37 It is an issue which Rita Duffy raises in Women of Gallagher’s Factory (1986) and in Mothers (1984), in which four women are congregated outside a house with their large hands cradling babies and holding onto their young sons and daughters. In the three-panelled Siege 1 (1989), the Protestant community is shown in the left panel, the Catholic in the right, and a blank panel between. These are street scenes with an Orange banner and a preacher at the highest point of one panel, and a Virgin and Child statue and a Bishop at the highest point of the other. But at the centre of both scenes are women, women minding babies, and the construction of the two scenes suggests it is the women are the foundation of both communities.
Women artists have helped to re-imagine the female body. In Sea Bed (1980), Kathy Prendergast draws the woman’s body as a map and with the intimacy, care and knowledge of the owner. This idea of mapping the surface was extended by Prendergast in 1983 in a series of drawings which metaphorically make soundings beneath the surface of the female body to find traces and sources of fluids. Pauline Cummins makes the private body more public in work that celebrates women and sexuality and makes positive representations of women. For the 1984 Irish Exhibition of Living Art she did a mural entitled Celebration in the National Maternity Hospital which was intended to welcome the event of Motherhood. Her slide-tape piece Aran Dance (1986) is a personal view of the visual and tactile pleasures of a man’s body. Mary Duffy’s representations of the body are unsettling in a very different way, because through image and tape or text she confronts disability. This, she says is a situation in which the viewer is confronted with his or her own fears of disability: ‘When talking about racism or sexism there is no fear if one is white today one could end up as black tomorrow, so there is no room for disassociation. With disability however one could easily go to bed able-bodied and wake up with a disability. The fear is real, and it is universal. One of the ways we successfully deal with our fear is to project them on to people with disabilities … One of the reasons I make the images I do is to make those stereotypes manifest and then to shatter them ….’38 In Between Ourselves (1989) the body is shown partly highlighted against the shadow and dark ground. Alanna O’Kelly has made work on the mother/daughter relationship that are grounded in personal experience. In the video installation Dancing with my Shadow (1986-88) O’Kelly explores memories through the form of a letter using both image and voice.
These examples of women artists working with the body and with relationships between women have resonances from within the theoretical discourses of (so-called) French Feminism. Here the aim is to extol the female body through writing, and by so doing dislodge the centrality of patriarchal discourse. This working through ‘her own body’ has led to many investigations including the mother and child relationship which appears in the writings of Helene Cixous, Luce Irigarary and Julia Kristeva.39 While there are differences of strategy and politics among these theorists the common aim is to discover ways and means of writing (and imaging) the body. The experimentation seeks to acquire the means to transgress the social order, that is, men’s representation of the world, and for that reason the processes of reproduction have become a way of writing about and writing in.
French feminist theory has been criticized for the idealization of the female body,40 but nevertheless the ambitious, radical and audacious ideas and projects of these writers are now a fundamental part of feminist discourse. In accepting the primary function of language in how we represent (understand) the world, and with regard to the patriarchal nature of language, the task is then to find the fissures in language and the pre-linguistic (that which is outside the social). It seems to me that Eithne Jordan’s paintings during the latter years of the 1980s could be seen in these terms. She has consistently used an image of woman and an image of the woman and child in what seems to be a major project of eliding the social so that all that remains is a state of being.
In a way then, this essay has returned to where it started with the question of how to express experience directly and without the mediations of conventional language. But not quite. Feminism has left the trace of gender on social and artistic awareness, and the representation of the body is now appears much more problematic than in the early 1980s. It is notable, for example, that Brian Maguire paints such subjects as, Family Relationship (1984), or, Children and Self (Remembering) (1986), which acknowledge the importance of intimate relationships in life. This will be as much to do with his own evolving circumstances as with feminist influences, yet is an indicator of shifts in subject matter in current art. At the same time there are inherent difficulties in focusing in on the body and on relationships. One is that the fascination with the self and with the other leads to a return of narcissism and spectatorship. Another is that we have already witnessed the celebration of the concept of the family such as in the exhibition, The Family (1989) at the Irish Life Centre, Dublin. It is necessary to ask whether this represents the new male and the rightful presence of the female, or whether these are traditional, ultra-conservative concepts of the nuclear family revamped. Similarly, if the display of male sexuality is now more restrained than in the early 1980s, it is necessary to ask questions over censorship and self-censorship.
Feminism has diversified enormously during the 1980s, even to the point of fragmentation. Yet within feminism there is a questioning and re-questioning of gender relationships within society which has been one of the most vital forces of the decade. The ideas and practices developed through the Women’s Movement have infiltrated into the social institutions of family and state, and its implications are not only cultural but also political. The cultural and political aspects of feminism are inseparable.
- Recognition came with the Documenta 7 and Zeitgeist exhibitions held in West Germany in 1982 and 1982-83 respectively.
- In Dublin, no. 180, 2 June 1983.
- See Henry J. Sharpe in Patrick Graham, Brian Maguire, Belfast: Octagon Gallery, 1984; and, Brian Maguire in interview with John Hutchinson, In Dublin, 14 April 1988, pp. 33-35, 38.
- Brian Maguire, In Dublin, ibid, p. 34.
- In Dublin, 27th May 1982, pp. 50-52.
- The ten artists were Brian Bourke, Charles Cullen, Michael Cullen, Paul Funge, Patrick Graham, Patrick Hall, Gene Lambert, Brian Maguire and Michael Mulcahy.
- This is the basis of the debate between Craig Owens, Hal Foster and Donald Kuspit on Neo-Expressionism in Art in America in 1983. Owens and Foster attack Expressionism, while Kuspit defends. See, Owens, ‘Honor, Power and the Love of Women’, pp. 7-13, Foster, ‘The Expressive Fallacy’, pp. 80-83, 137, Art in America, January 1983; and, Kuspit, ‘Rejoinder: Tired Criticism, Tired “Radicalism”’, Art in America, April 1983, pp. 11-17.
- Roger Cardinal, Expressionism, London: Paladin, 1984, p. 27.
- See, John Hutchinson, Anselm Kiefer: Jason, Dublin: Douglas Hyde Gallery, 1990.
- Patrick Graham, ‘On Irish Expressionist Painting’, with Brian Maguire, Patrick Hall, Timothy Hawksworth, Patrick Graham and Seamus Heaney in The Irish Review, no. 3, 1988, p. 32.
- Cardinal, p. 24.
- ibid, p. 32.
- ibid, p.72.
- Graham, The Irish Review, p. 31.
- ibid, p. 32.
- See, Patrick Graham in interview with John Hutchinson, Irish Arts Review, vol. 4, no. 4, (1987), pp. 16-20.
- Cardinal, p. 77.
- Cardinal, p. 82.
- Michael Mulcahy in interview with John Hutchinson, In Dublin, 13th April 1989, p. 15.
- Henry J. Sharpe, Patrick Graham, Brian Maguire, unpaginated.
- Mickey Donnelly, review of ‘Patrick Graham, Brian Maguire’, Circa, no. 18, (Sept./Oct. 1984), pp. 35-36. (Due to a paste-up error in Circa, no. 18, the final paragraph of this was reprinted in Circa, no. 19, pp. 30-31.)
- ibid, p. 36.
- Mairead Byrne, ‘Souvenirs of Survival’, Magill, January 1983, p. 59.
- See, Yvonne Scannell, ‘Changing Times for Women’s Rights’, in Irish Women: Image and Achievement, edited by Eiléan Ní Chuileanáin, Dublin: Arlen House, 1985, pp. 51-72. Also, Jenny Beale, Women in Ireland: Voices of Change, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1986; and, Maureen Cronin, ‘According to the Law’, Irish Feminist Review, 1984, pp. 139-148.
- For views on the Women’s Movement in Ireland during the 1970s and ‘80s see, Ailbhe Smyth, ‘Feminism in the South of Ireland’, and Margaret Ward, ‘Feminism in the North of Ireland’, in The Honest Ulsterman, no. 83, pp. 41-58, & pp. 59-70.
- See Fionna Barber, ‘A Feminist Flavour’, Fortnight, no. 187, (Dec. 1987), p. 28.
- For information and observations on third level art education, see Education Supplement, Circa, no. 26, (Jan./Feb. 1986).
- Examples include letters of criticism to The Sunday Tribune newspaper on the previewing and reviewing of the Irish Women Artists exhibitions (1987), and the Leon Golub, Nancy Spero joint exhibition (1988), both at the Douglas Hyde Gallery.
- See, Rozsika Parker & Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
- These remarks do not exclude the possibility of women artists representing men or other women as objects of pleasure. The point is that representations often produce the dominant male-subservient female roles. For an account of representations of the male body see, Sarah Kent, ‘The Erotic Male Nude’, in Women’s Images of Men edited by S. Kent & J. Morreau, London: Writers & Readers, pp. 75-105.
- Conor Joyce, Steel Quarry: The Sculpture of Eilis O’Connell, Dublin: Douglas Hyde Gallery, 1986.
- See, Juliet Mitchell, ‘Freud and Lacan: Psychoanalytic Theories of Sexual Difference’, in Mitchell, Women: The Longest Revolution, London: Virago, 1984.
- Michele Barrett, ‘Feminism and the Definition of Cultural Politics’, in Feminism, Culture, Politics, edited by Rosalind Brunt & Caroline Rowan, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1982, pp. 37-58.
- This issue is debated at length in, Alice Jardine & Paul Smith, (eds.), Men in Feminism, London: Methuen, 1987.
- For analysis of the symbols see, Anthony D. Buckley, ‘The Chosen Few: biblical texts in the symbolism of an Ulster secret society’, The Irish Review, no. 2, 1987, pp. 31-40.
- See, Tom Inglis, Moral Monopoly: The Catholic Church in modern Irish society, Dublin: Gill&. Macmillan, 1987.
- See, Michele Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today, London: Verso, 1980, Chapters 5 & 6.
- Mary Duffy, ‘Disability, Differentness and Identity’, Circa, no. 34, (May/June 1987), p. 31.
- For an outline see Domna C. Stanton, ‘Difference on Trial: A Critique of the Maternal Metaphor in Cixous, Irigarary, and Kristeva’, in The Poetics of Gender, edited by Nancy K. Miller, Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 157-182.
- See, Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics, London: Routledge, 1985.