‘below explanation (clocks stop at 3pm and existence continues)’
Wexford Arts Centre
12 January – 7 February 2015
“Phenomenology fails to provide a guaranteed tether to the world and its things. The relationship between consciousness and content remains to be worked out.” (Arthur C. Danto) (1)
The annual Emerging Visual Artist Award (EVAA) is one of the most sought-after visual art opportunities in the country. The winning artist is awarded €5,000 and a solo show at Wexford Arts Centre (WAC). As the 99% majority of visual artists in Ireland could be categorised as ‘emerging’ the profile of artists who do apply is most likely very colourful.
The profiles of EVAA recipients suggest that the term emerging applies to new and relatively young artists. Since 2006, when Seamus Nolan was the inaugural winner, three male and six female artists have taken home the award. Yes, strange to see the gender imbalance swaying the other way for a change in an art context. The last five artists to win the award have been female. A turning of the tide perhaps?
Just over a year after receiving the award in 2013, Teresa Gillespie’s resulting solo exhibition at WAC is a sprawling shag pile of heavily textured and layered materialism. The theory behind the art is derived from Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical novel Nausea (1939), a makeshift narrative delivered as a series of diary entries by a protagonist who one day pulls the scab off existence to find nothingness underneath. This old existential chestnut (a chestnut tree root being the main visual maker of nausea in Nausea) originates in Sartre’s proposition that “existence precedes essence”. In one particularly existential moment the protagonist, Roquentin, observes that “the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses”.(2)
And this is what Gillespie gives you in both galleries at WAC. Downstairs in the main gallery, among visual impressions of sinuous intestines and monastically draped and bound bodies, floor-bound monstrous masses the size of a Pilates ball are hermetically sealed in an insert cast of folded material. Throughout, the artist’s stagecraft alternates between hard representational props and soft sculpture: Gillespie’s art is the love child of Claes Oldenburg and Eva Hesse. In another memorable instance, a chair peeks out from underneath a red velvet curtain attached to a confessional-like timber compartment. Standing on one leg, the chair bears the weight of a pregnancy bump made of hardened clay. Amongst these stillborn manifestations of swollen beginnings or endings (depending on your existential bent) a projected film work shows the camera lens drunkenly scanning and fondling up-close textures. If inanimate objects could make sex tapes then this is how they would look.
There is more of the same upstairs in gallery two, where the windowless and artificially-lit ambience lends itself better to Gillespie’s formalism. Further, the smaller and more intimate space seems to foster greater consideration with regard to display, where wall decoration comes in the form of a framed primordial ‘mud-scape’.
However, what held my attention for repeated viewings upstairs is the single film work. It comes closest to what, in many respects, is Gillespie’s visual re-description of Nausea, especially how Danto describes the book as “a series of almost philosophical still lifes, the nearest artistic predecessor being, perhaps, Chardin, where the humblest objects – a pitcher, an egg – are rendered eloquent in their ordinariness and metaphysical in their presence”.(3)
Gillespie’s art positions the body and consciousness, the terrestrial and the celestial, the real and the representational in close proximity. These intimate embraces of opposites collaborate to elicit a perceived density to her art objects. This may also explain why the language and the references that the artist uses to theoretically situate her work are equally dense. Frustratingly, this density creates a verbal impasse for the observer, like those experienced by Roquentin in Nausea: “things are divorced from their names”.(4)
Overall, there is nothing attractive or repulsive, spectacular or banal at WAC. The mind’s eye wanders over the manifold textures that both conceal and give shape to the mutable floor-bound furniture. However, the exhibition as a whole is insidiously latent, waiting in hiding for the observer to activate the landscape with their own psychological baggage. Gilles Deleuze’s notion of ‘the fold’ comes to mind: “the coils of matter, and the folds of the soul”.(5) There are also visual nods to that other philosophical chestnut ‘abjection’ at WAC. That said, Gillespie’s art is not the tomato and chocolate sauce abjection of Paul McCarthy. Rather, it is between beauty and the beast that Gillespie leads the observer, down the rabbit hole of existential angst and phenomenological blockage.
James Merrigan is an artist and art critic at billionjournal.com
1. Arthur C. Danto, Nausea and Noesis: Some Philosophical Problems for Sartre, October, Vol. 18 (Autumn 1981), p. 18
2. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, (trans.) Lloyd Alexander, New Directions, New York, 1969
3. Danto, op. cit., p. 6
4. Sartre, op. cit.
5. Gilles Deleuze, The Fold, (trans.) Jonathan Strauss, Yale French Studies, No. 80, 1991, p. 227