Temple Bar Gallery + Studios presents, Tale Ends & Eternal Wakes, a new exhibition by Mairead O’hEocha.
Gorillas, horses, frogs, herons, and other animals have always held a valued role in Mairead O’hEocha’s paintings. In this new body of work the birds and beasts that find themselves enclosed in museum dioramas are celebrated, anatomised and commemorated. But it is not only the animal species that are represented, it is the entire artifice of their reproduction through taxidermy, and subsequent display in museum cabinets. O’hEocha’s depictions of the dioramas in Dublin’s Natural History Museum (or Dead Zoo) (1) bring to light an important balance in her constituent subjects and their contextual arrangement. Where previously O’hEocha’s representation of animals was encoded within her broader visual lexicon, the animals now fully occupy the frame, gesturing to the viewer on their own terms. This is impossible, of course, as the animals’ gestures are appealing precisely because of their oblivious regard for the viewer. O’hEocha’s selective compositional approach to painting reflects the meticulous arrangements of taxidermied animals in constructed artificial environments, and her ongoing engagement with representation and image-making highlight important issues about accepted institutional forms of presentation. O’hEocha goes beyond the urgency of current environmental concerns to present artworks that chart human anxieties, such as fear, desire and control (2). The paintings ask how we can better acknowledge the limitations of archetypal conventions of display, while also celebrating the complexities of representing the natural world today.
John Berger has compared the repetition of viewing a conventional gallery exhibition to the anticipated disappointment of visiting a zoo (3), and O’hEocha here acknowledges, subverts and reflects on the limitations of display. For the first time, she will show monochromatic ink drawings on paper that situate improvised and varied techniques of drawing alongside exacting and distinctively prismatic oil paintings on board and canvas. The drawings show monkeys and birds unbound from display cabinets, and the free-form, accumulative installation teases the animals to leap from one sheet of paper to another, defying the prescribed limitations of the museological ordering system (4). It would be a shame at this point to ignore that the art gallery, its visitors and its windows facing the busy city street reflect a parallel menagerie.
Natural History museums in the 21st century have a precarious position in the public eye. While they offer valuable scientific data that promotes progressive attitudes towards the natural world in an era of climate catastrophe, they are also residual embodiments of colonialism, hierarchical classification and cataloguing, and economic exploitation (5). Referencing Donna Haraway’s critique of the American Museum of Natural History, Catalina Lozano claims that representation of animals in museum dioramas ‘reproduces a narrative of dominance, a second defeat over the dead animal’ (6), and that the displays create a ‘permanently specular image, a ghost’ (7), whose imitation of life is extended indefinitely.
The exhibition title, Tale Ends & Eternal Wakes, echoes this state of suspension, or undetermined afterlife, in which the moment at the cusp of death is prolonged and made visible to all. Maeve Connolly has described O’hEocha’s paintings as ‘deliberate compressions of time’ (8), which is inescapably contrary to the display of the ‘denaturised’ subjects she paints. The ‘naturalisation’ of museum dioramas, their quantifiable value systems, and directed single viewing perspective, are a palatable means of rationalising the joyful and complex intangibility of nature. O’hEocha’s paintings are closer to the sublime disorder of the natural world in all its profound and perplexing splendour (9).
In an essay on fly-tying and representation, artist Joseph Grigely shares an old fishing secret: ‘its not the image alone that matters, but the way the image moves’ (10). This poetic analogy reveals some of the contemporary complexities around representation, and we know superficial caricatures are not a substitute for the real thing, particularly when considering the natural world: ‘It’s not so much about imitating flies as it is about creating desirable fictions’ (11). Rather than relying on representation, like the museum dioramas, Mairead O’hEocha appreciates human and sensory responses to ideas of nature through subtle decisions about form and gesture, such as the absolute stillness of an antelope or the reflective iridescence of a kingfisher’s wing. By simultaneously drawing us into the cabinet, and pulling the animals outside of it, back into the real world, O’hEocha’s exhibition prompts us to reconsider the entire dynamic between object and viewer.
Mairead O’hEocha’s work has been represented in several acclaimed solo exhibitions including via An Lár, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2011 (also 2015)); Whisper Concrete, Butler Gallery, Kilkenny (2011), and mother’s tankstation, Dublin (2016, 2012, 2008). Mairead O’hEocha’s first international solo exhibition, Irises in the Well, took place at mother’s tankstation London in 2018. O’hEocha’s paintings have been represented in a number of important group exhibitions and publications that have explored contemporary painting practices, including Slow Painting (curated by Gilly Fox and Martin Herbert), Hayward Gallery Touring Programme, UK (2019-2020), A Painter’s Doubt, Salzberger Kunstverein (2017), and Vitamin P3: New Perspectives in Painting (published by Phaidon, 2016).