The recent exhibition ‘Death and Sensuality’, shown this fall at the Mina Dresden Gallery in San Francisco, succeeded in its intended purpose: to promote Irish culture within an American context. Curator Jim Ricks utilized a curatorial framework, loosely inspired by George Bataille’s Eroticism: Death and Sensuality. He presented a diverse range of contemporary Irish artists, unified by their tactical use of appropriation to dismantle and rupture traditional notions of place, political failure, the representation of war, artistic licence, identity, longing, and desire. From the outset Ricks identifies common themes such as uprootedness, constructions of identity, the dislocation of memory, shadowy presentations of history, and ambiguous attachments to place or country.
Roisin Byrne, Not Abel and Benjamin DeBurca re-envision previously completed artworks by other artists, inserting themselves into a direct dialog with these works. This elevates the artworks beyond their original context and the broader concerns of each artist. Roisin Byrne interrogates ethical considerations within art through her work, Massage, which implicitly questions ownership. Byrne aggressively appropriates Ryan Gander’s work Massage; thereby subjugating it to her own line of questioning, wildly beyond Gander’s original intentions and without his permission.
In Romantische Reise Durch Das Alte Deutschland (A Romantic Journey Through Old Germany), Benjamin DeBurca cuts structured frames of clean lines into images of romantic German landscapes from the 1800s. He physically inserts a new subtext of geographical and cultural dislocation into remote representations of place, entrenched in an idealised past.
Nina Amazing and Alan Butler examine pop culture’s fascination with social media, self-representation and parody. Beneath these lie a dark undercurrent of superficial beauty and garish displays of assumed American exoticism. They are reflective of a larger global culture gone awry, a lost world of hypocrisy set against a heightened backdrop of war. Amazing’s digital collage presents an army of plastic pastiche-horror troops, dressed in ironic costume and weaponry, vying for the camera’s gaze. Butler recasts characters from a promo for Sex in the City as unwitting, oblivious targets, in a video lampooning consumer culture.
In The Logical End of All Media, James McCann tackles the themes of sensuality and death. Excerpted YouTube videos of excessively overweight men – stroking and caressing their ample flesh anonymously – are transformed into a series of ambiguous, visually sumptuous filmic episodes. They demonstrate an annihilation of the body, beyond health, into erotically charged flesh that hovers between states of extreme neglect and desire.
Alan Phelan’s Watch with Brian the Birth of a Nation is a pointed commentary on the political climate of present-day Ireland. His crafty mask of former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, a face that may not be readily identifiable to an American viewer, satirizes political accountability and degeneracy. Phelan’s depiction of Cowen has exaggerated features that recall Honoré Daumier’s timeless caricatures.
Painter Leo McCann portrays a Fauvist, deeply personal narrative of comical isolation and insularity in (Protected Corner) Under Arm Alarm (Table) and Doing No Great Harm. Breda Lynch and Tom Molloy re-interpret violent shared histories in fiction and in Europe’s recent past, respectively. Meet Your Doppelganger Then You Die by Breda Lynch comprises two rendered portraits of the same film still of Jane Fonda in period costume, with a hang man’s noose around her neck. By creating two images of the same scene, Fonda’s image is doubly locked in a highly rendered state of trauma, mimicry, and a self possessed, outward gaze of infallibility. Tom Molloy re-frames a photograph of Joseph Goebbels surrounded by his family, and a drawing of Benito Mussolini with his wife, at their hanging. He forces the viewer to confront the subject’s humanity, to consider Goebbels in the context of familial life and Mussolini on his passage into death.
There is coherence between these Irish artists, many of whom made new works specifically for this exhibition. The individual works carve out their own space, but remain relevant to a more general discourse on the global arts. Jim Ricks’ thoughtful curation allows the viewer to perceive transgressive notes of both death and sensuality, and American audiences seeing work by these artists for the first time, will discover a new reference point for contemporary Irish art.