VAN Critique May/June 2014: Ailbhe Barrett and Joan Sugrue at The Courthouse Gallery

Ailbhe Barrett, -10 C, Oil on Canvas, 30 ins x 40 inches

New Work by Ailbhe Barrett and Joan Sugrue

The Courthouse Gallery, Ennistymon
14 March – 3 April

In We Have Never Been Modern, the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour observes that climate change is simultaneously material, discursive and socially constructed. It is at once a product of natural phenomena, of power relations and of the effects of language, a hybrid of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’.*

I mention this because these days I find that the act of looking at landscapes, both real and pictorial, is suffused with the knowledge that what I am looking at is not just what I am looking at. Every leaf and blade of grass carries within it microscopic traces of human activity, whether from pollution, chemical fertilisation, genetic modification or something else. Wild animals, including those in my immediate environment, have become increasingly like the mythical lost tribes of the Amazon, modern anomalies set to disappear under the advancing wave of capitalist growth. International protocols determine the right to pollute the air. It’s not that I am nostalgic for some previously ‘pure’ state of nature – as though natural phenomena could exist independently of human actions and effects – it is just that I anticipate, as the artist Mark Dion has recently said, that the world is going to get grottier, and that there is very little that we can do about it.**

Looking at the seemingly ‘innocent’ landscapes created by Ailbhe Barrett, on show as part of ‘Overworlds’ at the Courthouse Gallery in Ennistymon, it seems unlikely that the artist was working from such a pessimistic viewpoint. While the majority of her works focus on the sky, they feature “silhouettes and shapes of human activity and built structures” at the edges of the compositions, described by the artist as “both comforting and threatening”.*** The sense of threat that I detected in the work seemed to come less from these small indexes of human presence, however, than from the very real awareness of this sky, this enveloping atmosphere, as the locus of some pretty awesome and destructive forces in formation. The sublime is back, but not as we knew it.

The painful fact of beauty and its imminent loss may be a Romantic theme, but it is no less current for that. Two of Barrett’s larger paintings, The Weir, Maigue River and -10 o C, stood out in this regard. Scenes of trees and water, strangely lit, the images were built up through a fine lattice of brushstrokes painstakingly applied, the surfaces charged with an intensity of looking. In the weird, crystal stillness of these works, the hybrid reality of ‘nature’ seemed somehow close to the surface.

The work of Joan Sugrue, also on show as part of ‘Overworlds’, engaged more consciously with the complexities of representation. Concerned with overlapping perceptions of time, place and space, Sugrue generates painted images that appear like multiple exposures. Each layer of the image seems to reference an entirely different visual language: photographic, hieroglyphic, sometimes cartoonish, in keeping with the artist’s interest in the heterotopias that result when elements of place and time are “out of sync”.**** Sugrue’s Broken is a striking evocation of the space of ‘otherness’ that Foucault described in the heterotopia. Taking the form of a double image, the lower canvas operates as a reflection or inversion of the one above, suggesting something seen and seen again as though through a wormhole in spacetime. Similarly, Portal creates a void in the representation of an otherwise straightforward scene, exposing the instability of the image and its internal workings.

Sugrue’s series of six small, pinhole photographic prints, titled for the length of their exposure – 88 days, 21 days and so on – added something significant to the cumulative effect of the exhibition. Through the analogue process of pinhole photography, the world imprints itself directly onto the surface of the paper, which is most obvious in the tracks left by the passage of the sun across the sky. This evidence of the indifferent, relentless turning of the world placed the miniscule significance of human time in a cosmic perspective, partially offsetting the melancholy of representation that so permeated the other works.

The fictional constructs of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ have allowed the human species to conceive a make- believe separation between our actions and their consequences. ‘Overworlds’ acknowledged this artifice while seeming to maintain a thread to the material reality from which it derives.

Fiona Woods is a visual artist recognised for her curatorial and collaborative work in rural contexts. She is currently developing a new work by invitation for Action on the Plains, a Colorado- based programme of socially engaged art with US collective M12.



*B latour, B, We Have Never Been Modern, 1993, trans C porter, Harvard university press, 1993, 6
**M Dion in S lookofsky, Trash on the Beach, 2013, Dis Magazine, www.
***A Barrett,artist statement,‘Overworlds’,The Courthouse Gallery,2014, www.
****J Sugrue, artist statement,‘Overworlds’

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