VAN Critique November/December 2015: ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ Mel French at Luan Gallery, Athlone

small luan
Mel French, Fledgling, 2015, wax, tree, steel

Mel French
‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’
Luan Gallery, Athlone
5 September – 30 October

MEL French is well known as the recipient of public commissions, but ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ at the Luan Gallery is her first solo show. The two handsome rooms of the gallery, one dark and one bright, offer the artist a resonating setting for her sculptural exploration of affects.

Entering the building, we first face Interjection (2006), an aluminium bust on a plinth. The screaming figure with its distorted features and bulging neck muscles belies the classical format. It aptly sums up the impression left by the summer’s news with its escalating emotional appeal to our attention; only the outrageously loud will be heard. In the darkened gallery, four works are set up. Permeo (2005) is a near life-size group of two bodies simultaneously fighting each other off and entangled together – quite literally – as the arm of one goes right through the torso of the other and back. They seem unable either to embrace or get away from each other.

Resting on a shelf along the wall, Fleeting (2015) is a sleeping head made of wax, a back light shining through its translucent material. The title alludes to transitory experiences and forms in state of flux. The work brings to mind Constantin Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse (1910), but where the smooth curves of the modernist work were self-contained and timeless, Fleeting’s soft material slowly merges with its support as its expression passes. Wean (2015) is a cluster of 20 heads on the floor, tilted upwards, mouths at the ready, looking up impatiently at a suspended blanket as newly hatched birds await their feed. Somehow the intense expectation in those upturned faces suggests our own greediness towards earth’s dwindling resources.

Hatchling (2015) continues the human / bird analogy with three small casts of a baby bird’s body with a human head composed on two antique high chairs set back to back. The accompanying text elaborates on the vulnerability and defencelessness of the baby bird fallen from its nest, but all I could think of was the creepy dinner scene with the carving of the tiny chicken in David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).

More successful for me in their association of bird and human affects were Dwell I and Dwell II, two small, carefully made up nests of human hair. These last two works sit alongside three others in the brightly lit gallery space in the renovated part of the building, a high-ceilinged room with tall windows. The striking Relative Distance (2003) comprises two life-size figures. Standing on a plinth is a plaster figure of a woman violently retching, while on the floor in front of her is a female form dissolving into a gelatinous mass. The well-defined body of the former contrasts with the shapelessness of the latter. Black Dog (2015) is a human-animal hybrid with a female body and a dog’s head, its black form made of painted plaster bent over its reflection in a dark basin. Tuning forks are hung by nylon threads from the ceiling over the figure. French is literally embodying the expression ‘black dog’, which represents depression. The tuning forks allude to a seventeenth-century experiment in which they were rung to alter mental states. Hung thus, they accentuate the downward pull of the work while activating the air around the inert mass of the body.

Mater Matris (2015) is a half-life-size cast of a woman’s body lying on its side with eight protuberant teats on her flanks, the slightly pink whiteness of the plaster reminiscent of sows. Set at the end of the glass corridor overlooking the river, Fledgling (2015) is composed of dried branches arranged into a tree, from which a wax baby is suspended as the unlikely fruit of the dead tree. Perhaps pursuing the human-animal associations to the vegetal world, it continues the nurturing theme that runs through the exhibition. The naturalism of French’s works and the human-animal hybrids invite comparison with Patricia Piccini’s show at the Galway International Arts Festival this summer. The effects produced were, however, very different. Piccini’s organic grotesques played on the fascination / repulsion response that her work produces. French’s emphasis is on emotional empathy; the animal hybrids function as metaphor for our emotional states. The three earlier works, from the early 2000s, display an intense expressivity that calls for our attention. In the later works, the metaphorical hybrids have displaced the expressivity; they work best when closely relating to their material, be it hair, wax or wood.

Michaele Cutaya is a writer on art living in County Galway.

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