A dignified brown donkey greets the viewer at the entrance to Isabel Nolan’s solo exhibition at The Model, Sligo; its seductive implacable eyes gaze out from the large-scale photograph presaging the qualities and properties of the work to come. Nolan writes in the elegant catalogue accompanying the exhibition, “I am able to articulate afresh an ambition for a work of art. I wish it to be compelling, somehow appealing, powerful, inscrutable, and vulnerable but obstinate, much as is a donkey”.1 The diverse collection of sculpture, drawing, painting, and collage that comprise this show fulfills her ambition well.
Nolan’s dramatic sculptural works, some like scrambled spaghetti doodles, others like frenetic geometric puzzles, dominate the spaces of The Model. They are variously sized articulate scribbles demarcating space, constructed with hard steel tubing but covered with soft delicate fabrics. Nolan’s precise, feminine sewing over-dresses the machismo of these formalist and minimalist reference points. She quotes the conventions of minimalism with her repetitions of single symmetrical objects, while subverting, utterly, Sol Le Witt’s dictum of “least emotive forms”.2 Through her titles, With Shadows All About Us (2011) (steel, cotton, silk-blend, thread), Entering the Eye of the Dream (2010) (steel, cotton, silk, thread), and the taut Holding It In (2011) (steel, paint, MDF), she draws us into her inner world – an emotional space of expression and desire.
The notion of sculpture as an enclosed category of things, separate from objects in life, is debunked in Nolan’s work. She expresses cerebral and optical ideas about objects that have physical relationships with the real world. Her eloquent forms rest on cushioned poufs, indenting their obtuse and sprawling bodies on the soft upholstery. Others stand on pert plinths reminiscent of trendy Scandinavian furniture. Everything is beautiful, both sculptures and their stands are hand crafted with an obsessional regard.
Nolan has a lust for pattern; we see it in the manufactured fabrics with tiny geometric motifs clothing her metal loops, or the embroidered, appliquéd wall hangings created on bolts of woven, patterned textiles. Pattern is also evident in her repetitions of white plaster, mixed media spheres in The Slow Movement (2011) (plaster bandage, polystyrene, paint), a series of hand shaped balls strung together, spread out on the raw floorboards dividing a space. The low winter sun blushing over the powdery spherical surfaces and casting long shadows into the room held this reviewer in poetic thrall, reminiscing on Miroslaw Balka’s diagonal version of this concept – a string of fragrant, pastel soaps entitled Hanging Soap Woman (2000) (soap bars, string).
In The Model’s white rooms her works are fully at home: an intelligent, humorous index to the history of sculpture and design. The public works, however, lose meaning and are neutralized in the civic space. They don’t refer to the lived-in, urban environment around them in an accessible way. The Outward Form (2011) (mild steel, paint) is a public sculpture commissioned by The Model, which stands at the base of the building’s historic facade. It appears incoherent and somehow lost there, set off to one side, not large enough to vie with The Model’s architectural grandeur, and difficult to access physically and intimately on the sloping gradient. I suspect the general public is wondering what it means, and why it is there, in much the same way that the users of Dublin Airport, Terminal 2, are nonplussed by Nolan’s monumental Turning Point (2010) (rolled steel, paint). This piece has been widely criticized as a confusing object without meaning or relationship to its site, although powerful in scale. Nolan could do some valuable work here in communicating her intentionality and the meaning of her work more effectively with local audiences outside the gallery context.
The 2D works she explores are full of longing. In The Time Yet to Come (2009) (pencil, water colour on paper), Miracle of the Sun (2008) (water colour, acrylic on canvas), and Fear of the Future (2009) (water colour, pencil on canvas), the artist invests all the content that is sucked from the more formal sculptures; she explores the figure, animals and the natural world in scratchy, fragile lines and violent colours with a demure, illustrative style. As we look through Nolan’s ‘hole’ into the future we see animals performing our human roles in a post global-warming, apocalyptic environment.
A short drive from The Model to Carrowkeel, and the Sathya Sai donkey sanctuary elucidates further some of the donkey-like qualities of Isabel Nolan’s work.3 She has a bold, wild streak, despite the careful formalism of her work. Stubbornly true to itself, at times articulating itself with a startlingly loud and deep voice, there is a loyalty to rigorous practice in her work and a solid grounding in the natural world. All in all, just as deserving and fascinating as a lovely donkey.
is a mulitmedia performance artist. Recent exhibitions include Kyoto Art Centre, and NON Festival Bergen. She co-curates Live@8 and is Head of Sculpture at the Burren College of Art.
1. isabel Nolan, Intimately Unrelated, The model Sligo and musee D’Art moderne Saint-etienne metropole, 2011, 176 2. Sol le Witt, quoted in Andrew Causey, Sculpture Since 1945, Oxford paperbacks, uK, 1998, 122
3. Sathya Sai Donkey Sanctuary, Carrowkeel, http://www.donkeys.ie/