VAN July/August 2013: Critique Supplement | ‘Octagon’ Group Show at West Cork Arts Centre

Marie Cullen, Sceach an Óir, 2013, mixed media on paper

(Alison Cronin, Marie Cullen, Sharon Dipity, Paul Forde-Cialis, Ian Humphreys, Tess Leak, Susan Montgomery and Sarah Ruttle)
West Cork Arts Centre, Skibereen
4 May – 8 June 2013

Something flutters in the corner of my eye and vanishes as soon as I swivel my head. A pair of white hands looms out from the wall. A shadow transmogrifies into a man. A starched shirt collar binds his neck; his face is plastered with a lunatic grin.

Tess Leak, Here, Still (detail), 2013, film

I was 17 when I first applied for art school, and I believed that silence and contemplation were the forces driving creativity. University quickly disabused me of my notions. It taught me that artists need to ‘network’, ‘collaborate’ and ‘discuss’ in order for their work to live beyond the studio. Every day, galleries and art centres across the country set this in motion through education programmes. While these courses, classes and workshops expand the horizons of the people living locally, they also benefit the practitioners who coordinate each programme, providing an opportunity to converse beyond the confines of the artistic community.

West Cork Arts Centre’s schedule of ‘creative learning’ reaches from dance classes to writing groups and embraces people from all stages of experience, from the curious and playful young to the equally curious and playful elderly. The title of ‘Octagon’ is derived from the number of participating artists, and each also works as a facilitator for the centre’s education programme. Unlike the straight lines and fixed angles of its namesake shape, the work is predominantly loose in style and searching by nature. Colour and form undulates from near translucence to blazing intensity, from diaphanous contours to sturdy replicas. Underlying it all there is a distinct quietness; the works compliantly align themselves.

Untitled by Sarah Ruttle consists of 36 pieces of folded paper, each shaped like a toddler-sized shoe with the toe intricately snipped into a pattern. White on white, they tremble gently, reminding me both of the paper chains I made in primary school and the lace-like doilies upon which my grandmother sits her cakes. The memory of sugary treats and childhood is sustained by Susan Montgomery’s reinvented sweet wrappers. As an accompaniment to her twinkling sculptures, there’s a video piece that traces the aimless path of a shadow scuttling and soaring against a wall. Ruttle and Montgomery have chosen to work with the flimsiest materials, yet once combined with movement and light, these fragments take on a silent immensity. The only other video is similarly daydream inducing. In Here, Still by Tess Leak, a compilation of drawings and found images blink by to a soundtrack of field recordings from Cape Clear, the southernmost of West Cork’s inhabited islands. The sounds convey a strong sense of place, a pervading calm.

Susan Montgomery, frame, 2013, cabinet card frame, sweet wrappers

Ian Humphrey’s paintings depict glittering glasses and polished fruit. The forms are bold, but Humphrey’s stolid technique and stark titles belie a quietness of subject matter. Marie Cullen’s abstract triptych displays the boldest colours of all. Her brush strokes writhe and leap out from their imprisoning paper. The people in Paul Forde- Cialis’s photo-transfer collages look as though they too have escaped – this time from old vaudeville posters. There are flickers of psychosis in their achromatic expressions, yet I feel a strange compassion for these long-dead vaudevillians, for the ignominious way they’ve been preserved by history.

Paul Forde-Cialis, Tell me again, 2013, photo-transfer collage

I Found Myself in a World with Two Sons by Alison Cronin is a graceful balance of carbon marks and projected light. Cronin is playing with the word ‘sons’ as what we see are two scribbled, coin-sized ‘suns’ spooling up and down from below the largest of three figures. The piece seems to be saying something about the conducting of family life, that it is as seemingly simple yet realistically tricky as spinning a yo-yo. Finally, Sharon Dipity’s work also concerns itself with the rifts and bounds between people, the frail equilibrium of everything.

Cronin and Dipity’s creations certainly show the influence of their parallel work as facilitators, as most of the selected pieces convey that some aspect of this interaction has been carried over into each artist’s studio practice. The exhibition as a whole exemplifies how this is, ultimately, mutually educational and mutually edifying. An artist working in isolation produces a different kind of work to that on show here; an artist driven solely by the force of silent contemplation makes things which are more detailed, repetitive, process-driven. Whereas the paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and films comprising ‘Octagon’ are clearly drawn from the experience of being amongst people, in all their peculiar glory. This work is generally rougher, rawer, and humming with empathy.

Sara Baume is a writer based in East Cork.

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