VAN September/October 2013: Critique Supplement | Helen O’Leary at Catherine Hammond Gallery

Helen O’Leary A small place to do nothing, 2013, wood construction and egg oil, 32 x 32 x 5 cm

Helen O’Leary
‘Irregular Activity’
Catherine Hammond Gallery, Glengarriff, West Cork
July 19 – 15 August 15


I suspect that the economy of picturesque Glengarriff is driven by tourism; one might say the town’s ‘regular activity’ is the business of souvenir and craft shops, for the summer months at least. From street side flowerboxes to spinning postcard stands, it’s a flamboyant town. The Catherine Hammond Gallery is a shaft of white amongst the colour, a space of refuge from the bustle.

Helen O’Leary’s solo show marks the gallery’s 10th season. ‘Irregular Activity’ begins and ends with an enormous abstract painting, but almost every exhibit in between is described on the price list as ‘wood construction.’ These pieces are smaller, shaky rectangles, three-dimensional yet wall-mounted. Many remind me of looking out the window of an aeroplane at the height at which the landscape’s details become indistinct, just before the patchwork of fields is swallowed by cloud. The lines are soft; the shades are washy. There are fitful ruptures of brightness, like the sun peeping through and lighting up a swatch of earth, just for a second.

O’Leary’s bright ruptures are accidental daubs of paint from pictures past; their appearance is as arbitrary as the breeze because the constructions are made from the recycled wood of old paintings, frameworks already collaterally damaged by the splatters, spills and stains of the artist’s process. They are off-cuts, shards, corners and rims rescued from the studio scrapheap and revivified in a commendable spirit of thrift. Instead of putting more stuff in the world, O’Leary has managed to make precious that which was once discarded.

Despite the rejects they rose from, there is nothing haphazard or slipshod about the exhibited artworks. O’Leary’s patient effort is evident from her finished forms. She has sawed little joints into the ends of flittered panels before carefully fitting them together. It looks like a process as frustrating as solving a puzzle without any clues, or building a jigsaw with no picture on the box, no box, no beginning or end. Each scrap becomes a tiny scaffold for the scrap which comes after; they grip together and hold one another up. As structures, they are uncertain; as artworks, they are spirited, assured. I imagine this is how Calder’s mobiles might look if struck down from their strings and fused together.

The pieces of the series entitled Armour are distinct amongst wood constructions; they are darker than their fellows, and more mysterious. Each network of scaffolding is partially obscured by a painted façade; each façade is built from abutting bits of panel. O’Leary’s paint of choice is tinted egg oil, a substance better known for its treatment of skin and hair conditions. Armour’s shades are bold but solemn: stone grey, purple brown, olive and brilliant white. The fissures between bits create a false perspective; the angles seem to sneakily shift themselves each time I move my head.

The two sparest of the series bear resemblance to sheets of paper with a corner folded, as though someone had tried to mark their place in a wordless book the length of a single page. Many other of the series have tiny gaps in the façade, like peepholes. A peep reveals their timber bones.

While I find O’Leary’s titles generally a little too grandiose, the choice of Armour is perfect; if the aforementioned constructions are holding each other up, these pieces are simply holding themselves, hugging their knees, shielding their spindly innards from passing peepers.

In the case of Where things settle and Refusal, the mixed media paintings on linen, the view from my aeroplane window becomes that of a colourful crash. The brushstrokes are reckless, the surfaces peppered with debris. The two paintings chosen to bookend the exhibition are contrary in spirit to the placid landscapes of the wood constructions; they are striking, yet familiar.

In the Catherine Hammond Gallery, all but the piece for which the show is named are wall-mounted. Irregular Activity – the story of some stands on a lonely pedestal, looking unexpectedly solid. It makes me imagine how, if every wood construction stood side by side and close together, they’d coalesce into the framework of a tiny shanty town, each dwelling imperfectly armoured against the elements.

Even though no one can shelter in O‘Leary‘s artworks, and the world is already so crammed with stuff, there’ll always be a snatch of extra space for small edifices of such resourcefulness, such quiet strength.

Sara Baume is a writer based in East Cork 

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