Difficult art (April 2016)

The MAC, Belfast

Helen O’Leary has included the following as a part of the genesis of The Shelf Life of Facts (2016, MAC Belfast):

“I ended up in Paris and found myself walking to the Museum of War a lot, and I’d look at all the flawed armour… I’d look at the armour with cannonballs through the heart and they seemed to have real power for me … started thinking about … armour with … holes [in it] and I wanted painting to come out, be like a phoenix out of shreds… So I started thinking about a painting that would be a history painting, that wouldn’t just be memoir… I wanted it to be about the world as I knew it through kind of a haptic sense. And I started thinking about making paintings as big as Kiefer, I wanted paintings bigger than Kiefer. But I’d do them bit by bit; I’d do them in a very intimate way. I wanted that you could piece together a language out of false starts or out of small moments.”( accessed on http://painters-table.com/blog/helen-oleary-shelf-life-facts#.Vx4pDVQrJaU)

It is a coincidence that weeks before I read the quoted transcript I have been toying with Kiefer’s “Art is difficult,” …. “It’s not entertainment. There are only a few people who can say something about art – it’s very restricted. When I see a new artist I give myself a lot of time to reflect and decide whether it’s art or not. Buying art is not understanding art.”…”Art has something which destroys its own cells,”  (accessed on http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/dec/08/anselm-kiefer-art-white-cube)

The statistics keep showing the gap between contemporary art and audiences. The funding bodies blame the art and the art managers for not doing enough to attract large part of the population. They labour under an illusion that their attitude is the right one – ignore the elite and support only the art that the masses approve of. This has determined cultural policy of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Then came Mao with his idea to let flower every flower… Not only it confused the political regulators, it also respected the different preferences, a reality recognised by current research. The conclusion is not that the socio-political context determines the range of aesthetic experience. Instead, it claims one-to-one mapping – i.e. I like what is like me. That verb is a significant cover for a complex connectivity between me and the world, inclusive of art. Art then cannot possibly reduce itself to one aesthetic preference – taste – without slipping out of it. The wonderful consequence of this limitation is an open field of art to anything an artist may love to do, dare to do, risk to do. Installation art is particularly successful in irritating established canons. At the same time it is also irritatingly near establishing its own death by not finding its specific energy and visual force. Some early installations are beautiful even in fading memory.

As a part of Venice Biennale 2003, two Swiss artists, Gerda Steiner and Joerg Lenzlinger, installed “Falling Garden” inside the San Stae church, inspired by the “need to feed the reindeer” of St Eustache legend to allow the miracle happen. http://steinerlenzlinger.ch/eye_giardinocalante.html


Its attachment to the verbal story about the saint did not matter. Its autonomous visual poetry did. Lying there with no shoes on looking up into the gentle colourful multitude felt good – a genuine case of Kalos Kagathos.

Both O’Leary and Kiefer focus on the autonomy of art. He observes that a renewal is due to art’s self-destructive force, she conceives of harnessing of contrasts (large scale / intimate, history / not memoir, painting / haptic sense) like armour with holes, as a force that lets art rise like a phoenix out of shreds.

Installation detail, Helen O'Leary: The Shelf Life of Facts at Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC), Belfast

I have not thought of her constructs on the wall as shreds – but now, I cannot escape the authority of that word. Earlier, I enjoyed the play of my imagination replacing the parts that found a home by dovetailing another by some of those strewn on the horizontal surfaces. What if the parts the artist joined into one long or short togetherness decided to change place with those on the tables, waiting without knowing it, without any will to take the place of another. The way the verticals are threading different size, colour and shape, under the strict rule of an exact fit between two neighbours, introduce the feeling of instability at the core of the construct. Consequently the verticals need alien support, or freedom to bend like a tall grass in the wind.

Installation detail, Helen O'Leary: The Shelf Life of Facts at Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC), Belfast

Seeing all the rest as superfluous, not needed, inspired a rebellion of curiosity: would the future sequences be equivalent to those already realised? The scarcity of sensual dionysian joy obtained from the redundant colourful remnants easily diminished the cool constructive logic of what keeps what together. Consequently, the principle, known from poetry, and famously formulated by George Elliot – the open endedness of a poem – allowed one comparison: with Anthony Caro, Early One Morning. 1962

Sir Anthony Caro ‘Early One Morning’, 1962 © The estate of Anthony Caro/Barford Sculptures Ltd


The display caption in Tate Britain sets out observation that are shareable with the display at MAC

‘Early One Morning’ is a major example of the kind of sculpture – light, airy and open-form – which Caro had begun to develop by 1962. In this work, Caro’s arrangement of planes and lines along a horizontal axis gave greater freedom in creating different rhythms and configurations. The work has no fixed visual identity and no single focus of interest. Rather, it unfolds and expands into the spectator’s space, its appearance changing with the viewpoint. The individual elements are unified by the bright red colour and Caro sees the way they cohere, making a sculptural whole, as being like the relationship of notes within a piece of music.”

O’Leary also arranged lines imbued with a rhythm and overlapping configurations, that would change as I move along the display. Absence of single focus is not absolute, it appears and disappears from fragment to fragment, unfolding and expanding with my field of vision. The appearance changes with viewpoint. Yet, the colour although on the brink of not being there at all – calls in all the bits vertical, bent or lying there in incomprehensible multitude, to cohere now, to become whole now.

The comparison of Caro’s sculptural whole to the relationship of notes within a piece of music is particularly apt for the installation by Niamh K McCann.

2nd yearBAMcCann16IMG_20160424_015504

The old chair seat, stone, candles – as if a deep chord, well down the left part of the piano keys holds, possibly destined for the left hand holding it, while the right hand manages the rapid staccato of repeated note interspersed by several long runs its length until it runs out off the page…



2nd year BA McCann16IMG_20160424_020014

Materials easily associate with sounds, glass, china. stone, plastic….wood


coconut shells, stones

2ndyear BA McCann16IMG_20160424_014551

Art Povera, found art, found objects, rejected objects, recovered from the destruction of the Orpheus building, an Art Deco jewel of 1932, place where for decades undergraduate artists learn about art making and themselves – precisely about the autonomy that can’t speak its name.

The combination of a strict right angle order over the memories of nature, architecture, domestic use and Fine Art studios – however each sphere is different – under the sensitive calm rhythm cohere into the stasis of the destroyed past. McCann effortlessly matches earth colours with manmade into the chorus of remembrance.

She gave it a name:

Name: Absurdity (2016)
Statement: “Arranging, Placing, Pandering, Gathering Allowing, Objects and Spaces, Materials and Places in between”
Size: 2m by 3.5m Height variable.

Images courtesy N K McCann.


About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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