Alice Maher – Becoming
Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland
6 October 2012 – 3 February 2013
A major mid-career retrospective of the work of leading Irish artist Alice Maher opens to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s temporary exhibition spaces in Earlsfort Terrace on Saturday 6 October 2012. Becoming charts the development of Maher’s practice over 25 years, from her early drawings, paintings and sculptural works, to a new film work specially commissioned by IMMA for the exhibition. The title points to the evolutionary processes which are at the heart of many of Maher’s individual works and which inform her entire practice. The layered history of the Earlsfort Terrace building, as a university and a former seat of government, and its labyrinthine nature have also influenced the presentation of the exhibition, with works from different periods occupying the same spaces, creating new associations and illuminating recurring themes.
Becoming illustrates the particular philosophical arena in which Maher places her oeuvre, where things are constantly in flux or are caught at a moment of metamorphosis. Through painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, photography and video and digital technology, she uncovers ever more complex readings of the world around and within us. The exhibition includes two new works: Cassandra’s Necklace (2012), a major film work inspired by a script sent to the artist by the award-winning Irish writer Anne Enright and a site-specific installation L’Université (2012), which addresses the history of Earlsfort Terrace as a place of learning. Cell, Maher’s iconic ball of thorns first shown in Kilmainham Jail in 1991, is being re-staged.
One of Maher’s most enduring devices, the shifting of scale can be seen in her well-known early piece, Familiar (1994), which is part of IMMA’s Collection. In it we see a large red acrylic painting alongside a bolt of flax. In the centre of the painting the figure of small girl floats, like the Virgin being assumed into Heaven, with her hair swirling up above her head. The title alone brings with it a host of associations: it contains the word ‘femme’, the French for woman; it can describe the witch’s ‘familiar’; ‘familiar’ as it relates to the family; something easily recognisable; and also ‘over-familiar’ – impertinent or too intimate. Flax itself is a trope for inbetweenness, it is halfway between plant and linen, in a state of transformation between nature and culture.
The ingenious excavation of art history to uncover contemporary resonances is another recurring feature of Maher’s work. Her 2007 Bestiary series of drawings is based on a careful study of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510). One of these, The Coral Tent, shows the silhouette of a medieval-style tent under which four feet can be seen. Close examination of Bosch’s painting reveals the source, picked out in red at the centre of the painting. The scaling-up of such a detail creates a kind of artistic collaboration across five centuries. Maher’s major Ombre series (1997), examines among other histories, the story of Mary Magdalene who was miraculously covered by her hair when she cast off her rich clothing; Silvestro dei Gherarducci’s Assumption of Mary Magdalene (1380s) in the National Gallery of Ireland forming a historical antecedent for Maher’s iconic drawings.
Another defining feature of Maher’s work is her remarkably diverse choice of media including snail shells in The Four Directions (2004-05) and nettles in Nettle Coat (1996). Her interest in organic raw materials often sends her work into the realm of the ‘un-collectable’ or, perhaps, the ‘unbecoming’. Her organic works in particular have changed dramatically from when they were first exhibited, making visible processes of decay and putrefaction like a contemporary memento mori, recording the passage of time and repudiating the notion of a permanent artwork. Likewise, her animated 2009 drawings, such as Flora and The Double, each document an unrelenting process of erasure, as elegant and covetable drawings are rubbed-out and the detritus swept onto the studio floor, accompanied by the purposeful humming of the artist. Writing in the exhibition catalogue the curator of the exhibition Seán Kissane, Curator: Exhibitions at IMMA, says: “Many of the themes in Maher’s work have been unbecoming as she questions received notions around art, gender, sex, and social mores. She has sought out lowly objects and abject creatures from the natural world, and made carriers of meaning of them on the fault-line between nature and culture. Simple materials are transformed by collecting a multiplicity of them together and exploding their scale. A Janus-faced Cassandra, Maher articulates the future while mining the past for its connective tissue.”