A Taste for the Impossible
Irish Times, 12 April 2001 , pp.14
‘They were so extraordinary that I bought some, and brought them home and froze them’ Alice Maher's publication, Necklace of Tongues, marks a mastery of her own artistic language.
From the beginning, it was on the cards that Alice Maher’s involvement with Jerpoint Glass would end in tears — and that, to the great satisfaction of the artist, is exactly what happened. At Jerpoint, near Thomastown in Co Kilkenny, Keith Ledbetter’s team of highly skilled artisans has been shedding copious tears on her behalf. Well, more accurately, they have been blowing copious amounts of glass tears, all of which — literally thousands, she says — will be gathered together and enclosed in a glass casket to form the central work in her exhibition, The History of Tears, in Kilkenny’s Butler Gallery, which opens on Saturday, May 26th.
It coincides with the publication of an artist’s book, Necklace of Tongues, by Coracle Press.
Edited by Coracle and drawn from Maher’s sketchbooks, notes and photographs, it is a beautiful, homogeneous and satisfying production, a work of art in itself, and is likely to be remarkably good value, not least given that it is printed in an edition of just 660 copies, and that Maher is keen to aim for a modest price: “I’d rather keep it affordable and get the book out there.” (A final price has yet to be determined, but will not be far from the £20 mark).
Much of the work that will be seen in the Butler also featured in her recent solo show at the Green on Red Gallery in Dublin. This includes a series of large drawings, in charcoal and chalk on calico, chalk drawings on paper, several small sculptures (she has never, she notes, made monumentally-scaled sculpture) and one photograph, Necklace of Tongues. “It’s actually called a giclee print, a very high resolution digital print” (and it was made by Anthony Hobbs).
It depicts a section of the upper part of a woman’s body, from breasts to neck, bare but incongruously adorned with several lambs’ tongues threaded on to a leather thong.
“I often collect things without knowing what I’m going to do with them and one day, at a market in Cork, I came upon this mound of lambs’ tongues. They were so extraordinary that I bought some, and brought them home and froze them.”
She’d been looking at necklets in the National Museum — “Gorgets, a kind of armoured necklet, half jewellery, half armour, beautiful but also there to protect you”. Certainly, the necklace sounds an unmistakably martial note, with the tongues worn like grisly trophies: the silence of the lambs, as someone inevitably christened it.
The necklace motif is picked up in two sculptures, one in chromed bronze, the other in crystal, the Gorgets, each a ring of small heads — or rather, one feels, despite their evident differences, one head, repeated — growing successively smaller or larger depending on the direction you take as you view each circle. In a way, the severed heads are a counterpart to the tongues, yet somehow they do not have the same violent associations.
Metonymy is one of the favourite devices in Maher’s artistic grammar. That is to say, a part frequently stands in for the whole to which it refers in one way or another: heads signifying the person or the intellect, for example, the dress or the hair signifying the body. By'the same token, the tongue might be speech or language. Another isolated body part, the arm, features in the Butler Gallery show. Her swimmers were indicated by just the tops of their heads. Heads are a recurrent theme, perhaps related to the Celtic cult of the head. In any case, the heads that form the Gorgets seem quite serene. They might well be dreamers dreaming the whole exhibition.
Maher likes the indistinctness of their features, “the way they seem weathered, eroded”. This quality was partly inspired by her observation of elaborate Norman burial effigies carved in stone, in which full figures, couples lying side by side, are often depicted sleeping atop their tombs. They are usually fitted out in full ceremonial regalia which, for the men, meant armour, and the distinctive pattern of chainmail is a recurrent ingredient in Maher’s work.
She grew up in Tipperary, in the midst of Ireland’s distinctively Norman landscape: handsome, stone-built, heavily fortified, orderly — but, she notes, she never thought of it as being a distinctive landscape until she went away.
Her preoccupation with tears might have its genesis in a tour of the chateaux of the Loire Valley. “I remember — at least I think I remember, I sometimes think I remember something and then find I’m actually elaborating on some original detail… I think it was the bedroom of Louise of Lorraine. In mourning for her husband, she had the walls painted black, and inscribed with white tears.”
Classical myth ascribes the origin of the Milky Way to Juno, whose breast milk, while she was suckling the infant Hercules, spurted across the heavens. In Maher’s chalk drawings (perversely, chalk is perhaos the driest material imaginable), the copious tears shed by individual figures gather into veritable floods — milky floods — and are juxtaposed with drawings of intricate, net-like grids (chain mail again?) of what could well be stars, as though she is devising her own creation myth. She has already done this with another bodily substance, hair, in her drawing Andromeda, inspired by the story of Melisande, another image of generative, creative femininity, whose hair grew uncontrollably.
Although they are to all intents and purposes separate, there is a strong feeling that the images of figures and constellations are interlinked. In the same way that the heads might dream everything else in the room, the tears of the figures metamorphose into the expansive networks adjoining them. Though, Maher cautions, she was careful not to indicate scale, so the stars might indeed be all in the head, virtual galaxies.
In a way, all these enormously varied images and objects are as disparate as they seem in that Maher has provided no explicit framework of meaning, narrative or otherwise, that might link them and provide consistency. Yet, on another level, they are strangely, intriguingly consistent in that they are all comfortably at home in one imaginative universe, encompassing myth, folk and fairy tales and the matter of-fact impossibility of dreams. It does all cumulatively amount to a dreamy, oddly recognisable world of magical transformations, endless possibilities — and exceptional violence.
Maher is clearly fascinated by impossible objects, such as her celebrated bee dress, or her coat of nettles, or her stairway of thorns, objects that both threaten and exhilarate by holding out the possibility of breaking all the rules.
Here, a gold, cone-shaped spike is similarly magical and weapon-like (she actually made a one-piece cast of a similar spike piercing a severed hand). Her series Familiar tried another, related tack, situating the artwork in an indeterminate space between pairings of paintings and sculptures. Her penchant for devising impossible objects and images is related to a desire to grasp something that cannot be seen, cannot quite be articulated. She likes those moments of flux between dreaming and wakefulness, and in a way the Gorget heads, with their fluid, unfocused quality, embody that state.
She is careful not to be prescriptive about the meanings that might or should be attached to her work, and is distrustful of treating works as receptacles to be packed with preordained ideas — ideas to be duly un-packed by the viewer. This is not to say that conscious thought doesn’t have a major role to play. But she does like to keep one step ahead of purely conscious intent, and the Coracle publication, by ranging through her sketchbooks, provides a vivid insight into a creative process that draws freely and fluently on dreams, memories, intuitions, logic and stories.
She seems to have reached a point where she is exceptionally comfortable with her way of working.
“I found that it takes so long to get a language that is your own. At first, and I mean for about 10 or 15 years, you think you are an individualist, you think you’re speaking with your own voice, but you’re not really, you’re following various other trails, you’re learning… It really does take that long, but I feel I’ve arrived at that point.”