Alice Maher: Portraits
Contemporary 55, 2003 , pp.77
A childhood spent in rural Ireland ensured that Alice Maher was not only steeped in the teachings of the Catholic Church, but also in Celtic myth and the oral tradition that runs deep m the Irish psyche. Always eclectic in her approach to making art, in the nineties she was producing small objects: a nettle coat, a bee dress and a staircase of thorns that alluded not only to pagan mythology and fairy tales, but also to Christian symbolism. Hair was a dominant theme, with its sexual and sacrificial associations and oblique allusions to both Rapunzel and the Magdalene.
In eleven new photographic works Maher makes reference to Renaissance portraiture. As with her earlier work, she still collects things· snail shells, berries, twigs, yew branches, even lambs’ tongues and animal hearts. These she uses to dress herself, creating transformations of the body similar to those explored in Ovid’s famous Metamorphoses. Maher’s tableaux are set against sumptuous red backgrounds. She whispers into a helmet of snail shells, wears a crown of twigs bound with twine, a necklace of cold, grey lambs’ tongues or blooded ox-hearts around her throat. Many of the works seem to suggest a dichotomy between speech and muteness, creativity and silence. Twigs are clamped over her head like a mediaeval scold's bridle, tongues hang silent like muscled jewels torn from the throat. Black feathers spew from her mouth, berries block her ears and her head is covered by a hood of sphagnum moss. Elsewhere her arm sprouts a sleeve of yew like a second skin, blurring the distinctions between inside and out, perceived and felt realities.
Accompanying these works is a senes of charcoal silhouettes in which branches grow out of a woman’s head or goosefeet from her throat. Many of them are covered in a tracery of briars or gothic patterning as if hidden behind a screen. Strange, magical and savage, these images resonate with art-historical references while plunging us into hidden psychological and atavistic depths.