Natural Beauty: Artistry that goes far beyond the veil of tears
Sunday Times, Culture, 15 April 2001 , pp.16, 17
Through her art and artefacts, Alice Maher aims to manipulate our emotions and beliefs. It’s a role she finds deeply satisfying and one that has expanded her horizons to New York, says Medb Ruane
Rituals intrigue Alice Maher: the way you wear your hair; the way you hang your hat; even the memory of all that, if it can transform into something disturbingly familiar or provocatively new. Take tongues, for example. Maher loved the late Michael Hartnett’s poem, A Necklace of Wrens. He had written it thinking of his grandmother, a west Limerick woman who taught him Irish and opened up his imagination.
“Then I saw a mountain of sheep’s tongues in the market in Cork,” she says.“They were like vast human tongues, so I bought a couple and cast them in glass, but they didn’t look like anything other than ornaments.”
She wanted to make something more. “All the other butchers I went to said ‘no no, it’s illegal to sell tongues, the animal heads have to be sent to Cavan to be incinerated.’ I went back to that market and there they were.”
Maher’s Necklace of Tongues is the single photograph in The History of Tears, her new show. She wears the wet, leathery body parts as an “orget” or necklet clinking with possibilities of sex, speech, spittle or slur. Chance was a fine thing. But making it work ain’t so easy.
Maher speaks about her practice with a mix of intellect and instinct that comes after years of seeking the balance. She took the respectable route to university first, graduating in European Studies from the University of Limerick. Then she turned her back on it and studied art.
You could say that Maher’s power is her ability to deliver a sting in the tail. Using real-time objects is part of her vocabulary, since before she made pieces such as her bee dress (made of real bees), nettle jacket and thorn sculptures. The works explored ideas about cultural costume and how we present, or fail to recognise, who we are. But they weren’t about style. Deep down, plays with myth and fairy tales made them shout, often by balancing poles of attraction and repulsion, disgust and desire. Hair could be beautifully dressed but seem repellent. Pretty little dresses could torture the wearer until the end of time. The narrative quality that seemed to lure didn’t unfold in straight lines. You might be looking at a latter-day Aphrodite, then again you might not.
Take tears. Hundreds of years after Louise of Lorraine made her bedchamber a shrine to grief in the Middle Ages, Maher drove to the widow’s chateau in a beat-up car. What she saw was a room painted black with white tears drawn all the way round it.
Nothing of the room itself survives in this exhibition, except a sense of outpouring. Young men and women stand in puddles of fluid, leak torrents of water, gaze into liquid surfaces like new-age Narcissuses. They may be weeping, but they are not necessarily sad.
“Where do tears come from? They just come,” Maher says. “People shed them and shed them and shed them and they don’t go anywhere. I wanted to use tears as a continuous pattern. The drawings may look a little melancholic, but the tears are very far removed from a cry.”
The patterning across her sculptures, drawings, a brutally beautiful golden spike (and the Tongues photograph), works through three dimensions, operating as a gradual intermeshing of various drawing marks. It picks up on the use of multiples she explored in older paintings.
But the matter of tears—their liquid look—repeats metaphorically. Cast crystal heads in one gorget seem to melt into cool pools on a wooden plinth. Shiny droplets might reflect in the chrome-plated surfaces of another gorget nearby. Maher’s interest in myth blends with a passion for the look and lore of the Middle Ages too. Huge chalk or charcoal drawings are named after medieval armoury such as Cuirass, Cyclas and Camail. They appear to catch the tracks of the tears through in-between spaces. Their flat look avoids a single-point perspective with enough of a sense of disorientation to unsettle.
‘The language and lore of medievalism always interested me because it is so despised,” Maher says. “The Renaissance is seen as the time of enlightenment in terms of art, but I’m drawn to the pre-Renaissance—all that flatness and lack of perspective, the doodles and offshoots scribes made in the margins of little men excreting and doing ‘bold’ things.”
Some of the large drawings put patterns first. Spots of colour pull chalk marks out of their black-primed ground and offer possibilities of other worlds. Scale happens subversively—this surface study of chain mail might instead figure the night sky or might dig into the web-like structures of some DNA.
Stripped of their anecdotal riches, the works are simpler and more sophisticated than her last big Irish show some years ago.
‘The big drawings are extremely labour intensive in the way they are made, but they are twice as labour intensive in terms of what led up to them,” she says.
The figurative works make public rituals that are for this time and space very private acts. Tears happen, but not in front of other people. Other drawings play with materials and surfaces to make it look as though youthful, slightly offbeat figures are bathed in spotlight. Some seem surprised by the floods they are unleashing. Maher drew and rubbed out the marks repeatedly, so that the works are also a history of erasure as much as a history of what stayed in.
The practice of rubbing fed into her travels to Norman effigies in Ireland. The image of the effigy confuses the borders between sleep and death, between what is preserved and what actually remains.
“I’ve looked at a lot of tomb sculpture in France in particular, at Pére Lachaise for example, where they have quite a baroque way of looking at effigies,” she says. “Here, my own country is Norman country—Tipperary and Kilkenny especially. Norman effigies are scattered all over Westmeath and Meath too, right down the middle of Ireland.”
Maher has since begun to exhibit regularly in New York and in September will take this work to the Purdy Hicks gallery in London. First, though, she’ll take it to the Butler gallery in Kilkenny, where she will add a glass casket filled with cast Waterford glass tears.
“You are putting things through a process whether it’s drawing or casting,” she says, “and seeing what will happen when they move sideways—trying to catch the essence? I don’t know. There’s still a bag of tongues in my freezer.”