Spectres in the Night
Magill, 2007 , pp.52, 53
Strange creatures come out to play in Alice Maher’s Night Garden, emerging from the shadows like illuminated spectres. These multi-limbed and headed beasts, part hermaphrodite, part mammal, fish or fauna, appear caught in mid dance, spin or caress. A hoof, a beak, a leg or two or three protrude from the beasts in Maher’s latest works.
The Night Garden, Maher’s current exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy’s Gallagher Gallery, is an ambitious undertaking. Inspired by the central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, Maher has created a series of large-scale charcoal drawings and a smaller group of pencil drawings. Dimly lit, the gallery is transformed into a theatrical and surreal night space, a parallel universe where sprites and unearthly beasts replace the expected nocturnal creatures. This is the last exhibition before renovations begin in a space which hasn’t always been used to its full potential. Whilst previous shows have seen the gallery partitioned off in an almost apologetic attempt to break up the space, Maher has taken its sheer scale confidently in her stride.
In the larger charcoal works, Maher has worked directly from Bosch’s early 16th century masterpiece, isolating groups of figures to create fantastically shaped, silhouetted creatures which are further overlaid with intricate repeat patterns formed of faeries, vines and leaves. In Double Jigger, arms and legs splay outwards like a Hindu deity — only this one appears to be shaking some maracas. In a huge work drawn directly on the back wall of the space, a female figure crowned by a peacock holds a fruit aloft whilst arms reach towards it. The drawings are created from layer upon layer of charcoal, so thickly applied that it spills down the white surface of the paper, forming dusty trails.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, which resides in the Prado museum in Madrid, is Bosch’s most famous work, depicting all forms of carnal pleasures and oddities between man, beast and fauna. I asked Maher about her interest in the painting. “Some people think it’s a vision of hell, after the fall, and then some people think it’s before,” says Maher, “but it’s more like an idealised world where people live in communion. Nobody has ever unravelled the mystery of that painting. He’s one of the only artists that has actually made the metamorphic work as an image. His vision seems so real somehow, and it's absolutely mad the things he puts together… and it all seems right.”
Maher’s pencil drawings, also on show, are distinct in both scale and content to her charcoal works. Drawing heavily on folklore and myth, they are connected to Bosch’s painting by their fascination with metamorphosis. Whilst a flower protrudes from the buttocks of a man in Bosch’s garden, in one of Maher’s drawings roots appear to be excreted from a crouching female. Maher has long been interested in hair, and the rich and often contradictory symbolism associated with it. In her 1997 work Ombre, she created ceiling-to-floor sized charcoal drawings of female figures shrouded by the length of their hair, whilst in her recent Snail Chronicles etchings, her female figures could be seen drawing hairs onto each other’s faces. In these latest works, hair appears in unexpected ways. Furry wings grow from the back of a woman in one drawing; in another a man wears a turban of intricately twisted hair. Women are hairier than men and in places where culturally we are conditioned to believe it should not be. In the Hirsute Queen, a hairy-legged woman straddles the shoulders of a figure (perhaps the Infanta immortalised by Velasquez), swallowing her head between her legs.
‘Some people think it’s a vision of hell, after the fall, and then some people think it’s before, but it’s more like an idealised world where people live in communion’
“I don't know if she is being penetrated or giving birth”, says Maher. “Well, that’s it, you don’t, you just draw.” In another drawing a hairy woman has climbed through a hole in her partner’s midriff.
“In medieval times, you’ll often see in the manuscripts in the margins that the people believed that these wild, hairy people lived outside of the civilised world. And you see these amazing groups of families with hairy children”, explains Maher. “It's like the ‘other’… that notion that there is a parallel universe.”
Strange places that are somehow parallel to our own — “runner spaces” as Maher has described them in the past — run throughout her work. In many of her installations, drawings and sculptures there is the feeling that the dial has been turned slightly and a reality is presented that is similar but at the same time unrecognisable to our own. In her 2005 exhibition Rood at the Green on Red Gallery, Maher suspended branches from the ceiling of the gallery, suggesting not only a strange, upside-down forest, but a world amongst the roots and undergrowth. In other works such as Berry Dress (1994) and The Four Directions (2005), Maher transforms the ordinary and commonplace (rosehips, snail shells) into odd and beautifully surreal objects. Her self-portrait series of photographs from 2003 plays on this conceit also, suggesting bizarre metamorphoses as Maher dons various guises — a helmet of snail shells, a collar of animal hearts, a rash of berries across her face and neck.
All of these works, including others created over the past ten years, formed part of a retrospective of her work which was on show earlier this year in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery in the UK. The show, entitled Natural Artifice, also travelled to Djanogly Art Gallery in Nottingham where Maher also recreated her 1997 work Le Filles d’Ouranos in the university boating lake. Maher’s 2002 work Mnemosyne was shown in Brighton. The piece, a large, bed-like, refrigerated sculpture draws on the story of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory and inventor of words.
“As the day goes on it builds up a crust of frost, so it uses the moisture in the air, and then at night it melts”, says Maher. “Every single day it’s different and every single day it uses the air in the room, so obviously it’s different every moment.” Like Mnemosyne, who re-remembered herself anew everyday, the work cannot remember how it was the day before.
When she was asked to exhibit at the RHA by Patrick Murphy, Maher says that they could have easily brought the retrospective show over to Ireland, “but I thought, no, I’m addressing that space, and I have new work to do and put out there”.
Maher is currently working towards a solo show at the David Nolan gallery in New York early next year which she imagines will include mostly sculptural works.
“It always seems to go that way, from two dimensions into three and back and forward,” says Maher. “It seems to be the way it works.”
The only sculptural piece in Maher’s current exhibition greets the viewer as she climbs the stairs into the Gallagher Gallery. Entitled Beautiful Mouth, the work was first shown at Limerick City Gallery of Art in 2006 as part of an exhibition where artists were invited to re-imagine works from the collection. Maher chose Oliver Sheppard’s neo-classical bronze nude, Finnbheal, which she remoulded only from the waist up, carving a hole into her sternum, “like a locket, or another mouth”, says Maher. The figure, turned upside down, lies on her back, her hand pointing towards the gallery space behind her. It is as if she is whispering — look over there, behind you, come into the garden.