Alice Maher makes drawings every so often, and not so very often, and yet her drawings seem closest to everything which Alice Maher means to me. Twenty years ago I met her when she was making a series of nine drawings collectively entitled ‘Thicket’. Twenty years later my sense of the work’s singularity was renewed when I saw three recent series of drawings, each captured within a single animated film. In between Alice Maher has drawn, if only occasionally, but the drawings are still unequivocally most representative of what is special about her work. I thought that twenty years ago, and I think it still.
I am starting with the cyclical nature of my response to Alice’s work because the cycle is in fact closely connected to the way she makes her work, as it is to its subject. Subjects, forms, and her fascinations, turn back and repeat themselves, and the cycle progressively becomes more and more central to the subject itself.
Whereas the ‘Thicket’ drawings of 1991 were large and dynamic, the more recent drawings are small and precise.1 They have a special quality which is hard to characterise. Their single containing line has the quality of truth, and the drawings themselves have an impressive authority, despite their diminutive size. This seems to arise both from the demeanour of the protagonists, who hold themselves erect and unquestioning, and from the drawing style. The characters, single or in pairs, might be read as performers, and this quality certainly runs through much of Maher’s work more generally. Their own clear-eyed and undemonstrative performances correspond also to the sense of balance which imbues the imagery, as if the steps had been practised in advance and the necessary adjustments made. The performers will bring their acquired authority to bear upon the moves, and incredulity will be bypassed.
The drawings are unified, but have a double aspect, with some parts rendered only in line, and others in chiaroscuro. In general it is the head which is left largely blank, while what happens to the body is given more volume and detail. (The sense of the body as an outline, or container, can be found throughout Maher’s work, which often plays on the balance between emptying and filling.) Looking through the book of drawings which preceded the films, it gradually becomes clear that the body is like a place where things happen, which nourishes growth and change, and where miracles can occur.
These bodies are almost literally like a blank canvas, or virgin soil, from which things grow. But though these additions may be wonderful, and invariably are, they are rendered with a sure-fire modesty which makes them almost normal. The style is simple, like a diagram or like drawings which might be used to demonstrate a routine procedure, or a simple manoeuvre. Sexuality is downplayed, and despite their clear gendering, the characters are somehow rendered sexless, much as dancers on a stage foreground the body’s essential physicality over and above its individual sexual potential.
These characters—these drawings—are plain, effective, and in the manner of all good art, no more and no less than what they are. They are a happy mean, convincing because of the judgement which has gone into their making and which makes them be.
Quite a lot of Maher’s work has concerned rendering the fantastic believable. She has found ways to bring things together, to cover everyday items with fantastic excresences. This has often involved very literally gathering multiple examples of a given natural specimen and binding them together so tightly that the unlikely pairing will stick. The delight of the drawings is that such combinations are rendered instead with the lightest, least insinuating of touches. This makes them more wonderful, and much more unusual.
Maher’s work might be categorised in three parts: drawing, sculpture and installation. Each is oddly distinct from the other. Sculptures which otherwise have a strongly individual character, and which exist singly, acquire a collegiate atmosphere when staged across an installation. Here the plain and unforgiving way in which Maher presents her single objects, usually in clear bright light, and very often photographically, gives way instead to a nocturnal presentation in which objects are choreographed to contribute theatrically to a larger whole.
The single sculptures, surprisingly few and far between within her overall production, seem to concretise ideas in a way which reminds me of relics, such is their stillness and atrophy. Though objects (and especially accessories) may indicate performance, the objects themselves often seem historical, the empty paraphernalia which remains.2 There is a morbidity about them. The drawings are different. They provide a sense that the performance is ongoing, and that we can be part of it. Whereas the single objects are indeed single, and still, the drawings are sequential, and alive. The drawings are the place where Maher’s art is animated, and where movement matters.
Many people think of drawing as performative, however difficult that performance is to capture. Maher’s work has gesture, sure enough, and the early drawings embodied that sense of the body and its relation to paper in terms of both their scale and their handling. The notion of staging was further embodied by the serial nature of the work, an approach which is consistent through the artist’s career, and is seen to repeat itself by means of size and scale, which come in standard sets.
The fact that many drawings contain other drawings within them is something that Maher has now come to exploit. Like Tomma Abts, whose paintings contain numerous layers in which the previous stage is appropriated, altered and effaced, and who only now has begun to document those earlier layers, Maher has only recently thought of using the serial nature which is implicit and integral to drawing as a framework which can marshall an alternative medium.
Her new films, short as they are, contain within them more than two hundred separate stages. They are a synthesis of countless decisions and now represent that conglomeration of actions as if they were continuous. This is like breaking down a dance or theatre performance to its constituent scenes, and in another way is almost the opposite of that. Rather than losing each drawing before it moves on, she records the stages and thus allows her work to be its own metamorphosis. The work of creation which might be seen to be at the very heart of art-making is foregrounded as her subject.
By a simple technological turn—which moreover seems simple and even old-fashioned—one drawing becomes many and its transformation is saved for posterity. This act, normally confined to the studio, is now made public, and like an actor on the stage, the act of drawing is made into a performance. Its accompanying sound is also essentially self-generated and accompanies the actions as if inexorably. Its partial nature leaves space for us, and the balance of sound to silence seems absolutely normal. Such caesurae, on the page and in the ear, have a quality of naturalness that is rare in art. By retaining such a plain straightforwardness Maher succeeds in making the fantastic—and her picture-stories are indeed fantastic—simple. By making it simple, she gives us access. By making it pictorial, rather than verbal, she allows form to follow function, as it were, rather than illustrating words. The animation, with its unending loop, allows the drawngs literally to express both growth and circularity. As a whole the sequences contain no more than is necessary, and seem therefore to tell the truth.
Perhaps I see this work as being so much in keeping with the artist because of her own style, her carriage, the sense that she is at once demonstrative and secretive, overt and implied. Perhaps here we see the artist take to the wings, rather than the stage, and it seems to me that in this way she has found something more compelling. Her love of the story, and her interest in the audience’s part in making the story, and in whether it is listening, means that she has learnt when it is better to keep quiet.
Maher thinks of the audience wherever it may be, off-stage or at its centre, and considers ‘the place from which you view the world’. What she calls the wandering mind can be as revealing as the mind which is apparently focused. Maher has a nose for truth, and for the fact that the key to a story’s import may not be located in the most obvious place. As we go round Dublin’s National Gallery the paintings Maher notes demonstrate her interest in this narrative positioning. Her attraction to the girl who waits in the wings at the Supper at Emmaus3 reminds me later of Auden’s famous lines from the ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there must always be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
We didn’t talk about Auden, but this poem, inspired partly by Brueghel, has a curious fit. Like Brueghel, or Bosch (whose profiles inspired her ‘Night Garden’), Maher’s primarily linear conjunctions combine the fantastic with the quotidian. As she sheds any pretence to self-importance, Maher’s work acquires greater authority, its greater truth lying in its greater modesty.
And as with the Flemish masters, Maher’s conjunctions are somehow uncruel, however they are contrived. Despite her interest in, and knowledge of, the great mythical themes, Maher’s work pulls beyond their fundamentally human framework, and speaks of something beyond the human. She, or her work, understands ‘the human position’, but it is in its very human dignity that we find something other-worldly and feel the pull of something on the edges of our comprehension.
1 Night Garden, the 2007 RHA exhibition, included 23 A4 drawings laid out on a long shelf. These were the drawings whch lead to the animated films shown in 2011 in New York, London and Dublin. The films, Godchildren, Flora, Double and Sleep were made between 2009 and 2010.
2 Maher is indeed interested in museum objects which no longer clearly communicate their function, but which have clear charisma and prestige.
3 Velazquez’ ‘Supper at Emmaus’, 1617–18, National Gallery of Ireland