Alice Maher Bestiary
Circa 122, 2007 , pp.83, 84
I had a crick in my neck due to a cold, and was suffering from general human frailty when I first visited Alice Maher’s exhibition called Bestiary at the RHA. Maher’s show of new charcoal and pencil drawings and wall installations is the last show in the main gallery of the RHA, which is to undergo a well-deserved refurbishment and is set to reopen in October 2008. Neither the physical pain, nor the unexpected chill in the air of the gallery itself, could prevent my gaze from wandering upward, towards the black monochrome frieze, high on the wall at the top of the RHA stairs. I wasn't alone, for bored into the side of the soon-to-be-removed marble staircase was a bronze girl produced by Maher. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the exquisite and decorative filigree-like frieze that appeared to be either protruding, or set into the wall, was actually drawn by hand directly onto the wall with layers of unfixed charcoal. I immediately identified with this temporary and fragile work of art.
The gallery in which the show is situated is a huge, tall, open void. Maher seems entirely unintimidated by this fact, and seems to have no problem in playing with this spatial emptiness in her Bestiary exhibition. Hieronymus Bosch’s unconventional painting The Garden of Earthly Delights largely influences the starting point for the artist. The centre panel of Bosch’s triptych, which details naked scenes of human and animal delight and romance, is presumed by many to depict the original progression of humankind into sin. Although the initial inspiration for this exhibition is the controversial work of a celebrated sixteenth-century artist, those expecting Maher’s own exhibition to explain Bosch’s painting within her own work will be disappointed. If, on the other hand, one is willing to accept that starting points are not necessarily points of arrival, Maher’s Bestiary may prove more than satisfying.
In the early 1990s, Maher painted on fabric, symbolising a period when Irish women were emerging from genuine oppression, and her work was not necessarily guided by the feminist theory coming from the States at a similar time. Ironically, her current obsessive layering of charcoal in many of her drawings still gives Maher’s surfaces a velvety appearance, disguising the fact that it is on mere paper, rather than fabric.
In the series of charcoal drawings, it is clear that Maher must have studied Bosch’s work in great depth. She has traced groups of human and animal figures from Bosch’s original painting, producing blacked-out scenes of carnal and bestial pleasure. These drawings are then decorated with both classical and contemporary motifs, creating a voluminous discourse on hedonism and suffering. It is interesting to muse upon why Maher uses such overtly decorative influences—Pompeian panels, eighteenth-century wallpaper, and contemporary headscarves—to fill in the spaces of her Bestiary drawings when it could be suggested that the decorative gesture is seen as a lesser one in contemporary art. All one has to do is wander around the Venice Biennale and witness the surge of text-based artworks to see that it is now completely acceptable to say rather than draw your art. One can’t help wondering if Maher is moralizing via her own artistic process, while one views the symphony of ornamental charcoal dust. Is the work of art as vulnerable as the pleasure seekers depicted in her drawings?
The Night Garden series consists of very small and intimate drawings. They seem to be in direct contrast to the density of her other work. However, it is only when one sees how often Maher has employed an eraser that one can understand that their complexity has been removed. She leaves in its stead narratives of myth, folklore, and fairytale. Here you see how the feminine—or the beautiful hairy women, as my six-year old daughter has named the drawings—is embroiled in nature, how the inner psychology of the female subjects is rendered, without regard to accuracy of scale.
On the opposite wall, Maher, with a team of five other artists, has recreated the lake at the centre of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Its exterior is blackened via the use of paint with charcoal overlay. In the ‘show and tell’ evening at the RHA, Maher said that the reason why she generally works in monochrome is because choosing colour uses too much thinking time. By working in black, she allows her full concentration to focus on the subject at hand. The very density and blackness of the work seems to make the void of the gallery smaller too. When asked during the session if it pains her to think that this vast endeavour is a one-off, she replies that she likes the idea that although the work will become invisible to the naked eye it will remain in the fabric of the wall itself. This statement helped me realize that because of Maher’s innate mastery of drawing and compelling use of surface, as well as her unashamed referencing of another artist’s oeuvre, Bestiary has succeeded in creating a detailed pictorial discourse out of nothingness, that same nothingness that is central to our philosophical questioning of what happens after we die.
Jennie Guy is a writer based in Dublin.