Alice Maher: IMMA Exhibition
Cristín Leach Hughes
Culture, Sunday Times, 2012 , pp.8, 9

Alice Maher is an Irish artist of international standing, as this raw, honest and inspiring lmma show proves. Don’t miss it, says Cristín Leach Hughes 

Trent Reznor’s powerful song Hurt, memorably covered by Johnny Cash in 2002, includes a devastating promise, a cross between an apology and a threat: “And you could have it all/My empire of dirt/I will let you down/I will make you hurt.”

It’s a sobering opening senti­ment for the Irish artist Alice Maher’s slam-dunk of an exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modem Art at Earlsfort Terrace. My Empire of Dirt is the title of the first room in a series of 16, each labelled with a theme or title from one piece of work. The Empire of Dirt room contains a single object: The Four Direc­tions from 2004–2005. It’s a ball covered in snail shells, a delicate globe that marries beauty to the beast and reminds viewers there are no easy one-word answers when it comes to Maher’s work. 

Spanning more than three decades, Becoming is the most impressive retrospective by an Irish artist mounted in this country in years. Maher says titles are important, but they come after the work is made. She knows the power of those opening words. The rest of Hurt’s lyrics hover like a silent soundtrack over the show: crown of thorns, broken thoughts, the stains of time — all motifs echoed in Maher’s art, as sure-footed as it is honest, raw and inspirational. 

Much has been written about the influence of fairy tales, Irish folklore, Greek mythology and various aspects of art history on Maher’s work and, yes, it’s all there in more than 60 sculptural objects, paintings, drawings, animations and a bold new film. But what this exhibition really reveals is that Maher is one of a rare breed: an Irish artist of international measure, utterly distinctive in her approach. Now in her mid-fifties, she has already produced a body of work that will stand the test of time — and she’s not finished yet.

Though a triumphant success, this is a dark show, not least in its execution. Blackened rooms are lit by spots as animated drawings delve into normally private neu­roses, fears and fantasies. It reaches back to 1988, but what’s on offer is a cohesive whole delivered by a professional at the top of her game. Maher can see how she got there now, and the exhibition is designed to show you. Her rural Irish childhood — she was born in Co Tipperary in 1956 — has always anchored the work. Memory and personal experience are the threads that run through it. ln 1991, she made a series of drawings entitled The Thicket, in which a frustrated-­looking child explores the world around her only to have the curi­ousity rewarded by calamity, as she is squashed under a falling box of enormous poppy-seed heads. Three years later, a series of stark black and red paintings on paper offered snapshots of more intense childhood memo­ries. The Mistake, with its small, innocent-looking turd, points to the moment when adults teach children what to find unpalat­able, when curiosity should end and disgust begin. These are not instincts we are born with. It’s a theme that ties early works to Maher’s recent animations, in which arrival at a vulgar or unpleasant image is never a reason to cease the exploration. 

The use of sound in these animations has allowed her to add licking noises to worm-like creatures that twist and tum, to punctuate the flow of images with an indignant “ow!” (the sound of her own voice) as a pin pricks a decapitated head. Flora and The Double are particularly explicit: the body is not sacred, it is pierced, penetrated, modified and manipulated as Maher pushes at the boundaries of what can be made visible. 

Her use of scale, from minia­ture to giant, complements her view of human experience as both remarkable and ordinarily flawed. Berry Dress (1994) is a baby’s dress — tiny, red-painted and pinned all over with rose­hips. These have darkened and shrivelled over time, but if you look up underneath the hem, the pins are still sharp, shiny and clean; like new. Her charcoal drawings are remarkable. In the Bestiary series, with its cascading dust and sharp reverse silhouettes, she works until the pigment glistens like a precious powder, but her three Ombres from 1997 are arguably the most arresting works in the show. Spanning four metres from floor to ceiling, they are sensational in their monumental hairiness: one wavy, one curly, one straight. Portraits of hidden, silent, anonymous women, their hair both empowering and enshrouding, intimidating and softly enticing, they offer a near-uniform disguise and a defiant marker of individuality, a retreat and a prison — just like the brambles she wove into a ball for Cell (1991). 

She almost missteps with the inclusion of Hedge of Experi­ence (1997). Because of its fake, polysilk oak leaves, this low structure operates as a kind of physical and intellectual stum­bling block right at the start of the show. It’s a 48cm-high awk­ward moment that reveals why materials matter. Maher’s Berry Dress or Nettle Coat earn much of their impact from the fact that they are made from organic materials that have a history of their own, so they cannot remain fixed in time as objects. They are not permanent and immutable. 

Maher’s use of shifting, non-­permanent materials finds its apogee in the icy sarcophagus/bed Mnemosyne (2002). A self-­sustaining, self-creating art­work, it is a refrigeration unit that uses moisture in the air to form its own frozen surface. Of course, her use of more stable, traditional mediums, such as bronze in Godchildren (2010) and Double Venus (2005), produces objects that are iconic in their own way. 

Maher has spoken about her interest in “hyper states”: times of illness, dreaming or periods of intense physical change, including childhood and adolescence. The newest work in this show, Cassandra’s Neck­lace, is a short, wordless film that features two young actresses and blurs memory, dream and fantasy. In scale and arrange­ment, it’s immersive: two enor­mous screens facing each other show different footage simulta­neously. Sparked by an unfinished play script by the author Anne Enright, it offers twenty minutes of film in ten. No two viewings can ever be exactly the same. The uncanny visualisation begins with whistling in the dark and ends with a necklace of lamb’s tongues on a young girl’s chest. It captures all the incoherence and intense clarity of a dream. As with the animated drawings, begun in 2009, Cassandra’s Necklace repre­sents a faultless move by Maher into a new medium. 

Back in the main venue, in a darkened lecture room, lights hang from long wires at varying heights, casting light onto the spot where a student might place their hands or books. Each bulb is weighted with a heavy metal bead. One beam high­lights some text carved into the wooden desk. Lyrics from I’ve Been Tired, a Pixies song, end with the words: “And while we’re at it honey, why don’t you tell me one of your biggest fears?” Maher has even found a way to incorporate the exhibi­tion space, an old college, and its memories into her work. It’s a masterstroke. Maher may be the most accomplished Irish artist of her generation. This is the show to anchor her reputation. Do not miss it.

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