Familiar Themes
Aidan Dunne
The Tribune Magazine 14, 03 October 1995 , pp.6, 7

It’s a week before the opening of Alice Maher’s exhibition Familiar at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, and she is working out the placement of her work with the gallery staff. A series of tall, large paintings are distributed sparsely around the space, leaning against the walls. Each painting, though, is accompanied by its “familiar”, a sculptural object, anything from a couple of inches to a couple of yards in size. 

“That’s one meaning contained in the title,” she observes, “but there are other layers as well. For example, a lot of the things in the paintings are familiar, and the objects and materials are sort of familiar — while still being difficult to pin down exactly. I like that ambiguity, where you can make some kind of connection but you’re not quite sure.”

One painting, for example, contains simplified representations of all the buildings — and, in one case, a tent — that she has lived in. They make up a freeform village of indeterminate scale. It could be made of building blocks, or it might be life size. It’s accompanied by a bronze of a running girl, running, apparently, straight out of the wall.

Or, again, a painting that features fragments of a maze — “It’s a maze and yet not a maze,” says Maher, “because there’s no way in or out, no pathway through it,” — is hung next to a small, beautiful bronze of a girl’s head on its side, her eyes closed as if she’s dreaming or thinking. “Perhaps she’s imagining what we see in the painting.” 

Flax, with features as a material, is like hair, but also has its own associations. Often, the protagonist in the work is to a greater or lesser extent the artist herself. 

Maher was born in Tipperary in 1956 and, though she has lived in cities for most of her life, studying in Cork and Belfast, she still sees that rural dimension as significant to her work, particularly in her attitude to materials. This emerges typically in the two “dresses” she’s made for Familiar, one composed chiefly of bees, the other of rose hips, the latter individually pinned to the form which, inside, bristles with pin points. Both send, to put it mildly, mixed signals. “It just seems like the most natural thing in the world for me to use the hips or the bees, because I have that familiarity with them.” 

Familiar was two-and-a-half years in the making, a time which coincides with her residency at the Fire Station Artists’ Studios in Dublin’s Buckingham Street. There were, however, numerous interruptions along the way, including participation in last year’s Sao Paulo Biennale. 

“Brazil was absolutely brilliant. I had a great time.” With Philip Napier and Ciarán Lennon, Maher represented Ireland at the exhibition. They took on more than they bargained for. “The space was very good, but the lighting was completely inadequate. We realised that we’d have to do something about it ourselves. Most countries had brought their own lighting tracks, as well as teams of technicians to install it.” 

The Irish artists, by comparison, were operating on a miniscule budget, energetically juggled by administrator Siuban Barry. “We discovered that Brazil is an extremely expensive place, and it’s a bureaucratic nightmare. They have the most convoluted shopping arrangements imaginable. The only thing to do was to get into the spirit of it and go along with it all. When we’d assembled everything we needed we noticed that the electricians always seemed to be with the Germans or whatever. It finally dawned on us that you had to offer them extra money. I got all indignant and said we certainly weren’t going to bribe them until Philip pointed out that they were probably working for half-­nothing as it was.” 

By comparison, a team of workers laboured on the Robert Rauschenberg installation next door. Ditto the Japanese, who did things with characteristic style and ceremony right down to the red sun motif that embellished every packing crate. 

After the opening Maher stayed on in Brazil for two weeks, travelling first up the coast to Salvador.

“It’s like an African city, and it’s a kind of home for the local religion. Candomble, which combines elements of Catholicism, what we would call voodoo, and various other things. It’s a wonderful religion with stunning imagery, rich and celebratory and sensual. 

“It was extraordinary to be somewhere where puritanism just never took hold. And though I don’t regard myself as being particularly inhibited it actually made me feel inhibited by comparison.” 

Then she went on to Manaus, its opera house the inspiration for Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, deep in Amazon country, on the River Negro: “You realise why it’s called that when you see the water is, literally, black.” 

Brazil will probably make its presence felt in her work. It may already have done so, but probably in oblique, unexpected ways. She warms to the oblique and the unexpected. 

Her enduring interest in things medieval stems. she thinks, from “the subversive potential of marginalia. You have these narratives, but if you follow the little things in the margins you find that they tell a different story. I like the things in the margins generally, jokes, slips-of-the-tongue, the unofficial version.” 

She would like her own work “to undermine the supremacy of the great painting. You could go into the Douglas Hyde and try to fill it with monumental statements. Or you could do the opposite, which I suppose is what I’ve done. By concentrating on and making small things, by playing around with scale a lot and making small things loom large you’re suggesting a different way of looking.” 

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