Portadown: Alice Maher at Millennium Court Arts Centre
Circa 06, 2003 , pp.72
The masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance. Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed.1
At first glance the exhibition Portraits by the Dublin based artist Alice Maher of twelve Lambda prints and a large charcoal drawing on paper are immediately striking. The self-portrait prints are extremely rich colour-saturated images that stand apart from the slight intricacies of the large drawing. On initial reading a connection between the portraits is sustained through the juxtaposed of inanimate objects. Within the broader breath of Maher’s practice the recurring fascination with “display and clothing’’2 is evidently continued — inanimate objects in the portraits are either worn by or displayed on the artist. Andromeda — a charcoal drawing of braided hair — is charged with significance. The use of hair presentation as/with decoration explores notions of beauty, and its part in the construction of femaleness, recalling the important Ombres show of 1998.3
In Necklace and Collar, inanimate objects of the tongues and hearts of lambs are strung around the artist’s neck. Necklaces, chokers and lockets are often gifts given to women to display as tokens of love, symbolising both the cement of a social relationship and the obligations it incurs. The work is evocative of classical portraiture and the display of such tokens as decorative, also indicate social position, class, and affluence. For Maher the actually wearing of the meat hearts makes “visceral something that is usually only imagined or miniaturised, kept locked up. You are turning the body inside out, opening the forbidden chamber… A choker of real hearts exposes the material truth of the idea.”4
In the remaining portraits the images continue to draw from Maher’s interest in display and clothing. The artists use of inanimate objects some of which are organic forms, are either positioned on or appear to be entering the upper body, or present the artists face either obscured or shrouded. Maher in the presentation of multiple portraits defies the singular and iconographic status of classical self-portraiture, therefore denying the production of a singular identity. By not mediating within selfhood and the language of traditional portraiture Maher conceives something not to be defined.
Cultural construction though image, song, and text has feminised Ireland as a land to be owned and protected, the home and reproducer of a national identity. This work draws on the position of ‘woman’ as ‘closer to nature’, both psychologically and bodily as reproducers of life and the nation. For Maher, by ‘miming the mime’ and reflecting back the images and associations posed in such social constructs, is destabilising the paradigm.
Traditional masculine iconography has rendered self-portraiture as questionable in terms of the validity of notions of the artist as a romantic creative genius which is of central concern here.
Deconstructing a predetermined identity as ‘woman’ and ‘Irish’, constructed in and through representation in visual culture is also significant. Maher is overt in these portraits that the enacted position of identification of self/woman/Irish/other is a position of empowerment.5 But for Maher the process is neither essentialist nor personal. With the assumption of multiple identities, an enactment ‘performance of the primitive’,6 Maher queries the notion of a single knowable gender and identity negotiating new and extraordinary spaces.
Chérie Driver is a researcher and artist living in Belfast.
1 Mary Ann Doane, quoted in Marsha Meskimmon, The Art of Reflection: Women artist’s Self Portraiture in the Twentieth Century, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, p. 123
2 Fionna Barber, Hybrid Histories: Alice Maher, Art History, Vol. 26, No. 3, June 2003, p.420
3 Angeline Morrison, An informed Instinct, CIRCA, No. 83, 1998, pp. 16–19
4 Fionna Barber, op. cit., pp. 419–420
5 Ibid., p. 420