I first became aware of Aosdana* member Daphne Wright through her RHA** show in Dublin two years ago. The piece from that show that stuck in my head was Stallion: a horse on its back, half flayed and writhing in agony, made from marble dust. The workmanship and detail were exquiite but ultimately the piece left me cold. Similarly an installation of plaster cast, three-dimensional ‘wallpaper’, an unthinkably complicated and delicate piece, left me asking ‘what’s the point?’ Why make such an effort only to fall at the last fence by having the work submit to the space? Craft seemed to be far outstripping concept. In other artists work this stacking of skill and application on the wobbly legs of bizarre, weird, weak or meaningless ideas has created riveting, exciting work but here the gap between skill and narrative fell short of creating any sort of tension.
So I dropped into A Quiet Mutiny last week not expecting to like the show but it is a warmer show than the one at RHA. It was commissioned by the Crawford and is though it it described as a ‘large scale’ installation it does not seem to fill the space nor be particularly site specific. The pieces are clay models of familiar domestic items; a clothes horse, a lamp, plants, a walker, a football, sunflower dotted about the galleries. While some works are compelling, this time the craftsmanship takes a back seat to the point where some of the pieces seemed to be a bit of a cheat: is that just a clay covered clothes horse?
The work in the show depends on playing with the tension between an object and its material – fragile, organic clay representing manmade, domestic objects. This intersection between object and materials is familiar to many contemporary artists; it is one of the basic tools an artist can use to jar the viewer. To have this tool take central point in the show then feels a bit odd, as if the artist, in casting (!) around for ideas, came up empty. However the simplicity of the concept has a certain strength which surprisingly is at its strongest in the more organic shapes; the plants, despite their pots – the clay facsimiles of which should dilute the power of the organic material – and the odd little clay pieces, arranged on three shelves, which are like failed attempts at making some new, small creature.
There are some video works too but due to hearing diffculties, as soon as I hear talking on screen with no subtitles my brain starts to fizzle, so they were of little interest to me. I forced myself to watch one segment which was of man and an elderly woman, he holding her from behind, she gibbering. He covers her eyes and she calms and begins to recite something. At first the thought of filming someone with dementia jarred but once it turned out they were actors rather than an alzheimer sufferer and her carer, the piece lost any edge it had.
Perhaps it is just my own malaise with gallery spaces but the space in both Wright’s RHA and Crawford shows was problematic, Wright used the space in the RHA effectively enough in respect to Stallion and Domestic Shubbery but the most vibrant, and largest piece, Where do Broken Hearts go, a planatation of silvery giant cacti, was ultimately overwhelmed by the scale of the gallery. In the Crawford the downstairs gallery, always gloomy, is deliberately so for this show and its irritating rather than mood-forming though it is nice to see the back gallery naturally lit for a change. Upstairs, the massive open plan space dominates. Wright has done her best here with a row of clay models of giant withering sunflowers lined up across the middle of the space, the use of sunflowers, which have such popular appeal as well as relating to Van Gogh and that artist’s elevation to star status, falls a bit flat. Perhaps the grey dull clay intersecting with the vibrant imagery sunflower suggests was meant to jar but if it does the effect is muted in the lmassive space.
I am being too critical perhaps. An artist sees a show differently than others especially the work of an artist who occupies the same sort of field. In looking we seek to hone our own process, to test our own understanding, which often falls short, we deconstruct the work of others. It is hard it is in reality to produce something special or unique and I think Wright’s work is unique – sort of. And that’s the thing; though Wright is a skilled artist and though her work is something more than a collection of accomplished art objects, I always end up only ‘sort of’ liking her work or being ‘sort of’ affected. There is a feeling that there might be much more there if she’d only let rip. Sort of.
Daphne Wright at The Crawford Gallery, Cork, 15 November 2019– 16 February 2020
*Aosdána ; from Irish aos dána “people of the arts”) is an Irish association of artists. It was created in 1981 on the initiative of a group of writers with support from the Arts Council of Ireland. Membership, which is by invitation from current members, is limited to 250 individuals. Some members of Aosdána receive a stipend, called the Cnuas – a gift of financial aid put aside for the purpose of support – from the Arts Council of Ireland. This stipend is intended to allow recipients to work full-time at their art. The value of the Cnuas in 2015 was €17,180.
**RHA The Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) is an artist-based and artist-oriented institution in Ireland, founded in Dublin in 1823. In spite of Ireland cutting itself off from the British Crown and becoming a Republic, the academy did not change its name.