A Cherished Place


“Places you can go for free, run by strange people with visions who want to help artists by showing and selling their work”: this was Jerry Saltz, the New York art world’s notorious, necessary gadfly, writing in praise of Chelsea galleries right after Hurricane Sandy had flooded basements, damaged exhibition spaces and indiscriminately destroyed countless works of art. Galleries come and go; we might love them or loathe them; but in that moment of devastation, Saltz felt a need to make a stirring case for their defence: fundamentally, he said, “I love them. All. More than ever.”

Free places, strange people: these seem, in general, like good things. In Dublin, right now, there are quite a few versions of this special combination. There are venturesome, commendably crazy people with an against-the-odds enthusiasm for finding and showing art they love, working long-term with artists they admire. And there are places, sometimes a little out of the way, just off our habitual routes, that, on the best days, offer free entry to new worlds. The Kerlin gallery, this year celebrating three decades in Dublin, is one such place. And it’s run by people who might be glad (I hope) to be called strange: motivated by out-of-the-ordinary commitment to art that pushes limits, prompts new thoughts, offers surprising pleasures, gets under our skin or takes us somewhere we’ve never been.

The pre-history of the current Kerlin occurred in Belfast: it was there that gallery founders John Kennedy and David Fitzgerald met and forged a partnership in the 1980s. But the Kerlin consolidated itself after a move to Dublin in 1988, opening its first space on Dawson Street. The first show in that location was, by current standards, relatively conservative: paintings by Clement McAleer. But McAleer’s rigorous and restless landscapes nonetheless established a questioning, questing spirit, with regard to the representation of place, in Ireland and elsewhere, that would be a vital aspect of the Kerlin’s continuing programme. Other early shows in Dublin included some by artists – who would maintain ongoing relationships with the gallery – whose work engaged intelligently and inventively with the depiction of cherished, contested or corrupted places: Stephen McKenna, Elizabeth Magill, Barrie Cooke. Like it or not, this was a subject that resonated under the inevitable, oppressive influence of the Troubles in the north – a formative, regressive political context for the gallery’s progressive cultural disposition – even if these artists didn’t necessarily engage that topic head-on. Other artists who came a little later to the Kerlin, such as Willie Doherty and Paul Seawright, most certainly did – in ways that had profound influence well beyond this island.   

Even in the early stages of the Dublin gallery’s schedule, there were exhibitions by numerous artists who became pivotal to key trajectories of Irish art (though not all, of course, were Irish) and who had, moreover, established significant presences outside Ireland too: Richard Gorman, Brian Maguire, Dorothy Cross, David Godbold and Kathy Prendergast. The opening of a new space in 1994 added further substance and style to the gallery’s profile, raising the levels of its reputation and expanding its capacity for display. Designed by the British architect John Pawson – a demanding minimalist who once created a monastery that the monks found ‘too austere’ – the resulting Anne’s Lane Gallery is an undeniable architectural gem: one of the most perfectly realised places for the presentation of art in Ireland. Among the first shows in the new Anne’s Lane Gallery were some by artists who would be central figures in the gallery’s roster for years to come: Sean Scully, Willie Doherty, Mark Francis and William McKeown.

Listing is inevitable when recounting the contents of an incredible thirty-year programme such as the Kerlin’s – and unavoidably, as with all lists, some things will get left out. History, as Arnold Toynbee said, is one damn thing after another, and the Kerlin has done a lot of damn things, some of them pretty damn remarkable. During the 1990s, a series of guest shows by invited non-gallery artists brought the work of major international figures to Dublin, mostly for the first time. How I wish I’d been in Dublin in 1991 to see exhibitions at the Dawson Street Gallery by German painters A.R. Penck, Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen – the latter pair showing together in a legendary two-hander called ‘Days in Dub’. (Recently the New York gallerist Casey Kaplan Instagrammed a shot of a promotional poster for the show that’s still on the wall of a New York restaurant; the poster is also in the Tate collection.) The list, looking back through the 1990s programme, is quite something: Richard Hamilton, Francesco Clemente / Mimmo Paladino, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Andy Warhol (twice). At times, there have been great group shows too: I remember ‘Architecture Schmarchitecture’ (2003) as my (belated) introduction to the work of Isa Genzken, and a confirmation of my interest in, or enthusiasm for, Liam Gillick, Roger Hjorns, Jim Lambie, Sarah Morris and Thomas Scheibitz. Later there was ‘Less is more – more could be less’ (2007), a collaboration with Produzentengalerie, Hamburg, that featured, among others, Günther Förg, Thomas Schütte, Norbert Schwontkowski, Nicole Wermers and Thomas Scheibitz (again). In each case, as a pretty clueless fledgling critic, I found such shows both grounding and enabling – offering up-close encounters with exciting new work and creating fresh connections to traditions and tendencies of contemporary art outside Ireland.

Over the years, many more meaningful contributions have been made. Darragh Hogan joined Kennedy and Fitzgerald as a director in 2001. Lots of other personnel – including the current Dublin team of Brid McCarthy, Elly Collins, Rosa Abbott and Lee Welch – have played essential parts. The artist list has changed; some have come and gone, while many have maintained valued lasting relationships. Today the group of gallery artists includes – in addition to anyone mentioned thus far – a mix of longstanding and relatively new members: Philip Allen, Gerard Byrne, Aleana Egan, Maureen Gallace, Mark Garry, Liam Gillick, Guggi, Siobhan Hapaska, Calum Innes, Jaki Irvine, Merlin James, Sam Keogh, Samuel Lawrence Cunnane, Eoin McHugh, Isabel Nolan, Jan Pleitner, Daniel Rios Rodriguez, Liliane Tomasko, Paul Winstanley and Zhou Li.

In celebrating thirty years in Dublin, the Kerlin team has decided to plan something appropriate: that is, continuing to do what they’ve always done. Nostalgia is not their style. (This might, in part, be a Belfast thing, borne out of need to break free from the burdensome weight of history.) The next show is always the most important one. And so, the 2018 programme is a series of exhibitions that continues, determinedly, to represent the best of what they do. Gerard Byrne’s ‘In Our Time’ at the start of the year was the Dublin premier of an outstanding video installation by one of the most acclaimed artists working with lens-based media today. Sam Keogh’s ‘Kapton Cadaverine’ was a useful platform for a young artist to advance his idiosyncratic style of sci-fi-inspired lecture-performance. A group show of striking new works by Dorothy Cross, Aleana Egan, Siobhán Hapaska, Isabel Nolan and Kathy Prendergast was an exceptional showcase of imaginatively far-out sculptural practices. Painting exhibitions by, respectively, German and US-based artists Jan Pleitner and Daniel Rios Rodriguez, highlighted new paths being followed in that medium.

Another group show, ‘Face to Face’, staged in collaboration with the De Pont Museum, Tilburg, was the latest in the gallery’s occasional gatherings of notable international figures: in this case Ai Weiwei, Fiona Banner, Dirk Braeckman, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Marlene Dumas, Roni Horn, Giuseppe Penone, Thomas Schütte, Fiona Tan, Luc Tuymans, Jeff Wall and Cathy Wilkes. This, by any measure, is an impressive line-up. Current and upcoming shows (Sean Scully and Liam Gillick) continue to press on at the highest standard. Like most serious galleries today, there is constant pressure to have a presence everywhere: participating in art fairs, working with international museums, seeing and showing new work all over the world. Nonetheless, as the Kerlin reaches the landmark stage of thirty years in Dublin, it makes sense to remember how much they have made a difference right here.

Declan Long is a critic and lecturer in modern and contemporary art at NCAD, where he is Co-Director of the MA Art in the Contemporary World.

Image Credits
Martin Kippenberger and Wendy Judge after the opening of ‘Day in Dub’, an exhibition by Martin Kippenberger & Albert Oehlen, Kerlin Gallery, August 1991; photograph by Orla O’Brien.
Willie Doherty, Dreams of Renewal, Dreams of Annihilation, 2017, triptych, framed pigment prints mounted on Dibond, edition of 3; image courtesy the artist & Kerlin Gallery.
Dorothy Cross, Buoy, 2014, blue shark skin, white gold leaf, antique easel, Italian alabaster; image courtesy the artist & Kerlin Gallery.
‘Face to Face’ (29 June – 18 August 2018), curated by Hendrik Driessen. All works collection of De Pont Museum, Tilburg. Installation view (L-R): Berlinde De Bruyckere, Het hart uitgerukt, 1997–1998, India ink on paper; Thomas Schütte, Untitled (United Enemies), 1994, modelling clay, fabric, wood, rope, PVC pipe and glass dome; image courtesy Kerlin Gallery.





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