Critique | Backwater Artists, ‘C L O S E R’

Lavit Gallery, Cork; 5 – 28 May 2022

‘C L O S E R’, installation view, The Lavit Gallery, May 2022; photograph by James Hallinan, courtesy of the artists and The Lavit Gallery. ‘C L O S E R’, installation view, The Lavit Gallery, May 2022; photograph by James Hallinan, courtesy of the artists and The Lavit Gallery.

At the Lavit Gallery in Cork, rectangular mirrors are placed at face-height on the sides of the structural support pillars that run the length of the gallery. They reflect the room and the artworks, but also you, the visitor to the show. As part of a group exhibition, entitled ‘C L O S E R’, this series of small, unframed reflective surfaces added the watcher, being watched, the looker, looking back, to a curated selection of 16 artworks by ten members of Backwater Artists Group – a studio group located in a three-story warehouse on Wandesford Quay ( With a viewing crowd, the mirrors framed visitors to the exhibition in evermoving shots as they milled about. For solitary viewers, the mirrors added images of only you to the show. Suggesting that visitors were not only at the show, but in the show, the mirrors were a neat intervention by the exhibition curator, Janice Hough, curator of Residency and Artist Programmes at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. 

Appropriately, ‘C L O S E R’ was a show about bodies, presence, and place. Rachel Daly’s largescale closeup shot of head and hands opened the exhibition, proclaiming that one of the other main themes being explored here was touch. Daly’s photograph, Crashing Me By, hung alongside Claire Murphy’s Ring of Fire (2022), a photo print of a woman lying cruciform on her back on a bed, barefoot, eyes closed. The yellow-red colour flare seeping from the bottom edge of the print added dream-like layers, implying some kind of spiritual, ghostly, or hallucinogenic state. 

On the floor, Natasha Pike’s A concrescent order of celestial bodies that do not know their own purpose was an installation of conical gold beanbags, spread subtly like a collection of stalactites and stalagmites, accompanied by square concrete tiles neatly arranged like a bank of rare geoforms. On the wall, Sean Hanrahan’s two-metre-square handmade flag presented a black star like a magnified pinhole with the title Memory Anthem (2021).

Much of the work in the exhibition explored dualities between nearness and distance, connection and disconnection, what is felt and not felt, clearly seen and not well seen, weighted and light. A wall text produced by all ten artists collectively listed ways of being close, or not: “CLOSER to fragility… to distance… to knowing… to the unknown,” it read. “CLOSER to the sea… to home… to a concrescent order of things… to the break… to discovering… to knowing there is no bridge, CLOSER together, CLOSER.”

A quietly urgent show of quietly urgent work, it included Joseph Heffernan’s oil painting of three huddled figures, standing close, looking wary, looking over their shoulders, defensive, called The Performance; two of Izabela Szczutkowska’s deliberately mysterious, indistinct photographs, Stardust and Machine; and works from Sean Hanrahan’s ‘Q Series’ of flower photographs, a selection of which were also showing concurrently nearby, in ‘Parklife: Biodiversity in Contemporary Irish Art’ at the Glucksman Gallery. For ‘C L O S E R’, Hanrahan presented darkly beautiful flower photos in a digital slide show, mounted in a wooden box sitting proud from the wall. The effect mimicked the experience of looking at backlit glass photographic plates.

Hanrahan’s gothic-looking blooms were not the only artworks functioning like memento mori in this show. Angela Gilmour’s stunning photopolymer etchings, depicting glaciers retreating, melting, or dying, had a snow-bleached quality like ancient artefacts. The Retreat of Mayerbreen, and Samarinvagen, where once there was a glacier seem like records of a time past, but the time is now. This question of time passing was explored too by Ciara Rodgers, whose Wait, Less, Ness (2020) series of framed polaroid shots captured a shelf and a dropper bottle. 

Ailbhe Ní Bhriain’s floor sculpture, Element from Inscriptions V, and wall-hung print, Untitled (fragment), held the same kind of delicacy and concern with weights and measures as Pádraig Spillane’s What Passes Between Us V2.0 (2017/2021). Where Ní Bhriain’s work played with relationships between objects in space, and the gaps between them, Spillane’s hanging print showed a repeat image of the palm of a hand cropped close. Included at its base are four 500g weights and one 100g, leaving viewers with questions about veils, curtains, blinds, the weight of expectation, the weight of exchange, the nature of intimacy – all appropriate inquiries for a delicately curated show, exploring the possibilities associated with, and the meanings we might attach to, the word ‘closer’. 

Cristín Leach is an art critic, 

journalist and radio and television presenter. Her memoir, Negative Space (2022), has recently been published by Merrion Press, an imprint of Irish Academic Press.