Critique: Bernadette Doolan ‘The House That Built Me’

Bernadette Doolan, The Oddballs My Besties, acrylic on paper, 180 × 120cm; courtesy of the artist

GOMA, Waterford
30 July – 26 September 2020

Waterford’s GOMA reopened its doors with an exhibition of oil paintings by Bernadette Doolan. ‘The House That Built Me’ presents a selection of figures and scenes said to explore memory and emotion. While the exhibition’s title suggests a deeply personal reflection, Doolan acknowledges that “the figure in my paintings represents me as a child but also a universal self”. With these paintings she aims to connect the viewer to their own lived experience, by creating what she calls “a psychological pause”. The subject of this work is childhood, so where a viewer’s experience comes into play, it inevitably lends itself to more personalised memories and concepts of childhood. ‘The House That Built Me’ refers to the influences which shape our growth into adolescence and her titles underline a clear imagery around these moments of development. In a gallery talk on 29 August with Aoibhie McCarthy, Director of Cork’s Sample-Studios, we learned of the artist’s early clay reliefs, as well as her studies in psychology. Both facets are utilised here to tell us something about imagined worlds.

Spaced over three rooms, we observe Doolan’s figures in moments of play and isolation. Even before details are to be provided for contact tracing, three works in GOMA’s reception space invite our attention. One of these works, titled Imaginary Friends, shows a figure wearing stripy pink socks and a shimmering tutu. The composition cuts off at the figure’s torso, while the head of a hobby horse enters from bottom right. Against a background of uniform grey cloud shapes, the horse’s hair plays off a lighter brushwork, suggesting shadows settling on chiffon fabric. One lone eye stares back from the picture, the horse’s fixed expression conveyed as an open mouth submerging into a darker grey band. Those hanging clouds may constitute a particularly dour wallpaper or they may invoke a symbolism and subtext, providing additional colour to the other elements of the composition. In either case, their routine pattern and spacing offers a sense of motion, neatly bridging the planes that describe the scene.

If these dark clouds add intrigue to a seemingly idyllic and privileged childhood, the faux-forlorn expression of the girl in Eat your peas reminds us that what we see as tenacity can sometimes appear to others as stubborn mindedness. Despite this weighty psychological reflection, Eat your peas is a simple picture. A magnolia coloured backing, with pink arabesques, props up the girl wearing a green school jumper. Her complexion, patched together and plumped out with layered tones, affords her a depth, even a story.

A smaller painting nearby illustrates a single object, a paper fortune teller, against a teal blue background. Ordinarily occupied by forefingers and thumbs, this origami instrument can be manipulated to deliver a speculative fiction about future loves and riches – a game highly reminiscent of school days. The title, Pick a number, pick a colour, echoes the phrase used by the initiator of the game’s practice among players. These three works outline the themes and objectives which are returned to throughout the show, where performativity and the capturing of a subject indicate pauses in an emotional landscape.

The long rectangular painting, Self-sufficient and breakfast, contains only one figure, again a girl at a table. Light on detail, this filmic image instils the blankness of memory as a dramatic device. The question, if we should ask it, is how much of our memory is concealed by absence? But rather than references to theoretical psychology, it is the bodily experience of empathy which defines Doolan’s work. Her handling of paint draws the viewer closer, and her almost two-dimensional style achieves just enough character to convey the quiet idleness of the unknown. Like marionettes and other forms of shadow play, the viewer animates the scene.

Victorian novelist, Violet Paget (who wrote under the pseudonym Vernon Lee) made perhaps the first literary attempt to describe what we call ‘empathy’. Einfühlung was, according to Paget, “exercised only when our feelings enter, and are absorbed into, the form we perceive.” Simply, and by example, ‘The House That Built Me’ encourages us to pause with that encounter.

Darren Caffrey is an artist and art writer currently based in the South East.