Hand-drawn and uniform in size, each of Ellen Harvey’s 46 x 61 cm panels refer to a particular place and time. Occupying two walls of the gallery, a large body of work, The Disappointed Tourist (2019-2023), lends its name to the exhibition as a whole. With more than 260 carefully rendered images of sites – spanning from the mythical lost city of Atlantis to a former B&B in 1970s smalltown Ireland – this series is also where the exhibition begins and ends.
Either in portrait or landscape format, Harvey’s paintings hang in neat rows, illustratively styled in oils and acrylics. Prior to the exhibition, the artist made a callout to the general public, asking: “Is there a place which you would like to visit or revisit which no longer exists?” Seven new works extend the series, including three Kilkenny locations, like a cinema and pub.
The Disappointed Tourist has travelled to the UK, USA, Austria, and Poland but its format encourages imagery from much further afield. Nonetheless, a western imaginary resonates above all, with religious and cultural sites in Asia and Africa recalled among restaurants and amusement parks in Milwaukee and Manchester. With so many sites to see, it could be easy to get lost; however, a considered placement means that certain works speak to one another. In one section, Nelson’s Pillar, The Twin Towers, Hiroshima Castle, a Royal Mail post-box in Hong Kong, and London’s Grenfell Tower all stand tall. The phrase ‘no longer exists’ shadows each composition. A once fabulous Japanese pagoda erupts with plumelike growth, foliage half swallowing a site now lost to atomic destruction. The exhibition text makes clear that such details are of equal importance to the work, with historical accuracy akin to credible depiction. Grand synagogues and mosques from Warsaw to Syria, New York’s Madison Square Garden, or a Palestinian olive grove; for each rendition we are informed of both the year and by what measure the site has ceased to exist.
Sometimes we are also told who is responsible, while political narratives do certainly inform the artist’s imagery. In Twin Planet Protest (2017-19), two paintings with additional wooden sticks suggest homemade placards. Here, swirls of blue and white oil paint illustrate Earth beneath the clouds, its desolate companion implying an alternative home, should this one cease to be sustainable. An effective one-liner, the work states its position without much ambiguity.
Together, Harvey’s work looks at a world reshaped by human interests. What at first appears to be an expensive collection of screen devices, displaying 56 individual, digitally stylised images of a sunset, actually turns out to be an assortment of hand engraved, backlit plexiglass mirrors. Framed to mimic the interface of common digital devices, On the Impossibility of Capturing a Sunset (in Margate) (2020) speaks to our shared attempts at connecting with the sun’s rays through a screen.
In the eighteenth century, the age of enlightenment and scepticism, Hogarth famously used engraving to make topical observations of his era. A sense of that critical gaze peeks through Harvey’s work, refocusing on our own compromised priorities. Catching sight of the setting sun, we recognise a moment of grace and seek to capture it, perhaps to share. Rendered here as monotone line drawings, purged of colour and transient light, the black and white instils a binary.
Harvey’s title for this work echoes that of a shark steeped in formaldehyde, or what Damien Hirst called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). Besides such confrontations with futility, identifying the seaside town places us at the scene. It is a location which the Romantic English painter JMW Turner revisited often, his studies of maritime sunsets echoing the feeling of a place he knew from his schooldays. This direct emotional relationship is however not the nature of Harvey’s work. Each view draws a gaze out over the sea, but what are we called to witness? Looking again, we might imagine Icarus before he flew too close to the sun, wings melting as he glimpsed the heavens. If this work is a cautionary tale, Harvey signals her own complicity with a stream of electrical cables gathering in excess at the feet of her arrangement.
The work that cements the artist’s underlying dark humour is TV Rock Glacier (2015). Reminiscent of découpage, a framed three-dimensional watercolour depicts an iceberg and literally builds it up, so that it touches the back of the glass. There is an iceberg and no room to get any closer. If that was not clear enough, icebergs are presented among those sites which seemingly some would like to revisit. And hanging directly beneath is the unmistakable profile of the RMS Titanic, dated 1912.
Darren Caffrey is an artist and writer based in Kilkenny.