Gerry Blake’s exhibition, ‘Home Place’, at the Municipal Gallery, dlr Lexicon presents a series of photographic portraits of people in their homes and a separate series of vacant buildings, developed by the artist over the last three years, while travelling around Ireland. In this context, photography plays the dual roles of storytelling and documentation. Works are titled after each subject’s first name, which tends to add warmth and a personal feel to the already intimate images.
The majority of the wall labels are direct quotes from the portrait’s subject; individual voices describe how they got their home, or why they live in this particular place. Direct and conversational language is applied throughout, describing life in cottages, converted buses, boats and house-shares. The gallery space has a narrative quality, carrying a range of microworlds, created by each subject’s unwavering intent to gain autonomy, personal space and dignity. The works in the main space are all the same size and placed equal distance apart, which somehow emphasises the distinct stories even more. A partition wall shows an unframed photographic work of what appears to be an abandoned house behind a wooden fence, with a large, derelict, Victorian house on the other side.
Featuring in the series is a photograph, titled Kamla, who is the proud owner of a house in Cork. Vivid, cared for flowers and the subject’s personal style contribute to a powerful atmosphere of home life. The piece Cian depicts a new owner of a boat, which he sailed from England to Ireland. He is fully immersed in the boat’s interior, the natural light illuminating him, while highlighting his persistence in making a home. Eoin is sitting outside his new cottage. His pose confirms that he is comfortable with the process of renovation, surrounded by tools and crumbling, fertile textures.
Angela is a portrait of a woman in her light-filled kitchen, which echoes the composition of Jackie Nickerson’s contemplative photographic portrait, Seamus Heaney (1932-2013), Poet, Playwright, Translator, Nobel Laureate (2007), housed in the National Gallery of Ireland collection. The light is even, harnessing a balm of earned and uninterrupted peace. Courtney shows a woman sitting on the steps of a converted bus in which she has been living for the past year. She describes the logistics of making her home happen, and the freedom it gives her. It feels significant that she is sitting on the steps in a way someone would sit on a stoop or exterior porch of a house. The photograph Jin shows the subject posing with his bicycle outside the house. He describes how renting with many other adults is still expensive, but it is as good as it gets. Having his bicycle to hand suggests a yearning for independence.
The pieces David and Lois present a father and daughter side by side in separate photographs; both subjects are photographed inside the bus. The label describes with a feeling of necessity how David drove the bus to his site and worked on it to make it habitable. He says, “It has a cooker, beds, a compost toilet and a sink that takes in water from a barrel outside”. Both images are populated with lots of objects, shelving, cobwebs, and soft light, which tell a story of homely warmth. David is looking down, pensive and content, yet there are traces of a weight on him. Lois is looking up, wearing a sparkly top, framed by a background of cosy things such as cocoa, a kettle, stove, coffee pot and gingham cloth.
At the back of the gallery, a smaller subspace exhibits another set of images, uniform in scale and curation. ‘Empty Houses’ is a grid of photographs of vacant buildings across Ireland. Having moved through warm, honest, difficult, and playful depictions of people in their homes, this part of the show confronts the viewer with a starkness of abandoned, uninhabited buildings. Out of the 16 pieces, some buildings have been burnt, others neglected, and there are houses that are recently vacant. One has an open gate, signifying what came before or more pertinently, what should be. The silence that hovers over these images shares the sensibility of British artist George Shaw’s articulations of afternoon suburbia. In comparison to Shaw’s paintings of empty suburban homes, Blake’s photography is pure documentation of static, neglected buildings as innate things, their stillness faced with a foreboding permanence.
In a sense, ‘Home Place’ suffers in its simplicity; it does not address the complexities of the housing crisis, but cuts to the heart of the issue. ‘Empty Houses’ lays out undeniable misuses of land and resources which fail to nurture our relationships with buildings. Overall, the exhibition sets out its own familiar logic, whereby buildings and people inform and protect each other.
Jennie Taylor is an art writer living and working in Dublin.