Critique: Mairead O’hEocha ‘Tale Ends and Eternal Wakes’

Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, Dublin
28 February – 25 April 2020

The world is on pause and we must now stay at home; we are all in a state of suspension. There is a strangeness to the world that we inhabit today, as we sit and wait. With only brief excursions outdoors allowed, the experience of nature can only be snatched in fleeting moments.

As I write this review, Mairead O’hEocha’s exhibition, ‘Tale Ends and Eternal Wakes’ at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, is closed to the world. It is in its own state of suspension, not unlike the world outside the gallery and the subjects of her paintings, which feature dioramas from Dublin’s Natural History Museum, known as the ‘dead zoo’. Like the museum’s curator, O’hEocha echoes the role of ‘The Keeper’. She has carefully displayed her paintings and drawings in a way not unlike the tableau vivant, where actors pose silently, theatrically lit and in costume. This staging of the work is in keeping with the themes of display, artifice and the representation of nature that she has explored in previous exhibitions, most notably ‘Blackbirds in the Garden of Prisms’ at mother’s tankstation, Dublin, in 2016.

This new show is something of a departure for O’hEocha in terms of medium. Here, she presents drawings for the first time, as well as showing some large-scale paintings (something that she hasn’t done much in the past). The drawings are displayed physically and perhaps symbolically, in opposition to the paintings. In terms of her approach to the medium, the paintings are executed in her usual studied and thoughtfully composed manner, whereas the drawings have the appearance of spontaneity and fluidity in the movement of the ink and brush. The arrangement of the drawings invite the viewer’s eye to move from one to another, from the monkey, to the bat, to the lion, and perhaps to pause on the herons and how the arch of their long graceful necks is fluidly sketched out in one movement of the brush. 

Mairead O’hEocha, Antelope, Natural History Museum (detail), Dublin, 2020, oil on canvas, 150 × 100 cm; courtesy of the artist and mother’s tankstation Dublin | London

The display of the paintings can be viewed in marked contrast to the drawings. In the paintings, the brush marks disappear into subject matter and the subject matter is enfolded into the material of paint. O’hEocha’s handling of paint, in particular her systematic colour palette, is assured and confident and makes a definite nod to artifice. The colours work from high-key acidic yellows and turquoises – colours not readily found in the natural world and definitely not the colour scheme of the animals and birds characterised. For me, it is her colour choices that distinguish these works utterly as ‘paintings’. They reveal how, in painting, the subject matter takes a secondary place to the execution of the painting itself.

Whilst the overall exhibition is charged with a positive vitality in the use of colour and expressive brushwork, the drawings are also imbued with a sense of melancholia, when considering the subject of animals on display, frozen in time. The press release makes reference to John Berger’s classic essay, ‘Why Look at Animals’ as a touchstone for O’ hEocha.2 Berger On Drawing is also worth considering here, in particular his essay, ‘Drawn to That Moment’, in which Berger reflects on the process of drawing his recently deceased father. This has pertinence for O’hEocha’s drawings of dead animals. In the essay, Berger writes:

“As I drew his mouth, his brows, his eyelids, as their specific forms emerged with lines from the whiteness of the paper, I felt the history and the experience which had made them as they were. His life was now as finite as the rectangle of paper on which I was drawing, but within it, in a way infinitely more mysterious than any drawing, his character, his destiny has emerged. I was making a record of his face and his face was already a record of his life. Each drawing then was nothing but the site of a departure.”2

Perhaps I am also prompted by life as it is now, at this moment of writing, when I consider a point that is made in O’hEocha’s press release, regarding public display and artifice, which states: “It would be a shame at this point to ignore that the art gallery, its visitors and its windows facing the busy city street reflect a parallel menagerie.” 3 Indeed, for now the lights are off, the gallery is silent, the streets outside equally so. The public space of the gallery and its exhibition must wait in suspension, like the animals in the dioramas of the dead zoo, to be animated once again by the presence of a visiting public.

Alison Pilkington is an artist based in Dublin.

Feature Image: Mairead O’hEocha, ‘Tale Ends and Eternal Wakes’, installation view, Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, 2020; photograph Denis Mortell, courtesy of the artist and mother’s tankstation Dublin | London.