Though some of us avoid all but the most utilitarian fashions – for fear of triggering flashbacks of being stuffed, howling, into our Sunday best for family photoshoots – the blooming of puffy dresses above pale legs that sprout from chunky boots among the hot-panted, fake-tanned girls of recent fashion, are difficult to ignore. Much of this strange flowering is due to the burgeoning influence of Irish designer, Simone Rocha, whose creations reflect and subvert femininity, as if via a cracked, funfair mirror. That is to say, the tensions running through Rocha’s designs, drawn in part from the artworks she has chosen for ‘girls girls girls’, will be relatable even to those who have no interest in ‘girly stuff’.
Rocha has gathered this gang of female artists – young and old, famous and emerging, living and dead – to create space for new conversations to arise. The show being primarily painting and photography, some sculpture and one video work, there are no great departures from the formal. Instead, the exhibition rests on the quality of the artworks and the immaculate presentation that contains any potential dialogue.
The paintings – figurative, naïve, instinctive – foil to the photographic pieces, many of which are black and white, are initially the most striking works. Sophie Barber’s The Greatest Song a Songbird Ever Sang (2019-20) depicts twin, leggy, pink, tent-houses on thick, black impasto, the sagging canvas lapping the shining floor. It is the biggest work on show and, unstretched, the one that most obviously tests boundaries. It is held in check by the link to Sharna Osborne’s Untitled dancer, a photograph of a blurred, gyrating torso, trailing squiggles of pink light that palely echoes the wobbly tent-legs at the other end of the vaulted hall. Another guy-line runs from Barber’s Kim and Kanye by Juergen again (2021), a tiny oil on stuffed canvas showing the kissing stars – since swallowed by the black hole of West’s creepy stalking – to Francesca’s Woodman’s Self-portrait talking to Vince, Providence, Rhode Island (1977), which shows the artist half cowering, her mouth jammed open with an object, a brace gone mad or decorative, plastic words – the kind you might find on a cake.
Some smaller works are allowed to venture from the wall, albeit in an orderly fashion. Two presentation cases contain the work of Georgian artist, Elene Chantladze – eight paintings on unevenly cut paper, cardboard or stone, some titled in biro. The melancholy rising from her dreamlike, blurred faces and wide, fearful eyes, is heightened by the airless cases. On the wall beyond, Iris Häussler’s Tochter der Schwester Der Mutter (Niece) (1999) floats, a flowered blouse trapped within a block of dirty wax, itself trapped in Perspex. Less a conversation, more a shared suffocation.
Paintings on more traditional supports are allowed to chatter freely. In Genieve Figgis’s macabre, hilarious Upstairs Downstairs (2021), a group of figures with fried-egg eyes grin meatily across at Cassi Namoda’s Conjoined twins in soft blue dressing (2020), who sport vaguely familiar, dark monobrows and little black boots – the kind a servant might wear. To their left, is Petra Collins’s Untitled (2016), a pair of framed photographs. The first image forces the eye to adjust to yet another set of twins – girls? sex dolls? They awkwardly spoon in a living room chair, petite feet in white ankle socks hovering above the water that laps all around them. In the gap between this and the second part of Untitled, one makes a quick zig over to Dorothy Cross’s pair of hairy, teated, Stilettos (1994), encased in plinth-based Perspex, before zagging back to Collin’s pair of disembodied feet jammed, surreally and incompletely, into shoes that sit on a graffitied desk.
In the windowless upper gallery, a row of Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits, Untitled (1976/2000), hangs catty-corner with a row of Roni Horn photographic close-ups, Untitled (Weather) (2010-11). Where Sherman is keeping her distance (as usual), Horn’s anonymous white face is pressed up against the frame. The only colour in the room comes from one of Alina Szapocznikow’s triffid-like Sculpture Lampe X (1970), a mouth on a yearning stalk, lit from within.
Sian Costello’s Wishful Self Portrait III (2020) features two blurred little girls, one in a puff of white dress, another headless. Painted on canvas paper, they are slightly torn and grubby – bed-time versions of Costello’s other little girl, Wishful Self Portrait II (2020), in the brighter main gallery.
In the tower, Louise waits; Janus in Leather Jacket (1968) dangles blackly, while Untitled (No.7) (1993) is neatly arranged on a chunky plinth that crowds the space. The latter comprises two pairs of smooth, disembodied bronze arms, a Monopoly-like house protruding from one. One pair of hands covers the other pair protectively. If seen as a reference to traditional marriage, one in which a girl merely exchanged one ‘daddy’ for another, it underlines the monstrousness of the transgression represented by the jagged black heart’s rude attempt at flight.
Rocha’s impeccable curation extends to the title – ‘girls girls girls’ is a tease, a layered legend. A deliberate avoidance of that other descriptor of the female of the species, the exhibition can also be taken as reference to adolescent transformation, the historical infantilisation of the female, or an ironic nod to her role as man’s plaything.
Back in the main gallery, Luo Yang’s skinny Jian San (2017), looks out at us, eyes narrowed as she leans on a market stall and sucks on a cigarette. Her bra is visible through the thin material of her orange top. Around her, pink, red and yellow butchered carcasses hang, headless, disemboweled or in chunks, impaled on hooks. Reflected in the gaze which challenges us from a stall festooned with body parts, lies a subversion of the fashion industry’s objectification of the female body. Despite this viscerality, the exhibition’s precisely orchestrated interactions and unyielding sophistication echo, intentionally or not, the long history of prohibitions felt deeply in the writhing, female heart.
Clare Scott is an artist and writer based in County Waterford.
Curated by Simone Rocha, ‘girls girls girls’, continues at Lismore Castle Arts until 30 October 2022. A catalogue will be published this summer to accompany the exhibition.