Exhibition Profile | Flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict


Isabel Nolan, ‘flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict’, installation view, VOID Gallery; photograph by Simon Mills, courtesy of the artist and VOID Gallery. Isabel Nolan, ‘flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict’, installation view, VOID Gallery; photograph by Simon Mills, courtesy of the artist and VOID Gallery.

Paintings intrinsically command attention because they are ‘alpha-art’ – the most art that art can be – right there at eye level, usurping the authority of the wall. You can’t mistake a painting for anything other than art; the hand of the artist is always discernible if you look closer than you’re meant to. You could, however, mistake Isabel Nolan’s tiny sculptures at VOID Gallery for rusted artefacts, dredged from the bottom of the River Foyle. Or you might even, like one of my fellow audience members at Nolan’s recent Q&A with Declan Long, consider a table of drawings under a sheet of glass something to set your wine glass on.

The glass-covered tables display Nolan’s prolific, seemingly chaotic drawings, that cumulatively read as a staccato of figures, graphic design, mathematics, and written musings. Nolan’s drawings are densely packed allegories of idiosyncratic pattern and motif: spirographic waves unfurl from angry suns; stars emerge from dark patchworks of lead; and notes are written with discernible urgency around the margins. On the floor in the centre of one gallery is a glass case, about two metres square and a few inches tall, within which a grid of palm-sized clay objects are arranged over an undulating pale-blue silk cloth. These drawings and sculptures are symbolically contained by the rhythmic waveforms of Nolan’s paintings around the circumference of the galleries. 

Oh Icarus (2022) is mounted high above eye level, by the top of the passage between spaces, as though deposited by a now-receded flood. About to take shape (2022) depicts hand-like tendrils clamouring in all directions above a layer of dripping waves, while a partially occluded orbicular form looks on from above. I can’t help but anthropomorphise this scene as a daily horror from the Mediterranean Sea or English Channel, and wonder whether the cold disc in the sky looks on with compassion, or with indifference?

The formality of paintings – the hauteur of their ‘wall-ness’ – is a cypher for locating ‘flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict’ within Nolan’s distinctive oeuvre. Desert Mother (Saint Paula) and Lion (2022) depicts the early ‘desert mother’ Saint Paula in a darkened cave at the bottom left corner of a rocky landscape. Outside sits a lion representing Saint Jerome, who is credited with first translating the Bible into Latin. However, here, it is Paula who labours over the good book in the darkness of the cave, not Jerome. Contemporary historians now credit both with the translation, but for most of Christian history, Paula’s contribution has, unsurprisingly, been obscured by misogyny. The flattened composition of this painting, with small, simple figures on alienating landscapes suggests at once Hieronymus Bosch, and medieval Christian icons of lonely struggles between saints and sinners.

Nolan isn’t excavating truth from the dirt of art history, nor depicting the truth in any discursive way, but bringing into focus the dirt piled on top of it. Nolan has remarked that she considers dust a beautiful material, a substance seen inhabiting complex worlds of its own, when viewed under extreme magnification. Considering this, we could view the self-evident beauty of Nolan’s paintings as panes of dust, of distilled dirt, through which we glimpse the characters beneath. Nolan isn’t painting beautifully, or decorating her subjects in beauty, but rather is painting beauty itself: objectifying it, examining it, taking it apart. This insight was foreshadowed in Nolan’s 2017 exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, ‘Calling on Gravity’, in which one painting jarringly depicts Tony Soprano in the pose of a renaissance Pope, affecting a vacillation between subject and the lens of its depiction. By uncoupling the conjoined formalities of painting, we can begin to separate subjects from the authority bestowed upon them by representational art. Or conversely, as in the case of Saint Paula, we can discern the layers of beautiful aggregate that have robbed others of posterity. 

Kevin Burns is an artist and writer based in Derry.

Isabel Nolan’s exhibition continues at VOID until 18 February.