Brendan Maher: You often take a ‘God’s-eye view’ of your subject, utilising satellite or drone imagery of the protests you paint. Do your images look at these marches as human movement through space, in the physical sense, or do you wish to comment on the issues inherent to the protest?
Joy Gerrard: For about 25 years, I’ve made work that’s about architecture and how people use architecture in different ways, so I do have interest in that, but I am more interested in the protest itself. The majority of the work deals with marches related to women’s rights and women’s safety. Some work in ‘Precarious Freedom’ for example, deals with a vigil for Sarah Everard; another with a march for abortion rights in Poland. But it crosses over between concept and aesthetics. There are a whole set of decisions made in relation to making the image work – like where the buildings are and how the crowd is contained.
I use images that we receive through news media and social media feeds and these images often tend to wash over us. The whole point of a protest is to draw attention to an issue: a violence, a death, a wrong. People are trying to change something. Most of us won’t be at the protest, so what do we think when we look at these events which are quite distant to us? I’m remaking images of events in order to question the viewer’s subjective response to the core issue. The work is not a generalised response to protest; I have to be driven by the subject of the protest to make a piece about it.
BM: Your work is almost exclusively rendered in black and white. Why this choice?
JG: There’s a few layers to this. I trained as a painter originally through the Crawford College of Art & Design and then as a printmaker in NCAD and the Royal College of Art and I also worked in the Graphic Studio. So processes learned over this ten-year period are involved, and of course graphic techniques often end up in monochrome.
Black and white is a way of translating the image. When we see these images in their original form, they are usually small and colourful. I wanted the translation to be a bigger separation from the original image. We also think of black and white in a nostalgic or an historic sense. So the paintings give a sense of historicising the event depicted. There’s really a double translation; a change to black and white and a re-scaling of the image. I respond to black and white and sometimes find colour materially difficult to work with. I found these particular Japanese inks which can be diluted and offer a wonderful range of greys through to black. So it’s a material choice as well.
BM: Dark Europe, a piece presented in ‘Precarious Freedom’, depicts 28 black and white national flags, hanging in four sets on the gallery wall. Tell me about the concept and working method behind this work.
JG: I was on a residency in the Cultural Centre Irlandais in Paris in 2020 when the final withdrawal of the UK from the EU was happening. On 30 January there was a very public ceremony in which the officials in Brussels removed the UK flag. We have many different images of Brexit, photographs, cartoons and of course the actuality of it, but this was very visual. They took the flag away, folded it, and left a space. It was a formal occasion, but it was also very tender as well.
I was really struck by this. I was thinking I might make a film or performative piece. I came back from Paris in March 2020 and then the first lockdown happened, and that idea sat there, for ages, germinating. In the end I started making physical tests; I got some flags printed. They were fine, but I was unsure, and I started playing around with painting on silk. Always in my work, there is the concept and there is a long studio process, a physically working up of the thing. I agonised over it, and I was getting close to the exhibition deadline, so I ended up reproducing the flags by hand painting on silk, a technique I taught myself.
Flags are very specific and structured. Hand-painting on silk means you are destined to fail as you are never going to get them as perfect due to the aqueous material. Silk has little gaps in the structure and the ink breaks through, as if you’re breaking through the internal borders of the flag. You’re making a huge effort on something that would normally be printed at the press of a button. The final installation has the 27 EU flags with the EU stars in a singular, modular grouping. The UK flag is set on a regimental flagpole that they use in Belfast on 12 July, suggesting both its imperial past and of course, its belief in its own singularity as a nation.
BM: ‘Precarious Freedom’ travels to the Butler Gallery in January. You are also showing ‘Testing/testing’ at The Source Arts Centre through December/January. What are the differences between the shows?
JG: ‘Precarious Freedom’ will have its third iteration in the Butler Gallery, so like in Drogheda and Galway, the exhibition will be adapted for the gallery space in Kilkenny, with some pieces perhaps taken out and others added. ‘Testing/testing’ will be more research-based with plans and investigative drawings, the testing out of new larger pieces and a new site-specific work. Having the opportunity to do shows in these four spaces allows me the opportunity to display a wide body of work. I am often overambitious in my idea formation for a solo exhibition; but with these shows I think I will finally get to achieve all I planned.
Joy Gerrard’s show ‘Precarious Freedom: Crowds, Flags, Barriers’, curated by Aoife Ruane at the
Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda, travelled to the
Galway International Arts Festival in September, and will be on view at The Butler Gallery in Kilkenny in
January 2022. Gerrard’s ‘Testing/testing’ will be exhibited at The Source Arts Centre, Thurles, from November to January.
Brendan Maher is Artistic Director of the Source Arts Centre in Thurles, County Tipperary.