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Event: Have you lost your way?

Saturday, 18 April 2009

James Barry Exhibition Centre, CIT Bishopstown Campus > 31 March – 17 April

An exciting exhibition by artist Elayne O’Connor, winner of the CIT Registrar’s Prize, reviewed by Mark Ewart, Department of Art & Design Education, CIT Crawford College of Art & Design.


It is fair to assume that every emerging artist dreams of gaining celebrity and recognition in order to support a fruitful and secure career. Such recognition in the unpredictable and fickle art world is of course not an easy thing and many rely instead on the entirely reasonable viewpoint that awards or good press are not alone the apogee of creative endeavour. Instead, it is through honest and considered artistic expression and consistency of vision that artists’ should hope to make their name. The positive thing for young artist Elayne O’Connor is that she has already demonstrated significant achievement in both.

     

Having graduated from the Crawford College of Art and Design only last year with an Honours Degree in Fine Art Painting, she can already boast seven awards and number of solo and group exhibitions. The most recent of these comes in the shape of the Registrar’s Prize Winner 2008 Exhibition, which was held in CIT’s James Barry Exhibition Centre. Add to this the prestigious accolade of the Cork Arts Society Student of the Year Award and the subsequent sell out exhibition at the Lavit Gallery - then we can surely look forward to further success for this Kerry born artist.

Underlying this achievement, there is much to discuss and admire within O’Connor’s work itself. First and foremost she is a landscape painter - one inspired by 18th/19th century Romantics like Constable and Wordsworth. This is keenly felt in the poetic nature of her titles such as ‘Our Sweetest Songs are those that tell of Saddest Thoughts’ or ‘So Eden Sank to Grief’. The pathos of these words is entirely in keeping with the sense of absence or loss conveyed by the paintings – each like an empty, silent stage waiting for an encore to some unseen drama.

The dramatic analogy seems apt, as O’Connor’s other inspiration is her love of sport with its mixture of elation in times of victory and crushing dejection in times of defeat. This latter emotion is magnified through her choice of locations for the paintings, which centre around near empty playing fields on the outskirts of a village or small town with anonymous outhouses, chemical factories all competing for space. The dark foreboding skies that hang overhead imply that all is not well. Are these communities fractured in some way, hiding deeper unspoken fears and frustrations that sport might either bring to the surface or suppress entirely? Perhaps the rural communities are crumbling or fading as the younger generation drift to the cities or worse still is forced to emigrate.

At first these paintings seem like snapshots without any fanfare or ceremony. But the deeper romantic idealism is perceptible, and you sense that the artist is deeply moved by the mystery and grandeur of nature. Therein, a celebration of the sublime and perhaps a nod to a higher power that looks down on us mere mortals from the gathering clouds. Are we then as Shakespeare would have us believe, pawns in the game of life, acting under duress from the gods? The religious tone does perhaps find currency in the style of the paintings as the strong use of dark and white tones within the billowing clouds, reminds somewhat of the Renaissance painter El Greco. Even if you are not familiar with his work, you will have undoubtedly seen his influence on pocket prayer leaflets and remembrance cards. Maybe these paintings are after all reaching out to lost souls and asking, “Have you lost your way?”

The interesting thing here is that O’Connor’s paintings seem to allow room for such interpretation and flexible manoeuvring of the imagination. If we indulge this further, I could hypothetically speaking, see the context of these paintings shifting if they were executed in the documentary-style of Gary Coyle’s ‘Death in Dún Laoghaire’ series of photographs. Then the work would take on an altogether different characteristic, as O’Connor’s lonely and isolated subjects turn into scenes where some terrible crime had just taken place. And titles like ‘isn’t it what you wanted’ would become the cry of the accused, rather than the angry but largely innocuous catchphrase of the Bainisteoir.
 
Notwithstanding the potential for leftfield interpretations, there remains a consistency of vision within the paintings that neatly ties the artwork together. The main contrasts that unsettle this consistency are the dramatic variation of scale, which switches between intricately painted miniatures, to the broad strokes possible in the large paintings. Therein there is versatility, as O’Connor’s use of paint is forced at times to adhere to skilfully rendered and architecturally precise details when describing buildings, fields and foliage, to the heightened contrasts captured in the broad marks and textures that convey the movement and energy of the sky. Clearly the sky is a priority here, as it fills many of O’Connor’s compositions, allowing us to see how paint is layered, etched and scrubbed away to expose oil pastels or the wood grain of the board underneath. Technically speaking the contrast of style in the same painting should not work, but the artist manages to hold everything together by the muted colour palette she favours.  And despite the brooding overtones of the work there are other emotions dependent on your disposition. The paintings might offer calm or inspire you to get out on the sports field. And maybe after all, it is as simple and straightforward as that!


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