Review of Haptic by Eilis o’ Connell at the RHA Jan 13 th. – Feb. 27th. 2011
AIDAN DUNNE The Irish Times - Friday, January 21, 2011
In her first exhibition in a public venue in Ireland 10 years, accomplished sculptor Eilis O'Connell offers an elegant and poised insight into the concept of touch.
Following on from Janet Mullarney's things made, Eilis O'Connell's Haptic is another terrific sculpture show at the RHA Gallery. It's particularly noticeable that in the last year or so artists have really managed to get to grips with the dauntingly large scale of the RHA's main gallery space. Of course one could just fill it up with stuff. The trick is to address the work to the space in a mutually beneficial way, and Mullarney, and now O'Connell, have done that incredibly well.
Born in Derry in 1953, O'Connell is one of our leading sculptors. She attended the Crawford School of Art in Cork, also studying in the US, at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. She won several awards and fellowships and it was a two-year residency at Delfina Studios that brought her to London, where she settled, eventually moving back to Ireland in 2001. She's based in rural Co Cork where, for the past five years, she's worked in a large studio that was originally a creamery.
There are two distinct if related sides to her work, one public, and one personal. Throughout her career she has completed a large number of public commissions, mostly in the UK but also here in Ireland. From O'Connell's point of view, it's obviously gratifying to win public commissions, but they consume enormous amounts of time and energy and, contrary to what you might think, they don't make you rich.
Furthermore, as anyone at all familiar with her work will realise, O'Connell is a perfectionist. She is exceptionally and indeed helplessly committed to the finest nuances of finish. Match her rather extreme level of perfectionism to a string of large-scale projects and you begin to wonder how she's managed to accomplish so much.
Obviously the public pieces are personal to some extent, but she has much more freedom in work that's purely personal and it's there, one feels, that the ideas really take shape. The series of very small bronzes in Haptic , titled Unlikely Monuments , rehearse a number of individual motifs. "When I work on this scale," O'Connell says, "I am always thinking big." In that remark one can see the appeal that making big public pieces holds for her.
Haptic refers to touch, "in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects." From the beginning O'Connell's sculpture has been acutely attentive to form and texture in nature, and in the objects and structures that people have made with natural materials. This still holds true, as one extraordinary section of the exhibition demonstrates. It's a group of individual objects or fragments encased in blocks of clear resin under the collective title Found/Given.
Her rapt absorption in the wonder of these things comes across in works remarkably free of any egotistical input on the part of the artist. It's as if she simply stands back and bids us to look at the beautiful intricacy of birds' nests, a sheep's skull, a vulture feather and pieces of red coral.
Needless to say there is real skill involved in formulating and delivering these works, but what makes them great is her willingness not to do too much. Did you ever get that terrible sinking feeling on coming face to face with a wretched piece of work made with exquisite materials? To her great credit here, O'Connell doffs her proverbial hat and says that there's no way of improving on perfection.
In a sense she does the same thing with a much larger work, one that clearly entailed a lot of careful fabrication. Reverse Gunnera is cast from a giant gunnera leaf in plaster and fibreglass composite. It's a magnificent object, imposing from a distance and sumptuous close up, with a microscopic level of detail.
Antennae uses stalks of New Zealand flax. Wrapped in glass cloth and soaked in resin, they become fixed, fragile-looking tendrils reaching far up into the gallery space. They spring from slit, curved containers, versions of enclosing, generative female forms that frequently recur in O'Connell's work. The sense of a contained, nutritive space is at the heart of many of her sculptures. "Surrounded by fields and the activity of agriculture," she says, "the urgency of growth fuels my imagination." Growth and vitality are fully evident in her still life-like arrangements of containers, including Five Vessels. They refer equally to eggs, seedpods and the vessels humans have fashioned to hold water, wine and food from the earliest antiquity.
Elegant and poised, their energy is directed upwards. Another group of objects, On Being, is unusually anthropomorphic in feeling. Essentially a set of stems, each has a distinct character with a different spatial emphasis. There is a delicacy to them and, again, a reaching or straining upwards. They recall, though they don't actually resemble, a set of Giacometti's spindly, attenuated figures.
Apart from an outstanding show at Charles Fort, together with a small gallery show as part of Kinsale Arts Week a few years ago, Haptic is O'Connell's first exhibition in Ireland in a public venue in 20 years. It is a big show, occupying a large chunk of the RHA, and it includes several bodies of work, each formidable and warranting careful consideration in its own right. Remarkably, we're not seeing a survey looking back over 20 years: everything has been made since 2007. Hats off to Ms O'Connell.