Isabel Nolan, Calling on Gravity
Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin
28 July – 30 September 2017
Isabel Nolan began a recent lecture with the title, “Just because the universe is probably real it doesn’t mean it is not weird or puzzling to be here.” (1) The second part was announced as, “I am powerfully confused.” These utterances indicate the expansive, yet profoundly impractical, ambition of her enquiry and her work. Setting the scene for this solo exhibition, Nolan described her problematic attraction to certain seductive and powerful cultural forms. From eighteenth century museums to sculpted Greco-Roman warriors and Gothic Cathedrals, Nolan attends to their grandeur and authority in a way that is at once fascinated, resentful and inappropriate. The resulting works are both intimate with and alienated from the spaces and objects that inspire them.
Comprising suspended and floor-based sculptures, portrait paintings, drawings, photographs and a rug, these new works unsettle simple certainties such as up and down, high and low. Nolan inhabits and collapses those hierarchies that order experience and expectation. Fallen chandelier-like forms, which cast fabric instead of light; carved pieces of ‘dust’, drawings and photographs of sculpted and living feet, beautiful floors and dirty pavements, are inhabited by an unlikely cast of figures: Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), disgraced theologian and cosmological theorist; philosopher and activist Simone Weil (1909-1943), artist Paul Thek (1933-1988) and the malevolent figure of fictional mobster Tony Soprano (1959-2007). Only the latter believes that the world is as it seems to be, “You are born to this shit, you are what you are’. The others, in their singular ways, negotiated with existence. Their diverse ideas sought to reframe reality and upset aspects of the status quo, as arguably, they attempted to find a way for humans to love the universe.
Circles feature throughout the show, from the centrally placed, suspended steel sculpture, Tomb (for an angel’s wing), to the ersatz ‘chandeliers’, or many of the hand-sized, sculpted shapes of What kind of dust is it?, to the pinched finger and thumb of the wholly absorbed thorn-puller, the Spinario. These works invite us to look down into them. Feet also recur throughout, also drawing our gaze low. The delicate toes of the aforementioned thorn–puller to the great rounded toes of King Francis the 1st as depicted on his tomb to the feet of museum visitors. As Nolan writes, “Feet insist that we are of the earth; they can only very briefly escape the surface of the world. In works of art toes generally point up, soles are exposed, only when someone is dying, dead or fast asleep.”
The metaphoric intertwining of death and feet with lowness; the desire to overcome both mortality and animality with grandeur; and an enduring preoccupation with defying gravity connects these disparate works. Nolan is continually drawn to moments of coherence that contain intimations of their collapse or demise. Her work unhinges the pain, intangibility, irreverence, and joy, of human existence. Calling on Gravity continues her material exploration of metaphor, and how we bring the world into meaning.