'Kin' has one definite point of departure and a multiplicity of possible routes and destinations. That point of departure is the common but varied experience of the Irish American diaspora shared by all four artists in the exhibition. This is a topic addressed directly in certain works by Cheryl Donegan and Sean Landers, and alluded to only obliquely in the work of Ellen Gallagher and John Currin. It is by no means the most obvious point of contact between these artists. Other things unite them, They belong to the generation born in the early to mid-60's. They live and work in New York. They have all received considerable international acclaim over the past decade. That they have never before shown together may be partly due to the fact that certain other things divide them, most notably their distinct and varying sensibilities.
'Kin' is an attempt to encompass these and other similarities and differences. In doing so it hopes to say something about the gestures we make and the stories we spin in order to bind people to us or keep them at bay. Much of the work included mediates between conflicting vectors of dispersal and community, disparity and relatedness, distance and intimacy. This is true of John Currin's intrepid exploration of desire, estrangement and excess. It is equally true of Cheryl Donegan's witty ruminations on representation, sexuality and identity. Such contradictions inform Ellen Gallagher's elaboration of a complex, racially hybrid cosmology. They also provide the matrix for Sean Landers' charting and chronicling of a world in which he regularly appears to be, in Seamus Heaney's phrase, 'lost, unhappy and at home'. A common current running through all of these artists' work is a persistent desire to bridge the gulf between longing and belonging.
Distortion is an inescapable consequence both of distance and desire. This is a fact repeatedly illustrated by John Currin's portraits of a motley troupe of truculent or wistful adolescents, preening socialites, improbably pneumatic sirens and emasculated dandies. These paintings are virtuoso essays in the oddness of otherness. His early portraits of teenage girls suggest images gleaned from the pages of an ethnically diverse high-school yearbook. Some of them feature named Irish Americans, and others unnamed African Americans. Yet the series as a whole speaks of a fundamental unknowability that transcends ethnicity. Signifiers of class and culture crop up in other works, but seem similarly incapable of making any real difference, or indeed of unmaking 'difference'. Numerous paintings depicting disturbingly alluring and unreally endowed women call attention to the perversity of hard-core heterosexual romance. Currin has stated that 'the subject of a painting is always the author, the artist'. If so, then his paintings add up to a composite portrait of the artist as a man who knows too much and too little, a man who realises that the harder you stare the less you see. Currin's gaze is at once invasive and detached, while the objects of that gaze are both in your face and inscrutable. Moulded and manipulated, these hapless ciphers behave like random objects in paintings whose real subject is the use and abuse of authority, the uncanny power of caricature and cliché.
The way in which Cheryl Donegan addresses authority and engages with stereotypes is quite different. In her video, 'Head' (1993), the androgynously attractive artist addresses a punctured container of milk in the manner of a porn-star enthusiastically providing oral gratification. 'Head' retains an undeniable erotic charge while lampooning the pornographic portrayal of sexual insatiability. Clad in green underwear and welder's boots for the performance of 'Kiss My Royal Irish Ass' (1992), Donegan dips her bottom in green paint and prints it twice on a sheet of paper, producing a beautiful four-cheeked clover or abstracted shamrock. This process is repeated several times to the beatbox accompaniment of a medley of Irish tunes. The target of these humorous broadsides, produced at the height of the American multicultural debate, is not just the constrictions of sexual or ethnic stereotypes, but the historical hijacking of the female body as stimulus and site for masculinist notions of artistic expression. Donegan's more recent work in video and painting extends her investigation of the ways we present ourselves and our stories to the world. While 'Kiss My Royal Irish Ass' has been performed in numerous venues on both sides of the Atlantic, it is peculiarly fitting that its Irish premiere should also be its swansong.
Ellen Gallagher's paintings and drawings probe the spaces between abstraction and figuration, image and self, signifier and signified. Her personal lexicon of free-floating motifs is made up of theatricalised and debased signifiers of race. Many of these, such as the exaggerated eyes and lips and the stylised bowtie, derive from the tradition of black and white minstrelsy, a once popular art at which a number of Irish Americans excelled. Yet the protean nature of these motifs, as they repeat and mutate across different paintings, frees them from the bounds of their origins. The stripes of a minstrel's blazer may become the lines of a convent-school copybook only to end up as a mutantSt. Brigid's Cross. Gallagher has decried the blinkered critical view that tries to pigeonhole her as an African American artist, noting that 'there is a tendency to erase my Irish family so that it doesn't contaminate people's narrow definitions of blackness'. Her mutating motifs reflect the myriad acts of negotiation and exchange which take place between communities and cultures (including 'high' and 'low' culture) which are intertwined and adrift. Any difficulty we might have in following Gallagher's train of pictorial thought is at heart a problem of translation, in both the linguistic and physical senses of the word. That is to say the carrying over of a core of humanity or meaning from one place to another, with all the losses and gains that inevitably entails. Gallagher's paintings tell of the pleasures as well as the pains of what James Joyce termed 'diasportation' and 'dislocution'.
The various cross-generational migrations from Old World to New that ultimately resulted in the birth of Sean Landers are fondly charted in 'Maine, Massachusetts, Ireland, England and Greece' (1992). A related video-work featuring his father puts some meat (not to mention potatoes) on the bare bones of Landers' Irish ancestry. This aspect of his heritage also inspired a 1993 series of terracotta sculptures, glazed in green, which includes a manic 'Danny Boy of Dingle' and a lugubrious 'St. John the Baptist', who teeters on a miniscule map of Ireland. These works make up a small but significant portion of Lander's prodigiously various output in a wide range of media. His Irishness is part (but only part) of what he is; just as whimsy, sentiment and blarney are genuine aspects of real people's lives. In Landers' tirelessly confessional art he is haunted by the same doubts and desires, and subject to the same trials and tribulations as the rest of us, only more so. A relentless attention to particulars is the basis for his bid for universal relevance, not to say renown, as if extreme self-absorption was the one true path toward the apotheosis of Everyman.
'Kin' invites, in an unorthodox, even mischievous fashion a reappraisal of '90s identity politics. It seeks to complicate (rather than simply counter) the politics of identity with a poetics of disparity. Its location in Dublin is far from accidental. The patronising dismissal at home of whimsical notions of Irishness which retain some currency abroad is invariably based on the myth of a pure national culture debased by the diaspora. As Fintan O'Toole noted recently in 'The Irish Times' this conveniently ignores the fact that Irish culture as we know it from its traditional music and dance to its contemporary theatre and cinema, is 'inconceivable without America.' In the past few years other, more far-flung forces have also come into play. Until very recently Ireland was a fairly monochrome and monocultural place. Accelerated globalization, escalating immigration and unprecedented national prosperity have changed this almost overnight. We must face up to the inevitability of cultural clash as well as cross-pollination if this transformation of Irish society is to be greeted with anything other than a distasteful mixture of avarice and atavism. In a modest way 'Kin' bears witness to the dawning of the age of Joyce's 'Europasianised Afferyank'.
Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith, June 2000.
With thanks to Sadie Cole HQ, contemporary Fine Arts, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Galerie Jennifer Flay and Andrea Rosen Gallery