Splendid. My colleague laughed at my choice of word to describe the view when you enter the grounds of Kilkenny Castle — acres of rolling hills and giant oak trees — amid the hustle bustle of the city. The Butler Gallery is located in the basement of this medieval castle and although the journey through tiled corridors and narrow stairwells smelling of polish evoke unwelcome memories of a convent schooling, the gallery itself feels modern and fresh.
Spitting Image by Eva O’Leary, Butler Gallery, Kilkenny
The exhibition spans four rooms with the first three containing identically sized and mounted [71.5 x 57.5 cm] portraits that we’re told are Archival Pigment prints. The fourth room is the reveal: how it was done. I’d like to be able to describe the materials or the finish and use words like exposure and aperture but I’m quite the ignoramus when it comes to photography, along with many art forms, so you’ll have to settle with a basic description and my even more basic response. Here goes.
In these three rooms, we meet 14 adolescent girls* at their most vulnerable—on camera. On a very superficial level — because I’m very superficial — I’ve written words and phrases that came to mind as I gazed at each teenager, named in the catalogue.
Like me, I’m disgusting;
I hate myself;
Fuck you, look me in the eye;
I’m sophisticated with my pink lipstick;
Bowl cut boy;
Dolled up dumbed down.
*“Eva worked with over 120 female-identifying adolescents between the ages of eleven to fourteen who share her experience of coming of age in this town.” Source: Press Release. I’m not even going to touch on this because I find it annoying. If you’re really right-on about gender issues then this shouldn’t have been written. Face value, we don’t need explainers.
Then we get to room 4 and see a photograph showing us how the girls have been photographed through a two-way mirror. We’re provided with some bonus video footage [on mute] where we see the subject rehearse [or not] their pose before giving assent to this ‘self- directed portrait’.
The programme tells us that “these images reveal the girls’ inherent discomfort at being faced with their own image in front of the lens, and the self-conscious way they, and others, present themselves for camera.”
The video footage in Room 4 allows us to pick out the confident girls, the dolly birds, the tomboys, and the self-loathers that lack the confidence to give it their best shot. If anything, it heartened me to see such diversity alive and well in Middle America, as it is in Ireland, despite this generation constantly being portrayed as vain and vacuous.
Among students in a country where yearbook photos and Holiday family portraits are the norm, what new ground is O’Leary trying to break? While we can appreciate the generation selfie/vanity innuendo, we know standard portraits of teenagers from the photographer’s hometown wouldn’t travel so we have to ask ourselves:
Is the art process that makes the art or the presence of the artist [as judge] provide the artistic tension? Put simply, is it a gimmick? Is it just another hook to capture the art world’s attention? After twenty years in spin, the parallel universe that affords me a good quality of life in return for minimal effort, I cannot but suspect that O’Leary is conjuring publicity like Vincent Castiglia’s blood paintings or Tracey Emin’s Tent. Then who the hell am I to reduce artists’ work and processes with my own cynicism and world view? O’Leary’s role within the “selfie”, without doubt, influences the subject as would providing violent or graphic stimuli but what we see are fourteen beautiful portraits that inspire optimism for the future.
[Cover photo: screenshot of Butler Gallery flyer]
Theatre was my first love. It all started with the One-Act and 3-Act AmDram festivals in our local theatre to get out of the house to smoke cigarettes on school nights. It wasn’t long before I had graduated onto the Class As in the Abbey, Peacock, Project, Tivoli and even more fringe events and locations. It’s physical. Being present with the cast, the crew, the soundscape of mutters, coughs, and gasps from the audience; the dust, the set, the murmur murmur hum before curtain. Pure energy. I can forgive anything — set, direction, costumes, props, performance — except bad writing.
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