Irish Art in America: ‘Amid a Space Between’ at SFMOMA Artists Gallery

Detail from Katie Holten's vitrine installation "A Collection (from some places I've been on my way here)" (photo by Amanda Boe)

The SFMOMA Artists Gallery permits its exhibitions to puzzle and play with viewers in a way that its more pedagogic big sibling would not abide. The current occupant of the Fort Mason space, Amid a Space Between: Irish Artists in America, departs from museum code in a couple of ways: it intermixes the works of its six featured Irish ex-pats rather than presenting them sequentially, and it forgoes wall text and title cards altogether, so the viewer must piece together for herself what art belongs to whom.

In effect, the exhibition unfolds fugue-like, the sculptures, paintings and installations playing off of one another to the tune of an unraveling mystery: what is really Irish about this art? Being sponsored by Culture Ireland, one must assume that Irish identity, or, more specifically, the identity of Irish art in America, is a central thematic tenet of the show. However, wandering amid Helen O’Leary’s Arte Povera sculptures, Katie Holten’s museological installations, Nuala Clark and Helen O’Toole’s abstract paintings, and Alen MacWeeney and Richard Mosse’s photographs of middle America and the Congo, respectively, the underlying netting of Irish self-examination is far from immediately obvious.

An introductory wall text would sweep away the question preemptively, as would a peek at Al Cosio and Monique Delaunay’s curatorial statement. Allowing the exhibition to present itself on its own terms first may be the most satisfying course, though. If you think you are of such a mindset, then read no further.

Ireland has had a unique historical experience, Delaunay points out. After having its sense of identity and culture thoroughly suffocated by centuries of outside invasion and colonization, the isle then saw an offshoot of itself emerge in America, which claims ten times as many Irish-blooded as Ireland itself, while its own cultural/political divisions grew only more pronounced and violent. Now, the exhibition suggests, the search for Irish identity in visual art takes on a singularly international perspective, operating from “a space between.”

The international angle is readily apparent in the show’s photographic works. MacWeeney’s strikingly balanced compositions depict America’s rural interior, equal parts pastoral and impoverished, with the detached intrigue of a wanderer. Meanwhile, Richard Mosse frames squadrons of troops in the Congo with his infrared-capturing lens, producing photos saturated in a throbbing pink that enunciates the scene’s underlying violence – something akin, perhaps, to the historical conflict in the artist’s homeland.

The exhibition’s painters engage more abstractly with the experience of place. Clarke’s dramatic, swinging brush strokes woozily describe vistas of the Atlantic Ocean from both American and Irish shores. “At its barest,” she says, “the work in this show is a record of elapsed time within specific environments.” O’Toole’s molten, billowing worlds of color are more purely abstract. Though the works may derive from “memories of growing up in an unforgiving limestone landscape,” O’Toole applies paint with the intent of eliminating imagery of any kind, and with it, lingering nostalgia.

The show’s sculptural works are perhaps its most interesting. Unlike the other artists, who endeavor to circumscribe Irish identity by tracing boundaries (the limits of memory, the Atlantic ocean, the hearts of two kindred ex-colonies), O’Leary engages with the interior contours of Irishness. Her crude ceramic vessels and sculpture of scrap metal and canvas strips exude a distinctly Irish toughness and sense of gallows humor. With reference to the works, the artist cites “Beckett’s pared-down language, and the currency of need found in most houses when I was growing up.”

Finally, Holten’s work links arms with the exhibition itself, cleverly evoking and then disturbing museological codes. A glass-encased table offers an array of potentially meaningful artifacts – book pages, twigs, sea shells – that are in fact arranged to confuse, obscure and transform one another’s anticipated information. A knobby twig partially obscures the text of one page; a disconnected title page sits atop what appears to be a small jar of ashes, which the viewer must kneel to discover. On the wall, Holten offers a number of cartographic renderings. A kinked, sinuous ink line apparently representing the Kansas River spans an entire gallery wall. More crudely drawn lakes, still in pencil, flank it.

Between the confounding display case and the unfinished maps, Holten’s installation serves up the kinds of tools we use to get to know a place, culturally and geographically, before we are perfectly settled – when we are still amid a space between.

Amid A Space Between: Irish Artists in America runs at SFMOMA Artists Gallery, at Fort Mason, through April 19

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