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Saturday 9 July 2011

Sickly Sweet: Caroline McCarthy, Arrangements: Green on Red Gallery, Dublin.

Review by James Merrigan

We could lazily describe Caroline McCarthy’s readymade arrangements as sweet, and stop there, but there is an added dose of the sickly in her current solo show at the Green On Red Gallery, Dublin, which is reminiscent of Pop Art, but more specifically with the American Painter, Wayne Thiebaud (whose pop sensibilities were formed just before the movement began in the 1950s). Thiebaud once said that “Common objects become strangely uncommon when removed from their context and ordinary ways of being seen.” In McCarthy’s drawings and collective object displays there is an accumulation of stuff that add up to a total. An early precursor to this form of representation was the bizarre fruit and vegetable heads of the Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose work some say was a design of his own mental illness. McCarthy registers peaks and troughs of banality and fantasy through her utilisation of the common or garden household item, that evokes the limp pages of a coffee table home improvement catalogue and the obsessions with home and nesting for ‘thirtysomethings’. There are also moments of nostalgia here in the playful and casual arrangements of objects.

Just inside the small entrance hallway of the Green On Red Gallery the artist’s name and title of show were located above a glass-top table with bright yellow legs. I wasn’t sure if this was one of McCarthy’s arrangements. After a steep stairs climb another nice minimalist table––marble-top this time, sits in the second hallway entrance that leads directly to the first floor gallery. These everyday objects (if we can call anything everyday in the setting of an art gallery) followed me into the gallery where a one-legged table was upturned on a plinth and a red lacquered cabinet acted as a stage for a sweet consortium of red objects framed by a looping, Scalextric-like network of plastic drinking straws (the multicoloured pinstripe type with flexible necks). On the walls a series of large drawings of what looked like aerial view arrangements of more straws, twisted and compartmentalised the blank white of the paper they are drawn on.

The drawings are paired up as Diptychs. A straw outline of a head consistently placed to the left, while the outline of its partner to the right is smashed to smithereens; hence the title of the series Head/ Broken Head. Francis Bacon comes to mind, due in part to the violent titles of the series and the Diptych format; but also McCarthy’s current obsession with furniture design which Bacon was quite good at before he became a painter.

Although the straws are flexible there is not much give in them; they will always be straws no matter what forces you apply to them. So, McCarthy’s practice is not transformative, but a simple act of placing the readymade in space. It is almost like she is juggling a few objects in her hands and allowing chance to control their fall and resting place. Like the clown making balloon animals, they are always more balloon than animal; but that is why they are so infectious.

This idea of festivity and celebration continues in the peculiar hodgepodge tower of primarily red objects entitled Group Coordination (red). I found myself scanning through the objects to find some signifier to create a thread that was not straw bound. McCarthy forces me in this instance to list out the objects: a red cabinet, a plastic pan and shovel, hazard tape, a can of Dunnes Stores chopped tomatoes, a Coca Cola paper cup, a plastic container of Copydex adhesive, a red key ring. a red wire frame bin, red neck ties, red earrings, red clothes pegs, a role of red iridescent wrapping paper, an Arsenal peek cap, a copy of the book of protest songs 33 Revolutions per minute, and the network of straws that joins the objects but not any conceptual dots. This was all topped off by the smell of cherries emanating from a Little Tree car air freshener. What I most enjoyed about this work was the casual fight between the formalism of the red and the offering of some conceptual thread through the book of protest songs; did the artist choose these objects because she wanted to show the viewer something or tell them something. For me, it did both, but by chance and individual take rather than illustrative force feeding by the artist. Dorian Lynskey, the author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute said "I finished it wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy," which was in reference to the “waning faith in hands-on protest” in contemporary youth culture.

On the wall just beyond the pile of red objects there was a relatively small two colour screen print. The print was made up of vertical, two-tone jade green stripes that had pointy eared tops. It looked like a paper sweet bag. The hard thinness of the paper of such bags was imagined through the cleverly simple composition and delicate execution. In this corner of the gallery there was something that squealed of birthday party horns and too much candy floss, more sweet protest than social protest.

On closer inspection it because clear that the previously mentioned leg of the one-legged table, upturned on a plinth was cast in bronze. The top of the leg was polished to a gold brown, and I could not get the image of a shapely glass bottle of Coca Cola in the form, as the colour of the bronze deepened to a cola brown toward the bottom. This was due to the general sugary aftertaste of McCarthy’s straws and high colour objects throughout the gallery.

Inconspicuous cast bronze wall brackets and screws also held a series of different shades and textures of B&Q shelves to the wall. It was all innocuous; you had to be on your game to notice beyond the banality. This display had a subheading of no.1 of 720 variations, which suggested that you could take your pick as to how you would like the shelves arranged as a dedicated and fashionable consumer. In McCarthy’s work you always have to take a second rewarding look.

Caroline McCarthy, Arrangements at Green On Red Gallery Dublin, runs untill 6 August.

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Installation image from Arrangements, Green On Red Gallery

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