They don't call it the Emerald Isle for nothing. The hills, dotted with castles and medieval churches, are lush and verdant, while the fields are grassy and pale. The pastoral, occasionally volatile land of "blarney" birthed Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and George Bernard Shaw, a trio of wordsmiths able to turn the colorful aphorisms of a famously loquacious people into ageless prose. Playwright Samuel Beckett found a kind of tragic beauty in the boggy isolation of the Irish countryside. His countryman and fellow playwright John Millington Synge found the same in the intricate patterns of a fisherman's sweater. Now 40 contemporary Irish artists consider their heritage and the poetry of handiwork in "Forty Shades of Green," an exhibit assembled by the Craft Council of Ireland and on display at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
"I suppose I can't speak for anybody else in terms of how they see Irishness in their work," says featured painter Helena Gorey, who was enlisted to help install the artworks in Memphis. "But there are elements of green in everything." Gorey readily admits that the predominant chromatics, though inseparable from Ireland, are not necessarily indicative of Irishness.
"[Using green to define] Ireland is a bit of a generalization," she says. "And there's the Johnny Cash song, 'Forty Shades of Green' too, you know: 'Where the breeze is sweet as Shalimar, and there's 40 shades of green.' So there's a kind of kitsch working there too. I think the curator, [Irish artist] Brian Kennedy, was playing with a traditional view of Irishness versus what people do in the contemporary world."
"Forty Shades" is a mixture of fine art and craftwork and is, according to Gorey, designed to break down the barriers between the two. Kennedy not only wanted to respond to Irish traditions, he wanted to reconfigure them and show that there was more to Irish craftsmanship than Aran sweaters. The goal was to include works that are well-made and unconventional works that are still rooted in tradition. Textile artist Linda Bailey, for example, contemplates Egyptian mummification, Irishness, and immortality as she weaves human hair into ornament. Those weaves are mirrored directly in baskets by Alison Fitzgerald and Joe Hogan and indirectly by the photographic prints of Remco de Fouw, who casts photographic paper into rivers at night, capturing the patterns of the currents. Rachel Joynt campily echoes all of this in sand paintings.
"Everybody looks at it differently," says Gorey, who is represented by a triptych of color fields in dark green, white, and gold, which were made by pouring a succession of colors onto the canvas to achieve a deep, layered effect, with rough, almost rustic finishes. The artist compares her painting to landscapes: "From my own point of view, I'm an abstract painter. My last show was based on brushwork -- just using color and a brush -- and I didn't want to go on doing something I was comfortable with. So I decided to pour paint, working against the tradition of my own work."
Gorey is especially fond of crystalline glazes which leave nearly floral patterns on vases by Anne Marie Sheridan and Rob Monaghan. "These aren't paintings. These are chemical reactions, like an explosion," she says.
Sculptor Deirdre Rogers combines granite and glass. Seliena Coyle and Angela O'Kelly both contribute absurd, impractical jewelry, while Victoria Rothschild's glass sculptures are gaudy riffs on the tradition of Waterford crystal. Silverwork by Kevin O'Dwyer is as whimsical and elaborate as a beautifully crafted, wood-inlayed cabinet by Laura Mays is elegant and practical.
But just how "Irish" is "Forty Shades of Green"? Is it possible to look at the collected works and determine their common origin without consulting the catalog?
"Well, what is Ireland?" Gorey asks. "It's a group of people, isn't it? I suppose someone might look at the baskets and that might trigger other connections about how things are made, woven, and stitched. I certainly don't think anyone would think they came from Scandinavia, France, or Denmark."
So the Irishness of "Forty Shades of Green" may only be discovered through a process of elimination? It hardly matters. The exhibit showcases some extraordinary metalwork pottery and should make a nice counterpoint to the green beer, clogging, and plastic leprechaun hats that will undoubtedly define Memphis in May's tribute to Ireland. And for those who haven't been lately, there's nothing like a springtime visit to The Dixon, when the gardens are just as colorful as anything on the gallery walls. n
"Forty Shades of Green: Contemporizing Tradition, Acknowledging Craft" at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens through May 15th