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‘Who Do We Say We Are’: In voices of time and timelessness

| Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Emma Kirner | The Observer

Guided by the name of the exhibition, “Who Do We Say We Are?,” the Snite Museum of Art displays the juxtaposing answers from the past century of Irish art. As curator Cheryl Snay pointed out in her opening speech, it is not a hyphen that connects 1922 and 2022, but rather, a vertical slash that implicates this juxtaposition. While she spoke, William’s “Hibernia” (1916) and O’Donoghue’s “Revolution Cottage” (2015) hung on either side of the podium. As witnesses to this centennial exhibition, their palettes referencing the Irish national flag corresponds with the exhibition’s core theme — probing into the Irish artistic journey over the last 100 years.

In most cases, a query waits for an answer — but not at this event. By emphasizing the word “we” in the question, this exhibition addresses viewers as a single entity invited to participate in witnessing this journey that began in Paris in 1922 with “The Exposition D’Art Irlandais.” With the beseeching of an answer, the process of this dynamic but gradually solidified national identity is depicted along with the blossom of Irish art — in its direct visual representation, in voices of time and timelessness.

Maybe because of the complementary color rule, the shades of orange in “Hibernia” and “Revolution Cottage” glow brightly against the navy walls. Shades echo with one another. Orange pastel strokes dance with the radical and expressive brush on the cottage’s rooftop, delicately highlighting the texture quality of Hibernia’s hair and outfit. Their names are also intertwined: The classical Latin name can be traced through to the modern semiotic-like title. The exhibition’s most powerful voice comes from the juxtaposition of these two classic visual expressions of Irish national identity. In the colors of their national flag, they highlight the finest of the Irish people’s ongoing examinations and recontextualizations of their identity through self-determination and being revolutionary in their circumstances.

The O’Shaughnessy East Galleries are divided into three galleries in this specific exhibition. The white title and the exhibition description stand out against the navy wall that comes across the first two galleries. Viewers may witness the clarity of Irish art emerging from the blur as they walk through it in Shannon Dunne’s concertina Irish music. They can also peek into the gradual build-up of identities in blurriness, similar to Jack B. Yeats’ expressive brushstroke and thick impasto. The man’s face fades into the air and the multiple tracings of the horse’s contour lines add to the emotional intensity. The same profound affection for natural scenery is also shown in the other Yeats’ painting, “In Tir na nÓg” (1936). The merge between human and the natural world elevates their physical existences to metaphysical realms. The dynamic strokes grant the same agency to the natural world as to humans, suggesting their inseparable relationship.

The connection that Irish artists have to their homeland is evident in their work. Amelia Stein’s images in the third gallery embrace this idea in extraordinary clarity, breaking apart from the cohesive ambiguity suggested by Yeats’ paintings. Through Stein’s lens, viewers can observe her world in the northwest County Mayo. The eternity of the landscape is recaptured and reframed in such clarity that they truly turned eternal. Unlike the lively brushstrokes of painters, Stein’s subjects witness the changing history of Ireland in solitudes — transporting viewers back to the most ancient Irish mythologies. In “The Precipice of the Fox (Fothair a’tSionnaigh)” (2017), the sun shedding on the aesthetically appealing elements of the precipice to create the details again demonstrates the significance of land in Irish art.

At the end of the opening reception, empathetic to Elizabeth O’Farrell’s pain and resilience, Julie Morrissy, Poet-in-Residence at the National Library of Ireland, performed her poem. This reading not only serves as a prelude to her upcoming poetry reading on Feb. 25, but also as a physical manifestation of her power in response to the topic posed.

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