When I was young I worked in the local arts centre as Exhibitions Officer. It was a glorified title as I had no executive powers but it did give me a chance to experience the workings of a gallery and to meet artists. The majority of the shows that came through were paintings-oil or watercolour- or drawings. Then an exhibition arrived that was a bit more than that. Looking back it was my first personal encounter with contemporary and conceptual art. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at but I loved it.
Aileen MacKeoghs’ House was created two years after the accidental death of her baby son Luke who fell from the arms of a babysitter, hitting his head on a stone staircase. It changed the course of MacKeoghs’ work which had previously focused on landscape. When she started work again in 1989 her focus had shifted to the concept of the house as symbol of our lives and its fragility.
The drawings in black oil pastel were the first works to emerge after the tragedy. Roughly A1 size in metal frames they were furiously scribbled depictions of a house being overwhelmed, destroyed. Then the sculptures, more measured, delicate and far more affecting. Their central element is a white house in porcelain, sometimes slotted or cracked. In one piece, Locating the Pain, the white houses were inserted in house-shaped containers made of steel, their open doors etched with old anatomy drawings.
There are pieces that combine glass and porcelain too, achingly fragile, their white hearts visible but out of reach. Finally there are the large coloured drawings, just as energetic as the black ones but more measured, more complete and glowing with life, life transformed for sure, but still, life.
There are a lot of meanings held in the material alone that at the time, though they were discussed in the essays in the catalogue, particularly Joan Fowlers’ one, I was too uneducated to parse out. The contrast of the porcelain and steel could be the delicacy of life and the unyieldingness of death for instance. Symbols abound. Porcelain, glass and steel are created from earth and fire, forces of destruction and creation, and fused materials. The etchings created with acid, eating into the steel, as death eats into life. The fragility of the legs of the ‘chairs’ and ‘tables’ that some sculptures sat on were the furniture of the house of the soul. The white house also a babys’ coffin. As with a lot of conceptual and postmodern work there are any number of of meanings to take from it. The artist speaks to the viewer through the media they use.
After a trail of exhibitions of paintings and drawings in limed wood frames produced by people whose level of likeability seemed to be tightly wound with the quality of their work, MacKeoghs’ show, and MacKeogh herself, was a breath of fresh air. As was mentioned by Eavan Boland and Brian Kennedy in their essays, though this show came out of a grievous disaster-and not just her childs’ death but, if I remember correctly, also the death of an artist friend from cancer-it was not grievous work. It was beautiful.
It was also a terrifying collection of work for me. Many of the sculptures were perched on the ‘chairs’ and ‘tables’, steel frames on elongated skinny legs, their seats made of glass. We could not screw into the gallery floor so we hit on the idea of using Blu-Tack to steady them. Suffice to say I spent the month of the shows run imagining all sort of catastrophes. As it happened one of her pieces had broken in transit. My experience with artists so far told me to expect a tantrum but my admiration for MacKeoghs’ work was compounded when I met the artist herself. She arrived down to give an artists talk. I offered to collect her at the train station and she was bemused to find I had no car and had not thought to order a taxi. I was fairly clueless. But her manner was equable and as we strolled across the bridge in Waterford we chatted a little and I remember thinking..
‘This is a really cool person’.
When I showed her the broken piece and she took it in her stride, hardly remarked on it, did not look to blame anyone, I was in awe…
The show, and the artist, have remained with me across the years. From time to time I take out the catalogue to browse its’ pages again. Recently it occurred to me to Google her and I found to my dismay that she had died from breast cancer in 2005 leaving behind two grown children and a husband who loved her so much he wrote a memoir of their time together. When I tried to find her work online, I could only locate one small picture. I found it astonishing that here was a serious, well known artist, one who had taught in our countrys best art institutions who had, by a trick of timing slipped through the cracks. It made me think of all the artists, esteemed or not, who by dint of our increasing dependence on the internet, will be, have been already, erased from history.
Even back then I think, I felt disturbed by the flatness of painting, that sometimes the two dimensionality of it is not enough in a three dimensional world though it has taken me a long time to step out of the frame. When I did so MacKeoghs’ work came back to me and I think it is a testament to the strength and universality of it that though my work is different I can still see the bones of hers in mine. So I decided to write this post as a tribute to increase her presence in the here and now. I wish she had had more time but even to this day this exhibition, House, lives on and influences my work. I suppose an artist cannot ask for anything more.
Boland, E. (1991), The Art of Grief, in MacKeogh, A., (1991), House, Dublin, Project Press.
Fowler, J., (1991), Private Spaces:Public Structures, in MacKeogh, A., (1991), House, Dublin, Project Press.
Graeve, J., (1991), House:Foreword, in MacKeogh, A., (1991), House, Dublin, Project Press.
Inglis, T., (2012), Making Love, Dublin:New Island Press
Kennedy, B. P., (1991), Turning Points, in MacKeogh, A., (1991), House, Dublin, Project Press.