The moral pleasure in art, as well as the moral service that art performs, consists in the intelligent gratification of consciousness.*
One has to see an exhibition of Jane Irish’s work, such as “A Rapid Whirling on the Heel” at Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, to understand the breadth of the artist’s vision and practice. More than ever, Irish’s latest body of work communicates her continuing investigation into Vietnamese history – viewed from the lens of the American experience – and more specifically of the elasticity of a hybrid culture, history and identity, impacted and scarred equally by imperialism, colonialism and sinicization.
Irish’s work balances two gestures: an ode to a culture pushed to the periphery by dominating powers, and a quest to wed the narratives of history with personal experience for a sensible understanding of historical truth. The work qualifies Irish as a visual anthropologist who collects evidence and presents it not merely as evidence, but as pieces of a puzzle aiming toward a panoramic view of history. Irish’s paintings are not literal, although at first glance, their representative quality might lead the viewer to assume they are. Her work is allegorical, and a means for historical revisionism.
Keeping faithful to the vibrancy and ease of her mark, Irish slightly shifts her approach in her latest body of work, creating more complex, visually tense, historically charged images. She increases the roles of contrast and shadow, and her palette has significantly darkened. Cool blue, dark greens and browns, blacks and pungent yellows, take the place of the luminous yellows and greens, the vibrant vermillion and warm blues that feature in earlier work. Irish’s work, although still lustrous, glossy, juicy, filled with lucent transparencies and superimposed imagery, is not a purely aesthetic endeavor; it continues to reach beyond the satisfying aesthetic experience, the purely aesthetic moment. As Irish digs deeper into her subject, experiencing firsthand the hybrid identity of contemporary Vietnam, but also examining the elasticity of a diverse history and the varied discourse surrounding that history, the work itself turns darker, bolder, more dramatic.
Resistance Ceiling Alizarin and Green and Malouiniere Launay Ravilly Reception are among Irish’s more arresting recent works, as well as Khai Dinh Peace Ceiling, in which she combines lush, opulent interiors – marks of imperialism – with images of war and resistance. The depictions of protests, of people running, or troops marching, guns in hand, or of Gold Star Mothers with their heads hung in sorrow, have been placed on the ceilings or walls of the interiors, as though hovering, looking down, or as something inescapable for the person that might step into that interior. Irish’s recent paintings slowly detach themselves from the allegorical but unaggressive representations of interiors, and transform into bold collages of intersecting histories, the artist deliberately forcing one history onto another as she superimposes, combines, and layers each image; the apparently peaceful, luminous and lavish French and Vietnamese interiors have been interrupted, stained by history.
Although most of Irish’s paintings involve space – both purely visual as well as space as place, space as a place through which our realities are being assembled – a few of her works have a distinctly flat, decorative, and graphic quality. Tu Duc Interior, although an image of space (the indoors opening towards the outdoors), remains fixed and impenetrable. The interior-exterior does not seem to be a technical, spatial play, but rather a denial of access; the space, the place, is impenetrable. The perspective is that of the viewer being denied participation in the experience, of a history that is still being rejected and remains largely unknown, hidden, and unloved.
Cosmos, a three-panel work meant to be installed on the ceiling – parts of which also appear in Khai Dinh Peace Ceiling – is an especially dynamic and effective piece. Similar to her 2010 painting, The Conversation, in which she combines bodies of quotation from Ho Xuan Huong’s erotic verses and Vietnam War Veterans’ poetry, Cosmos plays the same role of layering glimpses and fractures of history, as an attempt to include peripheral histories as part of the main, cosmic, historical narrative. Reminding me of a Crespi mural or Mantegna’s famous Oculus, Cosmos gives the impression that the action is happening ‘up there,’ while the viewer is graciously afforded the privilege of a momentary gaze. The snippets of historical events seem to be engulfed or carried over by a winding, whirling, and contorting sea of dragons and decorative elements, and the viewer can’t quite tell whether we are looking up at a raging sea or a turbulent sky. The layers of colors and imagery force the eye to stay continuously engaged, alert and challenged, as it moves through ‘history.’ Cosmos seems to be a culmination of Irish’s vision, as she adopts multiple perspectives, both visually and conceptually, in the development of the triptych.
History, Edward Said wrote in Orientalism, can always be “unmade and re-written, always with various silences and elusions.”** Jane Irish’s work, beyond its clear aesthetic sensuousness, is an astute commentary on the mechanisms of power that usually determine the writing of history. As she pastes together different visual references and correspondences, she develops complex canvases, visual and historical collages, that detach from historicism and a classical interpretation of history, revealing Irish’s push towards a socially conscious approach to history, and even a socially conscious approach to art. Yet far from falling into didacticism, Irish seems to be able to just guide, point, and indicate an accurate and honest (although symbolic) portrayal of a history, by scanning the whole landscape and culture, observing all the scars, as well as the decorations, marks of occupation and dominion, but also of resilience and resistance. She seeks to immortalize the whole landscape of history, trying to grasp it all in ‘one rapid whirling on the heel.’
“A Rapid Whirling on the Heel” is now on view at Locks Gallery, through May 31. All images courtesy of Locks Gallery.
*Susan Sontag, On Style
**Edward Said, 2003 Preface to Orientalism