Alice Maher: Transfiguration

IN OCTOBER Alice Maher returned to Belfast from California where she has spent almost a year as a Fulbright Scholar at the San Francisco Art Institute. The ten large charcoal, pastel and mixed media drawings in ‘Transfiguration’, in addition to a number of smaller pages from the artist’s sketchbook of this period, demonstrate her continuing investigation of the representation of women and female sexuality within both religious and art historical definitions. Recently this has also included a reworking of selected mythological themes, a shift which is visible in this show.

The basis for Alice Maher’s work is a sharp awareness of the experience of growing up female in a Catholic society. Originally from rural Tipperary, she once described the situation as one wherein the processes of birth and death of animals were familiar from a very early age, yet all aspects of human sexuality and procreation were denied and repressed through the teachings of the Catholic Church. Her drawings and early paintings often include a high degree of biting satire directed towards the repressive morality which has such horrific consequences as the Kerry Babies case or the death of Anne Lovett, a 14-year-old schoolgirl who died giving birth alone in front of a grotto to the Virgin Mary.

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Alice Maher consistently uses humour as a means of undercutting the traditional authority given to Church patriarchs and male saints. Centaur Bothered By Fairies (Temptation of St Anthony) reveals the discomforts of a mythical winged figure, an awkward combination of man and horse, being poked at by small spear-bearing female figures. Unlike many of the larger pieces this is worked in rich colour pastel and wash on a dark ground: it suggests fruitful future directions. In fact a clear evolution of both Maher’s thematic concerns and working procedures is visible within the spectrum of works here–even though the time span is one of only a few months from those executed in San Francisco mid 1987 to early 1988 in Belfast. Prior to this she has predominantly used a format of two static figures, generally vertical and alway linked together as if bound into a love-hate relationship. These earlier drawings, similar to The Bride or Mo tHintean Fein, were always monochrome, charcoal and pencil on a white ground. A surrealist juxtaposition of found objects, medical apparatus, household and farmyard implements would combine with organic and physical elements to assemble the figure, and Alice frequently incorporates parts of her own body in unexpected circumstances. In Mo tHintean Fein, for example, her nose appears as a pillar-like support or neck for the figure on the right. This metamorphosis or Transfiguration is a clear example of her working methods–yet the naming of this piece in Irish has a further significance. Not only does it mean ‘my own fireplace’, a symbol of women’s sexual power and source of energy, but it dates from the artist’s stay in San Francisco, and could be read as functioning as a reminder of home.

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In later drawings, such as Meeting on the Forest Floor II, this static format has become submerged in a cataclysmic outpouring of figures, both human and animal. Horror and a sense of the macabre are rarely far from the surface in Alice Maher’s work. Based on the myth of Diana and Actaeon, this is the moment of Actaeon’s dismemberment by his hounds, but without the voyeuristic connotations of Titian’s version where the semi-nude goddess also appears. Unfortunately the layers of colour are just too dense here: definition has been sacrificed in favour of a whirlwind of dark tones and half-glimpsed forms–but it doesn’t come off. In general however the later drawing are increasingly subtle. They incorporate elements of recycled previous drawings, torn and stuck down and worked over; previous marks are also partially erased and remain half visible, returning the eye constantly to variation in surface texture. These working procedures actually reinforce the main thematic concerns, a bringing to light of the hidden and repressed aspects of women’s sexuality, something which does not offer itself up for the voyeuristic eye, but remains undefinable.

The transition to the increasingly expressionistic later works can be seen in such pieces as Abundance or Expulsion (After Masaccio). The two figures are whole, increasingly organic bodies even if not fully recognisable as human. It is here also that references to a ‘grand tradition’ of European painting becomes more apparent, yet these references tend to unfix the original meaning, demonstrating that women can use aspects of a male painterly tradition for their own purposes.

A subversion of existing female representations is not without its problems however. The largest piece in the exhibition, Babylon, was intended to represent the Whore of Babylon not as evil and to be despised as in Biblical accounts, but as a powerful, self-determined woman striding forward with the scales of justice balanced on her shoulders. Yet at a discussion held with Alice in the gallery by the Northern Ireland Women Artists’ Group it became clear that there were other more disturbing readings. The lack of spatial cues means that it’s highly possible to read the figure as lying prone, weighed down by the scales and with legs forced open. The exposed backbone, intended by the artist as signifying Babylon’s strength, was seen by some viewers as highly phallic. The image now becomes a rape scene, the archetypal ‘evil’ woman once again punished for her sexuality: the complete opposite of Maher’s intentions. The problem is compounded by the high number of representations of women as victim within male expressionist work from whatever period; women painters can find themselves on dangerous territory here. Yet as also became clear in the discussion, it’s of great importance that women allow themselves and each other to make mistakes. As in Alice Maher’s Babylon, it’s only by pushing a particular representation that we find out the nature and extent of its limits, its strengths and disabilities for the purposes of women artists.

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