Floral Still Life, 2007
According to the French philosopher Baudrillard, “there is no longer a fiction that life can confront…reality has passed over into the play of reality; radically disenchanted, the ‘cool’ cybernetic phase [has supplanted] the ‘hot’ and phantasmatic…” In layman’s language this seems to suggest that art no longer has a privileged status; that it is whatever we choose it to be. To borrow John Berger’s phrase, art is a way of seeing rather than a form of making. From Duchamp’s urinal, through to John Baldessari’s word-games, non-art objects have become a familiar part of the language of art because the artist presents them as such. As the American critic, Hal Foster, has suggested the primary concern in much contemporary art is not with traditional aesthetics. The artist becomes a manipulator of signs rather than a producer of ‘original’ artefacts, while the viewer, no longer simply a passive voyeur, becomes actively engaged in decoding those objects’ messages.
This is the territory of the young Irish artist, Caroline McCarthy, winner of the 2001 AIB Art Prize, whose work is in constant dialogue with the world around her. It was during her MA at Goldsmith’s that she abandoned her training as a painter to experiment with new materials. Rooms filled with leopard skin covered objects, installations made from swimming-pool blue cut-outs taken from holiday brochures paired with potato crisps, and still lives constructed from lavatory paper have all formed part of her repertoire. Floral Still Life, 2007 a work of meticulous craftsmanship, used 20,000 dots punched from blue, orange, yellow and black bin bags to create a gem-like flower ‘painting’ inspired by the 17th century Dutch painter, van der Ast. Displayed alongside the original bin liners the piece suggests an illusionist’s sleight of hand. One minute there are four bin bags, the next a ‘painting’. In McCarthy’s work ordinary things, the inconsequential ephemera of everyday life, escape their familiar constraints in a constant flux of aesthetic translation.
Re-aestheticising the banal is fundamental to her practice. It is as if she is turning Walter Benjamin’s theory on The Art of Mechanical Reproduction on its head. Here the specialised art object is not transformed into a multiple for mass production but rather, as in Shelf Arrangement, 2011 a set of B&Q shelves produced in their thousands, is reconfigured as something unique. Placing the full range of white, brown and toffee veneered planks in a biscuit-like arrangement on especially cast bronze brackets renders these ubiquitous objects of the DIY store visible so that we are forced to question their function and our response. As with Duchamp or Michael Craig Martin’s An Oak Tree, 1973 – a glass of water set on a shelf that the artist stated was an oak tree – the work addresses fundamental questions about what we understand to be art and our faith in the transformative powers of the artist.
Group Co-ordination, a work in progress when I visited her Hackney studio, extends the idea of Escape, McCarthy’s 2002 leopard skin room, to create a total environment of found red objects. Here a sun lounger, a brush and pan, a CD shelving unit and a wire waste bin act as supports for a ‘drawing’ made from a scribble of interconnected drinking straws that never touches the floor, thereby addressing the relationship between the objects and the negative space between them.
Straws are also a fertile source of inspiration for another ongoing work, Broken Head. Having traced generic profiles from magazines McCarthy follows the outline with 12 coloured straws, which she then paints very carefully using acrylic ink, pencil and masking tape. This is then paired with a second drawing, where the same straws are scattered across the paper to create a shattered image where any semblance of personality is erased.
These generic objects – rugs from IKEA, shelves from B&Q, straws from the supermarket – are so ubiquitous that their value within our consumerist society is only fleeting. Through their re-casting Caroline McCarthy invites us to look at the world afresh, transforming the banal and the abject into artworks prompting both phenomenological discourse and the re-appraisal of the marginalized and familiar.
Caroline McCarthy Arrangements at Green On Red Gallery, Dublin until 6 August 2011
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Caroline McCarthy 2002-2011