The Art of Superstition

A range of Illustrators approach the brief with Python-esque wit, skill and vision at Ards Art Centre

'We live in a world surrounded by superstitions. One person’s religion is another person’s myth... one person’s fear is another’s amusement.' So decrees the accompanying blurb for Ards Arts Centre’s latest exhibition, The Art Of Superstition.

While that statement is hard to disagree with, how can it inform an exhibition featuring work from an array of artists harvested from the Illustrators Ireland collective? We, the viewers, are promised an examination of the ‘world of irrational beliefs’, but do we get it? Not exactly.

Fortunately, what we do get is rather more interesting. First up, The Art of Superstition is massive. Of course quantity often bears scant relation to quality, but the sheer scope and ambition of the exhibition is surely to be praised, featuring as it does 41 works by as many artists all housed in the roomy contemporary surroundings of Ards Arts Centre's Georgian Gallery.

Equally vast is the range of styles and artistic approaches on display, with a cornucopia of influences at work. From the cyberpunk sensibility of Maurice Pierse’s space-age 'The Dark Abandon' and Phil McDarby’s 'Ladders', to the devil-woman in Roger O’Reilly’s 'Lucky Lady' – surely inspired by LA’s ‘insensitive artiste’, Chris Cooper – there is a smorgasbord of contemporary cool for visitors to enjoy here. Seafaring hipsterdom abounds in work by Nicola Colton, Peter Donnelly and Aisling Dowling, and a 1950s style pulp ad for ‘Vatican Voodoo Brand JC Juju Incense’ stands out as equal parts eye-catching, irreverent and expertly executed.

When it comes to group exhibitions like this, it is all too easy for critics to wheel out tired tropes about ‘mixed bags’, but here is the kicker – The Art Of Superstition is all good. Every piece of art on display here is of top, top quality.

Still, it would be remiss of me not to pick out a few favourites. Eoin Coveney’s retro-futurist depiction of Apollo 13’s take-off just oozes Atomic Age cool, for example, and illustrator cum auteur Stephen Maurice Graham does a phenomenal job (as always) with his dynamic take on Macbeth’s 'Song Of Witches'. Everywhere I look, online or offline these days, Graham seems to have his work featured, from broadsheets to video-game blogs, and it always results in sheer sensory pleasure.

My absolute favourite piece in the exhibition, however, is Steve Doogan’s 'Sneeze'. The vast majority of the frame is filled with a hulking flying devil, replete with blood-red skin, cloven feet and menacing intent. Swathed in ominous billows of smoke, it looks like something out of a 1970s Dungeons & Dragons publication and, honestly, that would be enough to convince me. Upon closer inspection, however, it appears this hellish behemoth is actually being blasted from a sneezing gentleman’s face. Deep in the background the trifecta is completed by an old biddy scolding the poor chap, telling him to ‘cover his mouth’. It’s a simple gag and a silly one, but the juxtaposition of Biblical terror and Python nonsense tickles me. Plus, it looks great.

To go back to that opening statement of intent, I don’t think that the exhibition quite manages to examine the nuances of irrational belief systems quite as was intended. Granted fears, obsessions and religious beliefs are all skewed (and there is even a crucified Noddy featured in one less-than-subtle piece), but for me this collection works better as a straight-up celebration of modern illustration.

A satisfying precision and respect for function and detail is paramount in many of these works, given their illustrative nature, but there is also original artistic vision, integrity and a ribald wit so often missing in other contemporary visual art exhibitions. I might not experience a transcendent voyage into the world of myth and superstition, but I do see some damn good art. For my money, that’s better.

The Art of Superstition runs in the Ards Art Centre, Newtownards, until 1pm, January 24, before traveling to the Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart from January 30 – February 28.