Blind Elephant Collective

The elephant in the room is the lack of profundity in these illustrated responses to famous quotations

The Dublin-based Blind Elephant Collective met on a ‘bootcamp’ illustration course in 2010. Based on their current exhibition at the Gerard Dillon Gallery in Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, Belfast, their work is best seen as exercises in illustration rather than as high art. They work from set challenges, crafting artistic responses to chosen words.

For the Culturlann exhibition, the Collective use a list of quotations by painters, poets and actors for inspiration. There is an element of game playing here – one thinks of that old parlour game ‘charades’ – and playfulness is in the ascendant in this exhibition. It is interesting to compare the varying outcomes achieved by different artists working to the same quotation.

Celebrated Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, once said, ‘I never believe in God but I believe in Picasso'. His quote gets no less than four takers. There is quite a challenge here. These artists are following in the footsteps of two of the acknowledged modern greats.

Jessica Tobin features the great statue of Christ above Rio de Janiero with a Picassoesque halo. In Austin Lysaght’s version, Picasso becomes a saint on a stained glass window, while Kevin Bohan goes a step further with a priest and a nun improbably worshipping him. 

Caomhán Mac Con Iomaire, meanwhile, strikingly features Italian airmen nonchalantly poised in front of their aircraft, presumably just fresh from their infamous bombing of the Basque town, Guernica. All these are quite effective.

'Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea'

The airmen reappear in Mac Con Iomaire's response to the Henry Fielding quotation, ‘Love and scandal are the best sweetners of tea'.  This time they are toasting their success in cups of the beverage. More playfully, in response to the same quotation, Kevin Bohan offers two large cups of tea into which sweetners are being shaken from a box labelled ‘The Sun – scandal sweet’.

Mac Con Iomaire also takes on the title of a George Bernard Shaw play, Passion Poison and Petrification, in a surreal drawing that seems to include Nelson’s Column twice, elements of a Spanish setting, and sometimes disembodied figures, perhaps in another bow to Picasso. The eclectic detail renders it a puzzle piece.

Elsewhere puns and jokes often remain in the ascendant. Austin Lysaght’s take on David Bowie’s claim, ‘I’m an instant star, just add water and stir’, turns an immaculately observed pot noodle container into 'pop' noodles. It is an accomplished exercise in pop art.

Brendan Behan’s bon mot, ‘I’m a drinker with a writing problem’, gives Tarsila Kruse an excuse for a joke that might well decorate a playroom. A manifestly cartoon infant drinks a carton of milk while a mass of incomprehensible scribbling lies in front of him/her. They have writer's block.

Oscar Wilde quipped that, ‘Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months'. Jessica Tobin is the only artist to respond. Half of her roughly drawn but accomplished fashion sketches, displayed against a background of the calendar for New York fashion week, are already crossed out.

'Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months'

As for the elephant, blind or otherwise, it appears only once. Paula McGloin’s ‘Asian elephant’ is as flowery as her ‘Floral pattern’, and in neither case carry us much further.

If there is an odd one out here it is Mac Con Ionaire’s ceramic sculpture. ‘Orchestrated accident’ is a tangle of scrap metal surmounted by an old tap. This is technically accomplished – difficult indeed to replicate this in ceramics – but to what purpose?

These artists are evidently trying to ‘think outside the box’. In fact, it is one of the phrases they offer up for artistic adoption. Of the two who take on the challenge, Sarah Tobin's simple humour is best – a hatch opens in the top of a box from which a balloon emerges.

It isn’t profound, but neither is the exhibition. Some serious points are made, but the dominant feel is of cartoons and game playing. Bright colours and clean lines dominate, revealing the genesis in that illustration course or the sanitising effect of photoshop.

Still, we can share in the pleasure they found in doing it and all the paintings are reasonably priced, range from £65 – £195.

The Blind Elephant Collective runs in the Gerard Dillon Gallery until February 23.