Through the Looking Glass

Alice McCullough tackles the human form at the Safehouse Gallery, writes Lee Henry

No matter how many times you walk into a room full of nudes, it always takes a couple of minutes to come to terms with your surroundings. There’s an initial moment of self-awareness. You glance over that first breast at the speed of light, try desperately to avoid eye contact and take the whole thing very seriously indeed.

But the slight sense of embarrassment soon wears off, and before you know it you're up to your eyeballs in arching backs and protruding bottoms, convinced that nudity in art is the most natural thing in the world, which of course it is. Such is the case with Life Drawings, the first solo exhibition from Belfast artist Alice McCullough at at the Safehouse Arts Gallery, found in the Cathedral Quarter.

With its concealed inner-sanctum of bars and restaurants and network of arched alleyways and cobbled streets, the Quarter can be a challenging place to navigate.

Given that the area is coming down with artists of all kinds, it’s a strange paradox that the shop fronts appear underwhelming and drab. They don’t do big colourful signs in the Cathedral Quarter, which makes finding somewhere like the Safehouse Arts Gallery something of a stab in the dark.

Thankfully the locals are on hand to point the way – the way, that is, to a street sign on the pavement advertising the gallery in question. The Safehouse Gallery has no shop front. On ground floor level, it is simply a door. It’s on the first floor where the exhibition space is located, and where Life Drawings is currently on show.

The space is welcoming because of its simplicity: four walls, original timber floorboards and big old Georgian windows letting in plenty of natural light. What’s unsettling - at least initially - are the images themselves.

Life Drawings consists of 25 still-life images, drawn or painted in a number of mediums, from charcoal to oil stick, watercolour to crayon. A collection built up over time, it includes images produced between the years 1999 and the present day, inadvertently evidencing the artists technical progress, particularly in the past two years.

There’s nothing gratuitous about McCullough’s work. She tackles nudity side on, more concerned with the human condition than the intimate details of human anatomy.

‘Life drawing is just something that I’ve always loved – having a model in front of me and trying to convey a certain emotion through paint or charcoal, or whatever it is I’m using at the time. It’s a lovely meditation, and a very simple way of making art. It’s just you and the figure. The human form is a challenging thing to perfect, and when you get it right, it’s very rewarding.’

Neither does McCullough search for perfection in her work. Many of her images are rough, seemingly incomplete, with original sketch lines still visible. Although not academically trained in the strictest sense (she left Limavady College early due to illness), McCullough seems to revel in the DIY aesthetic. ‘I’ve always been drawn towards doing things my own way, learning as I go,’ she says.

There is an obvious gulf between the old and the new. ‘Dreaming/Stirring In Her Sleep’ and ‘Reclining Nude’ are so much more accomplished than any of the older pieces on show that some might question the timing of the exhibition. On the other hand, such honesty is commendable, and gives the exhibition an informal, inclusive quality that aspiring artists will find comforting.

Unpretentious and welcoming, the Safehouse Arts Gallery is the perfect place for such an exhibition. In two or three years time, perhaps McCullough will have moved on to larger spaces and bigger price tags - if the response to Life Drawings on opening night is anything to go by. For now, though, she's happy take things one step at a time. 'It's a learning curve for me,' says McCullough. 'I'm really happy to have had my first solo exhibition in the Safehouse. It does a lot for local artists, so I'm happy to give something back.'