Alternate State / Alternative States

Poets Colin Dardis and Geraldine O'Kane interpret the work of artist Brian Kielt in an exciting and refreshingly challenging exhibition at the Duncairn Centre

There are two titles to this collaboration between the painter Brian Kielt and the poets Colin Dardis and Geraldine O’Kane at the Duncairn Centre in North Belfast, the reason for which will soon become clear.

The poets have been living with the paintings for some time, allowing relationships to build, nurturing suggested narratives. I find myself in the unusual situation of having to comment on the paintings as well as the commentaries developed by the poets. It doesn’t feel like three degrees of separation, however. Rather it’s like wading into a big warm bath of meta.

'Memoria' is a mother and child portrait set next to a depiction of two recently extracted teeth, their roots intact and bloody. The parallel between still bleeding molars, lately wrenched from the body, and childbirth is clear. One of the teeth is capped and one hesitates to wonder if that is a timely warning.

'Form and Orderly Queue' sees Kielt’s signature loose, broken brush-work and muddy palette. A fringed, feathered figure, like an angelic matador, is penned against a blood red cage, the struts passing through the milk-white of his body. This is one of Kielt’s multiple perspective works, sculpted from eclectic sources. The effect is mutable, full of combative, clashing imagery: figures loom out in burnt blood-orange under a baleful, murky ochre sky. 

'Silvis', meanwhile, sees a figure literally transposed onto a scratched and smeared landscape, hand in pockets, tie askew, blameless against the livid, wriggling backdrop.

The poets’ take on the paintings is somewhat stymied by a vigorous political discussion bleeding in from another room, but both Dardis and O'Kane are seasoned spoken word performers and, better, skilled phrase-makers, and arresting lines cut through the hubbub" 'Roll in mud and be baked in the dirt of the cities.' 'You’re measured by your fat and blood.'

Their words echo the clashing, visceral qualities of the paintings. O’Kane’s poem for 'Memoria', for example, is like a Russian folk-tale played out in beautifully controlled language as kind of tooth-pulling Baba Yaga. Her 'Once I draw blood I no longer see him as a bull, husband or human being', is bathed in the tallow fat yellow smears of the paintings.

Dardis also continues this exploration of the physical: 'The cadence of my pig heart will continue to ripple.' Eventually he tires of rolling around in the filth. 'I self medicate on fresh air,' he declares, pulling himself out of the mire.

Kielt’s painting 'Deorsum Peteret' resembles – I suspect unintentionally – a 1980S The Face pictorial: our heroin chic hero is modelling a double breasted pea coat with a matelot sweater. He looks like a sad guard at the mime museum in Paris, though you could shave a pencil on those cheekbones.

'I forgot there was such a thing as sleep' shows us the skull-like face of a sleeping man beset by dreams as a bedevilled St Anthony hiding under his duvet, a streak straight from a tandoor oven stripes his chest like a meaty spare rib. The colour scheme is as troubling as his furious, fizzing nightmares: greens the colour of sputum, latticed with black lines like a petrified, winter forest.

'The Leaping Lamb' is another duel perspective painting, echoing Picasso’s blood and sand bullfighting epics with savage, broken brushwork. A bull, legs thrown into the air like horns, crashes into the parched earth. Above it soars the titular ungulate, a literally sacrificial lamb, leaping like a Minoan initiate over the flailing limbs of the great beast. The flipped perspective sees a flute player slanting through the work like a skull through a Holbein. To the right a huge and bloody rack of ribs bracket’s the painting like a Flintstones TV dinner.

In 'Lady Vanishes' a milky figure billows in front of another thorny landscape of either barb wire or brambles. A sulking Mona Lisa rises up like a mushroom cloud over the ruined terrain but inlaid over her is the central, spectral presence. The woman is literally absent, a puncture in the canvas, a hole in the world.

This is an exciting and vivid collection of paintings, deliberately exploring ideas and approaches with an unusual vigour. The cat’s cradle complicatedness of the varying perspectives on the work, and the implicit invitation to add your own interpretations, only adds to the richness of the project, and that can only be a good thing. In a world of continuous 'dumbing down', this exhibition couldn’t have smartened up more unless it had put on a tie and polished its shoes.