Art Beyond Ulster

A wide range of Ulster artwork produced in Rome

In 1978 the British School at Rome offered residencies to Northern Irish artists, allowing them to imbibe European aesthetic ideals and styles. The visual and critical vocabulary that would allow Ulster artists to engage with the new political situation of 'Home as Hell' was not to be found on their doorstep. This is, at least, how curator and artist Brian Kennedy describes the importance of foreign residencies in the accompanying Art Beyond Ulster catalogue.

The works on display here seem disparate, without any conceptual or stylistic unity, which points up the multiple forms and approaches to artistic endeavour encouraged on the continent. Two of the most striking pieces merge ancient myth with modern mechanics, meshing history with the present to novel, humorous effect.

'Hermes' by John Kindness uses the palette of decoration on an Athenian ceramic to depict the mythological figure on a fragment of steel taxicab. The messenger of the gods and guide to the underworld is riding an exercise bike and wearing trainers, his hauteur and elusiveness as mythological abstraction humorously replaced by integration in the domestic; Hermes is flung earthward, given a naff mortal pose.

'Portrait of a Roman Lady' does something similar, undercutting the classical profile in oil and gold leaf by mounting it on a piece of car bonnet. All the grandeur of Greco-roman myth and the pomp of the pantheon are reduced by its re-contextualisation.

Perhaps Kindness, best known for the much maligned 'Big Fish' on Donegal Quay in Belfast, is also saying something about the ways modernity reduces and debases old icons and once sacred symbols, until all is a level playing field of scientific facts, cisterns, exhausted wells, adverts, graffiti and heaps of broken images.

'Tomb for E' by Graham Gringles is wonderful. A suitcase opened out and filled with miniature bits and bobs - furniture from a doll’s house, dried leaves and travel documents behind glass - combine to suggest something of the magic of being in transit. Then 'Pellucid' by Eilis O’Connell stands out as a beautiful and flawless piece of sculpture, like a large solid tear or raindrop, polished and prismatic, formed in clear cast resin.

'River Clowns', an installation by Cian Donnelly, shows something like the corner of a bedroom with melancholic and playful sketches pinned to the walls, a weird piece of neon pink plastic sculpture and an iPod playing a selection of tunes. I wasn’t sure if this piece really worked, nor could I grasp what it was getting at – but it was trippy and kitsch nevertheless.

Nearby Ian Charlesworth’s series of lightboxes showing Celtic crosses asks: Were the Celts neo-Nazis? (Don’t ask me what this means.) And a video piece by Vivien Hewitt, 'Liturgia', pans in on a Christ-like figure on a beach staring with a mournful look, wailing music mauling your inner ear for accompaniment.

John Aiken’s 'Construction Destruction', a labyrinth made of plastering sand, is intriguing for the way it suggests the equivalence of creation and negation as twin poles of the same force.

The conceptual framework of the collection (influenced by Rome) seems somewhat arbitrary and, for me at least, does not shed light on the themes and influences of the whole in a meaningful way. Underpinning this exhibit is the moot assumption that artists can barely absorb ‘outside’ or foreign influences without leaving their native place. But even in the belligerent backwater of 1970s Ulster, surely artists could acquire books on all the great masters from Caravaggio to Gauguin?

The collection’s accompanying essay repeatedly overstates the isolation of Ulster artists: 'the local art world was neither capable of dealing with the reality on its doorstep, nor of engaging with a wider art world. There were few opportunities to experience art from outside, or to travel to see artworks or meet with other artists.'

Ulster art may not have been as avant-garde as that produced in the happening cities of the 1970s like London, Paris and Rome, where art galleries abounded and the industry thrived; but it’s hard to imagine that creativity could have been so desperately curtailed here by the political arrangements.

Doesn’t the divine afflatus come from the ether or within, rather than being a feature of continental life? And hasn’t conflict often given birth to some of the most poignant, immortal and troubling artworks, like Picasso’s 'Guernica' to name just one?

For me ‘Ulster art’ - understood as art made by artists from Ulster rather than art displaying any kind of ‘Ulster’ aesthetic - is in all cases also beyond Ulster. This is perhaps because the influences and expressive styles used by Ulster artists will never be entirely native to the place, the production of a work of art being necessarily the result of personal inspiration, feeling, any number of contingencies, and engagement with an international art history accessible from any local library.

Art Beyond Ulster: Collective Histories of Northern Irish Art runs at the Golden Thread Gallery until November 13.