On the inside covers of Reservoir: Sketchbooks & Selected Works there are printed images of various notebooks collected by Alice Maher over the course of her career. Cataloguing both the projects she has undertaken and the various locations she has worked from, the covers of these books are both colourful and messy: an attractive jumble of colours and patterns that imply the progress of a career in development, thoughts being recorded casually as she moves between Venice, Denmark, Mexico, New York and Paris. Attached to these books are Post It notes ripped carelessly and marked up with reminders such as ‘crying’, ‘up side down tree’, ‘twins’, ‘body’ and ‘snakes’. The process of selection for the images that are reproduced in Reservoir is elucidated by this image. The salient themes of Maher’s work at this point in her career are marked out for the reader by the artist and her editors.
The concept of the reservoir is presented, in both Whitney Chadwick’s foreword and in Maher’s introduction, as being associated with the way in which sketching is a means to preserve thought. It suggests that each new line of text, each new image, adds a scrap of an idea to a body of work. Looking at it in this way, every page adds another angle to understanding the process that Maher undergoes in developing her ideas. The first double page stands as an example. On the left hand side, transcribed directly onto the pink, scrapbook-like paper is the phrase ‘everything in the world has a spirit, which is released by its sound…’ On the right hand side is an image, sketched in what looks like black ink, of a nude female figure with thick black hair that balloons out, almost resembling a mushroom cloud. She is covered in blue, purple and red paint, which is thin and watery and filters out into fragile lines over the top of the image. The wateriness of the paint makes it feel as though it is dissolving out into the page: the black of the hair is covered in round, white drip-like splotches; the entire image looks as though it has been rubbed over, smearing the paint off to the right-hand side.
If we are to think of this book as representing a reservoir of creative ideas, as is suggested, then this pairing demonstrates how this store works. The combination of text and image is evocative, the lines that channel away from the figure seem to be almost illustrative of the escape of spirit which the text suggests. However, they are separated by their presentation, obviously curated into proximity, the difference between the transcription onto the page and the reproduction of the original making the editor’s hand visible to the reader.
Not simply recording the development of a practice over the course of the seventeen years represented in this selection, Reservoir is a document of how we are to understand Maher’s practice at this moment, in the wake of the 2012-2013 retrospective Becoming at Earlsfort Terrace.
With this in mind, the themes of the book are familiar ones. There is a focus on gender, with female nudes who transform into mythological creatures and natural objects dominating the iconography. The image of La Mujer Sierpa traced in green ink with a head that splits into four almost featureless serpents serves as an example. Disembodied feet and hands stand amongst images of curled turds or above unidentified organic-looking mounds. A gnarled form that resembles a diabolic Christmas tree is labelled ‘the devil’s spine’; water seems to flow from the windows of alienating houses; a child is born from a giant hand. On one double page, mirrored cubes stand on either side of the page divide. On the left, a female figure seems imprisoned by vertical lines; she is accompanied by the text ‘give squatting a geometric shape’. On the right, the figure is absent, leaving only the vertical lines behind. The text that captions this image reads ‘the room of thin and fat hair: le fièvre’. This image points to one of the pleasures of this book, seeking the connections between the sketches and Maher’s best known works. The allusion to Keep (1992), which is constructed of human hair threaded downwards in vertical columns from a steel frame, is enticing.
As an addition to Maher’s oeuvre, Reservoir suggests very little that is new, merely reinforcing the major themes that are already established in her sculpture, films and drawings. However, this beautifully produced book is enjoyable, a concentration of Maher’s ideas into a satisfying document. In her discussion on the work of American artist Nancy Spero, Hélène Cixous – whose concept of l’écriture féminine Maher invokes in the introduction (although she mistakenly attributes it to Luce Irigaray) – uses the phrase ‘drawing is dauntless’. In these terms, framed by Cixous’ dedication to a female creative practice that is bodily and expressive, Reservoir certainly succeeds.