Eoin McHugh: The Skies Will Be Friendlier Then

Kerlin Gallery, Dublin
Eoin McHugh: The Ground Itself Is Kind, Black Butter (2014). Black sheepskin, wax, steel and mixed media. 224 x 122 x 190 cm.
Eoin McHugh: The Ground Itself Is Kind, Black Butter (2014). Black sheepskin, wax, steel and mixed media. 224 x 122 x 190 cm.

Eoin McHugh has gained a reputation for fantastic, often uncanny artefacts and images. His investigation of what he calls ‘the psychology of imagery,’ which continues in his current show at the Kerlin Gallery, might be described as a broadly surrealist enterprise: a ‘pursuit of the marvellous,’ as André Breton once wrote, and of the ‘convulsive beauty’ to be found in certain disturbances and juxtapositions of normative visual culture. Accordingly, a favoured resource for McHugh is the early history of psychoanalysis and its focus on the truth to be found in failed repression. McHugh’s imagery pertains to a very specific psychology.

Other influences include the poetry of Seamus Heaney and Wallace Stevens. The former is most explicitly invoked here. The title of The Ground Itself Is Kind, Black Butter (all works 2014) derives from Heaney’s poem Bogland, published in 1975. The work itself might best be described as a ‘bog beast,’ deer-like in its size and what can be gained of its incomplete anatomy. Its more substantial flank, coated with a black wool fleece, greets the visitor as he climbs the stairs into the gallery. Its crooked limbs are almost at odds with one another, the forelimbs tentative, like a newborn fawn, the hind limbs more squarely set. Its farther flank is more decayed, hollowed out to costal and spinal remnants like the unearthed skeleton of the Great Irish Elk that Heaney described as ‘An astounding crate full of air.’ This ‘crate’ has been fabricated from thick accumulations of black wax upon a metal frame. Where visible, this wax appears burnished, fibrous, gathering into grotesque spikes and masses in the interior of the body.

Whereas the protagonists of Heaney’s poem, his ‘pioneers,’ meet ‘Atlantic seepage’ and a bottomless ‘wet centre’ in their excavation of historical strata, McHugh unearths something altogether more abhorrent, as the bog serves up some nameless, shambling Lovecraftian nightmare. However, and perhaps it is due to McHugh’s mention of vagina dentata, I cannot shake the impression that this beast might have been exhumed from the depths of a teenage boy’s bedroom. Perhaps that is the intention.

Across the gallery one finds a counterpart to this beast. Little Hans nightlight is a roughly three-quarter-size nickel silver figure of a small boy, about five years old. Hans crouches to marvel at the light from his own illuminated eyes cast upon the floor before him. His gesture suggests astonishment at the light and, perhaps, the temptation to play with its kaleidoscopic facets. The figure is naturalistic, having little of the misshapen nastiness of the beast, except for its extended, slightly flaccid forearms and hands – an intimation, perhaps, of Hans’ distorted interaction with the world. ‘Little Hans’ (Hans Graf) was an important case study for Freud because the boy’s equinophobia appeared to exemplify the role of castration anxiety in the Oedipus complex. However, McHugh’s connection to his sources seems tenuous here, even if we make the simplistic connection to the bog beast as something conjured up by Hans’ phobia. Hans’ preoccupation with his own illumination indicates solipsism, perhaps obsession, but none of the neuroses of Hans Graf. No doubt one would have to switch on this nightlight in the wee, small hours to experience its convulsive beauty.

The influence of Wallace Stevens is difficult to identify. Certainly, Stevens occasionally veered, like McHugh, toward fantastic, even sinister imagery. In Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird of 1923, Stevens writes,

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

But it is what Stevens writes in the 1944 essay ‘The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet,’ that the ‘absolute facts’ of the world ‘include everything that the imagination includes,’ which might strike a chord with McHugh. Similarly, if there is a general poetics to McHugh’s work, it might be summarised best by Stevens’ lines from his 1937 poem ‘The Man With The Blue Guitar,’ where the musician is exhorted to play ‘a tune beyond us, yet ourselves. . . Of things exactly as they are.’

The most compelling of the works in the exhibition with regard to this attempt to imagine were the two large recomposed carpets hung on the north and east walls of the gallery, The Skies Will Be Friendlier Then and What We Know in What We See. These are in fact collaged from variously-sized fragments of Persian carpets. Although different in size, scale, and colouring, both carpets are a thicket of abruptly curtailed arabesques and friezes, in the midst of which appear medallions and emblems, and the occasional tree or woodland animal, often askew or cropped.

Of course, collaging in such a way destroys the textile unity of the original carpets, and the absence of schema and orientation in the patterns produced means that, in their own strange way, the two carpets are more ‘beyond us, yet ourselves’ than the bog beast or the equinophobic five-year-old. I will try to explain this. A textile image is immanent to its fabrication. Because of this, the orientation and symmetries of a carpet pattern have a compelling substance to them, an integral sense of order that, when worked out, is part of their delight. McHugh has upset that sense of order, so that one can never really settle into patient scrutiny of a textile image. What we know in what we see is now much harder to identify, which makes the carpets even more richly tactile, consisting as they do of textured, uneven surfaces, precariously contained by continuous borders.

McHugh has linked these carpets to images used for projective testing, such as those designed by Hermann Rorschach, and certainly they offer numerous suggestions of landscapes and figures. However, it is significant that with these carpets McHugh seems less confident than with other of his pictures, exploring a largely unknown technique for its possible visual and tactile effects. To put this differently, whereas every other object and image in the exhibition is keyed to prompt memories of oneiric anxieties, displaced fantasies, and the like, condensing these into artefacts saturated with associations, the carpets offer what one might call a more unsaturated puzzlement. There is a freshness to them precisely because they are unresolved, not in their fabrication, of course – these are well-made, labour-intensive objects – but semantically. What is more, although McHugh exhibits these as wall hangings, to be viewed as pictures, they largely scramble attempts to see in them figures detached from a support.

As a result, one cannot help but wonder what difference it would make if this pictorial elevation was abandoned and each carpet was placed upon the floor. McHugh still seems to take the side of the painter or picture-maker over the carpet-maker, even when making carpets. Yet his accomplishment here is not pictorial. It is to have led the decorative somewhat awry. In comparison with these carpets, the two highly accomplished small paintings of a kind for which McHugh is best known, Wire Mother and Song, Wandering Womb, seem a little too confident in their iconography of twisted, nightmarish nature and barely repressed grotesqueries. This criticism might seem mean-spirited, but it is warranted because of both the quality and the stakes of the exhibition.