First Martin Westwood and now Tonico Lemos Auad: there must be something about the floor in the Project Gallery that lends itself to re-surfacing. Already dubbed the “carpet artist” by the British media, London-based Brazilian Tonico Auad makes sculptural forms from fluff. His preferred base is a high quality deep-shag carpet which he lays in a space and then scuffs and scrapes, building animal and human figures from the debris as he goes. The resulting environment is both soft and strangely sinister.
His show, Moonbeam 851, is running concurrently at Project with an installation, The Room at the Horizon, by Dublin-based painter William McKeown. McKeown and Auad are poles apart. The first makes small-scale meticulously layered chromatic paintings; the second is a cutting-edge contemporary who transforms everyday objects through a variety of “interventions”. Both find poetry in the everyday and both are inspired by nature, but while Auad’s work is firmly rooted in wild imagination, McKeown seeks to reveal the essential wonder of the world that surrounds us.
As he did for his Ormeau Baths show in Belfast last year, here McKeown has built a deliberately rough-around-the-edges room in which to display his delicate paintings. This is an interesting move for the artist whose work, unlike Auad’s, lends itself easily to conventional gallery display. In creating a new viewing space, McKeown transforms traditionally individual works into elements in an installation.
There is a personal impulse behind the construction of McKeown’s room: it is of the same dimensions as a room in a convent in Waterford where he spent a year painting and developing his work. But more interesting than this biographical detail, is the way in which The Room at the Horizon reveals a fascination with light that is an underlying concern in the artist’s work.
His room within a room is situated in a darkened theatre space at Project. You can encounter it from the outside or inside depending on which door you choose to enter: it is not obvious from the outside where either door leads.
Through one, the eye is forced to quickly re-adjust to lack of light and viewers immediately encounter what is clearly the reverse side of a wall. The feeling is of being back-stage, somewhere you are not normally supposed to venture. Stepping cautiously around the corner, a tall window casts bright fluorescent light into the space offering a chin-height vantage point into a smaller room, in which McKeown’s paintings and drawings hang. Going back out and entering through the other door, the viewer ends up inside the room. Both approaches force us to encounter McKeown’s works in a new way, but it is the visual experience of moving between extremes of light that is most revealing.
His paintings often represent patches of sky, the subtle gradations of colour echoing an almost spiritual encounter with nature. Here, two flower drawings accompany one of McKeown’s trademark graduating grey-yellow watercolours and two more dramatic canvases in dusky pink and sunset orange. Unlike the yellow-grey piece, which has direct formal references to the pigment in the drawing of a primrose, the pink and orange canvases offer more vibrant atmosphere than distilled essence: there is more presence than absence in them. By contrast, their painted black edges tie them to the largest “work” in the room, the hole in the wall.
Essentially a window onto nothing, this rectangular vista into the darkened theatre offers a visual experience not unlike that which McKeown creates in his paintings. Unfortunately the structural paraphernalia of the low-ceilinged space does not lend itself to the pure blackness required to experience this properly. The overall effect however is to make us think not only about what we see, but how we see it.
The lighting in Auad’s room is also garish (something that has more to do with the space than the artist’s choice) and while it suits his purpose, one can’t help feeling the atmosphere would be more pervasive if the lighting were more subtle. Auad’s rabbit forms may be fluffy but their greyness also gives them a ghostly mien. They look ashen, ill, otherworldly, the very opposite of the glowing presences to be found in McKeown’s paintings.
The monochrome carpet and the small scale nature of the figures mean their impressively accurate features are not distinguishable until the viewer gets close. A similar effect is exploited with success in a wall-mounted work made from plucked grape branches. Here, the uniform texture rather than colour fools the eye. Once the monkey skull becomes clear, the few remaining wrinkled grapes look like absurdly juicy earrings on a withered form.
Auad’s fluffy rabbits appear to have scraped and scratched themselves into existence. They are not all fully formed, in some cases they are only beginning to emerge – a circle of rabbit ears peek out; the head of a lion cub gives the impression he is swimming up from underneath the carpet. In the corners, long tails are emerging and more balls of fluff are gathering. The feeling in the room is one of suspended activity while you are looking, the implication being that when you turn away the creatures will go back to their acts of self-creation.
These sculptures are as fragile, physically, as McKeown’s subtle gradations of pigment are visually. They could be crushed with one foot. Texture is as important to Auad as light is to McKeown. But while he delights in the tactile possibilities of his airy medium he also plays on the contrast between his woodland and jungle creatures and their creation from that most tame and civilised of trappings, carpet.
Adding to his list of unconventional materials, Auad also works with bananas, etching images onto their surface by pin. A brown stain remains after the incision; elements of a face appear on individual bananas to form a whole visage from a bunch. Another bunch sports the pins that did the damage, revealing the wound-like nature of the markings.
Both artists create essentially quiet works but Auad’s have a wildness that is in sharp contrast to McKeown’s subtlety. Both use colour and texture to play tricks on the eye.
There is nothing permanent about Auad’s work: he offers an experience that is as ephemeral as it is momentarily engaging. McKeown on the other hand succeeds in capturing and preserving an atmosphere that is at once elusive and distinct. They have created two very different shows, united primarily by the fact that there is something of the magician in both: McKeown operates by skilled sleight of hand, while Auad pulls rabbits from his carpet-lined hat.
First published in The Sunday Times Culture, Irish edition, 4 January 2004.