Trinity’s own Douglas Hyde Gallery is easy to miss, tiny and tucked away by the Nassau Street entrance to the college. Unlike other university galleries, such as the enormous UCC Lewis Glucksman Gallery, the Hyde is small and select. Built into the concrete of the Arts Block, it reflects the building’s modern architecture by specialising in contemporary shows that range from the obscure to the award-winning.
On entering the gallery, the viewer is often torn between distaste for yet more concrete boxes and the realisation of escape from the hustle and bustle of college life to a large, bright, airy room: alone with the art.
Currently running are two very different and somewhat contrasting exhibitions, which illustrate the enormous expansion in meaning of the term “art”, featuring Turner Prize-nominated painter Gillian Carnegie and a special exhibition of Japanese tea bowls.
The larger gallery houses a selection of work by Carnegie, an artist that seems to defy both expectation and categorization. Her subjects include fairly standard still-lifes, landscapes and nudes, which appear at first glance to be extremely standard and even a little uninspired.
It was this factor that first drew widespread public attention her way when, on being nominated for the 2005 Turner Prize, The Daily Telegraph printed the headline “Turner Prize shocker: the favourite is a woman who paints flowers. Whatever next?”
Though beaten to the award that year by Simon Starling’s far more Turner-friendly conceptual work Shedboatshed, Carnegie’s work should by no means be dismissed as unoriginal. It is only on closer inspection of her supposed mundane subjects that her technique becomes clear in her almost imperceptible distortion of these everyday subjects.
In her paintings, one finds sculptural blobs of paint shaping the surface and “cracking” backgrounds which add a jarring note of unreality to the scenes. A vase of roses, usually so comforting and positive an image, becomes something unsettling and even a little disturbing through Carnegie’s miserably subdued tones and disintegrating background.
It is not what she paints, then, but the way in which she sees and renders her subject matter, that causes the viewer to become fascinated.
Three paintings in particular, taken from the Overlook series, represent the true individual innovation of Carnegie. Each piece portrays an identical Tudor-style housing facade rendered in a remarkably different way, ranging from neon yellow outlining, to an almost standard landscape, to the apparent structural disintegration of this little house’s world – enormous, rough brush strokes paint the image’s gloomy and dismal sky.
In contrast to Carnegie’s acclaimed work, the gallery’s second choice of exhibition – Japanese tea bowls – is so unusual that director John Hutchinson felt the need to justify his decision in the informative pamphlet provided. To his credit, with a little background information both the artistic merit and contemporary appeal of the objects becomes apparent.
If you ever spend a summer living with a teahouse manager and all-round tea fanatic (as I recently and very enjoyably did), you rapidly learn that there is much more to tea that beating a bag around a mug and adding milk and sugar. Originally discovered in China, the tradition spread to Japan in the ninth century where it became not only popular but also an important part of the cultural tradition. This was due to both its medicinal attributes and its promotion of personal and spiritual well-being.
The traditional Japanese tea service is complex and exists in various forms; from bon temae, a tray service, to kaiseki, a full banquet including Japanese sake wine.
The equipment used in the service is traditionally the most significant component and is always handled with care and reverence. Unsurprisingly, then, tea bowls are of the utmost importance and vary immensely depending on many factors, such as whether the tea being served is thick or thin and whether the ceremony is performed in summer or winter.
The bowls currently on show in the Hyde Gallery are a beautiful representation of artistic aesthetics and functionality that has evolved for hundreds of years in Japan to reflect principles of harmony (wa), respect (kei), purity (sei), and tranquility (jaku) – principles that have governed the tea ceremony for hundreds of years. These bowls are modern creations and reflect and illustrate the numerous different styles of bowl creation, some spun on a wheel, others hand-mounded, delicately glazed and painted inside and out with calligraphy brushstrokes in relief and several other variations.
The bowls are beautiful in their simplicity; their unpretentious exteriors are each individual and unique. So important are traditional bowls that, when broken, they are painstakingly repaired using a mixture of lacquer and often powdered-gold to disguise the dark colour of the lacquer (kintsugi).
The worth of these objects to an entire nation is obvious, and allows us to fully appreciate the unique artistic beauty of both Japanese culture and its people.
Displaying these exhibitions together may seem a bizarre choice but in doing so, the Douglas Hyde prompts its visitors to reassess their idea of modern and contemporary art. The exhibitions show the huge and growing range of meaning of the word “art.” In addition to this, and perhaps more importantly, they illustrate art’s ability to transcend time, culture and function. Both exhibitions involve traditional subjects rendered unique by virtue of their creator’s skill, and together they encourage the viewer to re-evaluate their pre-conceptions of what art is and should be.
All this and you don’t even have to leave the campus.
Gillian Carnegie and Japanese tea bowls exhibitions run in The Douglas Hyde Gallery until 13 November.