Our experience of art is constantly dogged by a search for meaning. What is the point of this? What sense is the artist attempting to convey? What does it mean to me? Mark O’Kelly’s current exhibition of paintings, collages and archives in the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery provides us with a unique opportunity to explore the creation of meaning itself and to expose those structures which govern its creation.
In his trilogy of installed vitrine pieces, O’Kelly plays on our need to view experiences in context, by literally displaying the context of his work. These glass-covered boxes contain the archives and plans which form the preliminary material for his collages. By showing us the methodology and practice behind his pieces alongside the finished pieces themselves, he is demonstrating that this process is something to be considered in itself. All images that we see in the public domain are subject to editing before we experience them. They are not unmediated; they have been selected for a purpose and at a cost. As consumers, readers and viewers, we edit images in our own way, assessing them for worth and significance, but these images have come to us pre-edited. All material is filtered somehow.
Having made us self-consciously aware of the process, O’Kelly exploits the space this opens up for interpretation. By showing us the subjective process that lies behind all images in contemporary culture, he makes room for subjectivity. In his watercolours, we see people who seem to be looking at and looking for things. A man points to something we cannot see. A woman looks downwards, as though examining something on the ground. His figures are individually creating, doing and making ideas, judgements, investigations. In Couturier, the creation is art, or a vision of beauty; in Reenactment, it is a version of the past.
These figures set up a kind of visual paradox, where we can see what is happening in the picture, but we fall short of being able to understand it fully. We can see the gestures and expressions, but we cannot see that to which they refer. There is a palpable space that cannot be filled with any accessible or universal meaning.
In addition to this space between object and subject, there is also a feeling of space within the paintings themselves. Sometimes,
different figures occupying the same frame can be in different worlds. They are connected, in one location, moment or pursuit, but they are wrapped up in their own activities. Just as we wonder if or how we can engage with them, we wonder if and how they are engaging with each other.
The watercolour images share wall space with a series of picture collages. These collages contain small photos, like magazine shots, spaced out on a black mounting. There is an image from Big Brother, one of the band Take That, and snippets from dance, theatre, film, documentary, sport and TV drama. These images may be familiar or unfamiliar to us, but we recognise them for what they represent. They are each a point of universal reference in a particular formula or genre. They can be rendered coherent to us in a superficial way if we situate them within the wider context of which they are a part. They are the signs of a particular cultural form or practice, which is intelligible to us because we have been bombarded with its images.
It is difficult to look at these collages without being reminded of critical theorist Roland Barthes and his allegation that the media effectively propagates a homogenous and totalising agenda. In essence, it is hard not to feel as though you have been told what to think about images from the media because you know where they belong and you know what they signify. If you haven’t seen the pictured moment, you’ve seen one like it, or you can imagine how such a moment would be. That we are aware of the generic conventions, relationships and stories behind a single image is a further reminder of the mediated and indeed media-created nature of the images that surround us.
Mark O’Kelly does, in fact, have a longstanding interest in the critical theory of Barthes, as seen in his 2005 exhibition In Fashion, which referenced the writings of Barthes. That he can successfully explore such ideas in his work says much for his vision and ability as an artist. In presenting us with different images of different types, he invites us to analyse how we relate to them and how they relate to each other. The vitrine installations remind us that we are editing what he has edited, that we are making what he has made, in our own understanding. These fragmented representations serve to demythologise the notion that there is a definitive image of contemporary culture and to question whether or not media space is an appropriate location for public discourse.
That question is perhaps best expressed in the feeling you get, looking down into a glass box full of neatly stacked pictures, wanting desperately to see what’s underneath – and wondering if it matters that you can’t. But you’ll have to go to the exhibition to know that feeling.
O’Kelly’s current exhibition runs until 22 November