Cabbages and Things, 2010

Cabbages and Things
Solstice Arts Centre, Navan
curated by Belinda Quirke
opening reception Friday, 29 October 2010 at 7.30pm
exhibition continues until Saturday 27 November 2010

Cabbages and Things contains two works, paper Cabbages and fabric Things each made in many multiples, filling the galleries with newsprint cabbage stucco and the piercing stares of superhero The Thing cut from fabric remnants. Phelan continues his interest here in not only what art can mean but the different ways it can be made. The Cabbages were made in a series of fabrication workshops with hundreds of helpers over the past two months. The Things were made by Phelan alone, but using different versions of the cartoon superhero from the net, none the same but all somewhat emasculated when appearing in fabric scraps. Together the galleries are decorated with our bleak present though a labyrinth of crisis headlines and hopeless heroes who can never save the day.

Phelan’s artworks are often caught in a seemingly unfinished space with his use of found and raw materials. Phelan further infuses his production methods and works with complex and often conflicting narratives. This has been described as an ‘infrastructural aesthetic’ which not only encodes the materiality of the artwork but demands that the work be read from several possible positions.

This exhibition builds on work that formed part of his much acclaimed Fragile Absolutes project that was exhibited last year in solo exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Chapter in Cardiff. The Cabbages were first made in similar workshops last winter in Cardiff and as with all of Phelan’s newspaper paper works the articles were specific to the context. For Chapter the Cabbages were made from copies of defunct Dublin newspapers that covered the Great Lock-Out of 1913 combined with articles from the Welsh miners strikes in the 1980’s and the then current postal strikes in the UK. Placing labour history into the process and product of the pieces was contrasted by their arrangement which was based on the Baroque ceiling plasterwork in the Chapel at IMMA/RHK, thus fusing distinct social and cultural moments. If a cabbage represents the classic peasant food, when fused with headlines they become something else encapsulated in the subtitle for the work – symbolic history ‘spectral’ fantasmatic history.

For Solstice the newspaper articles sourced and selected by participants have drawn on the current economic crisis, with the Cabbages forming a kind of moribund recession synopsis. Their arrangement echoes the architecture of the building, with even some exiting the gallery into the tiled ‘sky gardens’, with aluminium sheets from the 3 colour litho printing providing the printed material for the outdoor Cabbages. The paper cabbages form a disjointed labyrinth through the galleries, guiding viewers to the Thing works. These fabric pieces also build on a previous work Phantom Blanket, 2008 which presented the cut out face markings of Darth Maul from Star Wars in a found orange blanket. Similarly here the face of the super strong, super loser mutated superhero The Thing from the Fantastic Four is cut from a variety of fabric remnants and scraps, including leather, bed sheets, embossed vinyl, embroidered fabrics and man-made silks. The hapless Thing is graphically represented in a myriad of sources and a selection of these provide the basis for the cut-outs. His expressions waver between ultra tough guy and meek chimp-like expressions, all trapped in an inconsiderate fabric hanging or fabric object.

Phelan continues to examine various ways of making art through collaborations, tertiary sources and outside fabricators. This acknowledges and brings to the forefront the many ways art gets made and how authorship is now sometimes more confused than diffused. For Solstice he decided to engage with local audiences directly by having them help make it. This way of working is somewhere between participatory, relational and community practices with Phelan having positions for and against each, settling on fabrication workshop as a way to more honestly describe what has taken place. Eleven cabbage fabrication workshops took place over the past two months which include participants from Navan Youthreach, Dunboyne Flower Club, Mercy secondary school, Meath Arts Group, and DIT fine art students. Their labour, company and time are much appreciated by the artist and Solstice Arts Centre.

how to make a cabbage instruction workshop

how to make a cabbage instruction guide

James Merrigan ¯DECEMBER_2010_ALTER-EGO(LESS)
ALAN PHELAN_Cabbages and Things_Solstice Arts Centre_Navan_
October 30 – November 27_2010_

Once the Irish were good at political and religious segregation: there actually existed a political left and a right, no centre, no grey area. We were also good at land demarcation: it seemed divisiveness was in the blood. But then capitalism entered the mix, with a smidgin of feminism, a dash of democracy, and the ‘anything-goes’ cherry of postmodernism, and ‘truth’ went a shade of grey. The stone walled fields to the West are quirky remnants of our obsession with land ownership. The current economic crisis is blamed on the banks, but it was our ingrained desire to possess good auld ‘blocks and mortar’ that was the genesis of this crisis.

Walking through Navan town centre en route to Solstice Arts Centre to see Alan Phelan’s solo show, ‘Cabbages and Things’, I notice the streets are static with, ironically enough, gobs of people for a midweek afternoon: it feels like a filmset between takes. One man wears plaster-splashed workwear, but he is just ‘hanging’, with false optimism―NO WORK HERE!

Phelan’s ‘Cabbages and Things’ is a temporal seesaw. The artist’s visual metaphors, built on the unusually textured back of one ugly superhero, and formed from the printed matter of our economically sunk era, slips between boyhood nostalgia and adult crisis.

Semantics is as good a place as any to start discussing Phelan’s textually layered work. Words can sometimes be powerful conduits for latent memories when constructed from sensory experience. The word ‘Cabbage’ was an unpalatable word for me as a kid: I can smell the sweaty steam (with a hint of BO) from the pressure cooker. It could be a rural colloquialism, but for those of you not from such a backwater, ‘cabbage skin’ refers to the unpleasant skin odour you might get from drinking too much the night before. Contextually apt, the loitering Navanites that I passed on the way to the arts centre could be described as ‘cabbaging’, combined with a tangible staleness in the air.

On the other hand,  “Things” could be equated directly with art, as a hard, or no need to define, functionless object. But, “Things” for Phelan references the unlikely superhero, ‘The Thing’ (Ben Grimm), from The Fantastic Four by Marvel Comics. Although The Thing was an American manifestation from the middle-aged Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the former admits that the character was shaped by a challenging childhood growing up in New York’s Lower East Side. Phelan either has an affinity, or empathy, for the science-fiction fantasy hero, the likes of ‘Darth Maul’ from Star Wars and ‘Odo’ from Star Trek Deep Space Nine, have been chosen ‘art protagonists’ in his previous work.

This pattern of nerdy character appropriation is not just for the sake of ‘cool’. These drawn, plastic, computer generated superheroes and villains have a long printed history: a teenager’s morals and ideology are oftentimes borne out of reading, and living through the flawed superhero.

Personally, The Thing is Phelan’s best character appropriation yet. Why? For the very reason that The Thing is a printed character which aligns with Phelan’s own layering of political history in his continuing use of the printed newspaper, especially in his previous character busts of Éamon de Valera in Éamon Often Spoke in Tongues, and Odo in Barbara’s Boy (The Alternate).

Phelan’s ‘Things’ are injected with a psychodynamic pensiveness. Unlike other superheroes, The Thing cannot hide his deformity in either an awkward alter-ego or spandex mask. On the outside, he is more villain than hero. That is why his character development has an added amount of insecurity and self-pity: ultra-human traits. When Phelan cuts the character’s unfortunate facial template into a piece of fabric, which could otherwise act as a mask, there is a paradox between exposure and covering-up. In these instances, the artist achieves pathos for the ‘Things’. Phelan’s repeated portrait of the character further frustrates the paradoxical covered/exposed conflict: we are left to imagine the vain effort made by the ‘ugly’ Thing to cover up with a cut-out fabric portrait of himself; the mask ends up ‘unmasking’ the primary characteristics of The Thing’s deformity.

Pinned to the white walls of Solstice Arts Centre, Phelan’s ‘Things’ are transformed into prophets of torment—kitsch ‘Turin Shrouds’. The best of the ‘Things’ is cut-out in a striped pink|grey|white cotton bed sheet that is strewn on the gallery floor: a signifier for an unkept teenage boy’s bedroom, the space where the superhero is born.

The “Cabbages” element in Phelan’s solo exhibition are sculptural counterparts to the flattened ‘Things’: it’s important to note that the newspaper cabbages were made by local people in a series of fabrication workshops. The press-release states that “The cabbages form a disjointed labyrinth through the galleries [some exiting the gallery into the tiled sky gardens], guiding viewers to the ‘Thing’ works.” This is a very functional description of their purpose, as a secondary guiding-light to the primary devotional ‘Things’. The cabbages segregate rather than lead the way (the reference to the granite stone walls to the West of Ireland earlier was probably suggested to me by the textural grey configurations of the cabbages in the gallery). They are almost funerary in how they mark the ground, wreath-like, as if commemorating something that is dead, concluded, long-gone, devoid of colour, archival. In other instances they look like playful, ecological signifiers, as they traverse Phelan’s improvised wooden trellises. The trellis display could also be equated with the elderlies’ partiality for gardening: Phelan spans the age of man, from comic book adolescence to green-fingered old age. But then again, when you manage to decipher the word “BAILOUT” in the elegant ‘origami’ cabbage heads, you are brought back to the present, a permanent immanence, the newspaper headline is held in time, paused, as we loiter as a culture for what will economically befall us in the future.

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