Through Our Eyes: Belfast / New York (2006)
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A Visual Conversation Between
Belfast and New York City Artusts

Before it ever looked across national boundaries, Artist Exchange International was created as a way for NY artists to articulate their complex responses to 9/11. In the wake of the World Trade Center’s destruction, many local artists experienced an expansive conversation in our studio visits, during which we found that while history may define art, art is also a profound comment on history. These conversations began in the studio and have continued on into the wider community. Rather than positioning ourselves as unique and ultimately local, AEI invited international artists to add their voices and their experiences to our own. Given Belfast’s history of conflict, its political uncertainty and the current range of arts initiatives promoting inclusion, good relations and reconciliation, Belfast is a powerful place to begin the conversation.

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Belfast and New York are also ports, each with a different past and an uncertain future. “Through Our Eyes: Belfast/New York” opens up a fresh dialogue about the world through its artists who are its “surveyors”. The value of these multiple perspectives is inherently linked to community through the artists who can visually articulate what often cannot be spoken aloud. A single image may encompass the thoughts of many and provide a framework for contemplation where events may render us speechless.

The Northern Irish artists are a range of practitioners including those whose work spanned and evolved during the period of the Troubles, and continued post ceasefire (Duncan, Pakenham, Duffy); those who are not native to Northern Ireland but now live and work there (Pico, Pound, Artizone, Richards, Connolly) and those who were born into and grew up with the Troubles (Ritchie, McCullough, Artt, Whitten, Trouton). Together, these thirteen artists show work which is strong in its evocation of memorial, ritual and emblem and offers a fresh insight into a transitional period of time in Irish History.

As an overview of motif, common strands weave their way through the works of all the artists. Hence we have work that is fractured and reconstructed, makes direct interventions with the body, distort and blurs, manipulates and observes. A number of exhibitors use organic or natural forms, explore ephemera, take a nomadic stance and sift through cultural or personal detritus. For some, positioning themselves in time and place means an examination of the physical and social landscape. Some markers recognize the distant past and all the elements are acknowledged from fire to snow.

Most of these artists have never met and yet already, the work has begun to converse.

Claire Whitten paints the roads, which run throughout Belfast, passing dereliction and new builds, a contrast of rebirth and neglect. She sees these roads and avenues as neutral ground, which underpins the transitional period in Belfast’s development - physical, political, and cultural. These streetscapes reflect the changing history of the city through its buildings, old and new, where the former is demolished and the latter sprouts on top.

Michael Zwack engages with layers of landscape, superimposing objects and areas from different places and time to create environments which seem familiar, yet are not places, which exist outside of the artist’s mind. Transferring projected images onto the canvas in skeins, water, landscape, architecture, and writing are like mythologies eroded away and reappearing. His surfaces are great neutralizers; presence and absence are evoked through memory, structure and direct experience.

Currently Rita Duffy, in her painting, has documented a series of watchtowers, now mainly disused, which are located along the borderline of North and Southern Ireland. In Irish mythology, Cuchullain patrolled this border, the men of Ulster having been cursed so long ago. Duffy has been both observer and observed and her paintings offer a perspective through the eyes of a hawk. They miss nothing. They leave nothing out. In Romantic Landscape nostalgic notions of the ‘auld sod’ are quietly dispelled. Ireland, seen from above, a lush patchwork quilt, is overlain by the cool steel of a gun in sharp focus.

Barbara Friedman’s paintings are pieces of narrative that move across our field of vision. Where we are going and where we come from teeter physically on the verge of eventuality. Through the windshields in Wiper and Passenger we are metaphorically catapulted through space. The blurred spaces the wipers clear in the face of rain are intuitive moments of realization, like inhales.

Gail Ritchie makes work, which is underpinned by archaeology and self-excavation. For From the sky the artist collected kitsch ‘snow globes’ from various tourist destinations. Belfast has received world attention because of its troubled past and not because of its possibilities as a tourist destination and therefore no snow globe of the city exists. The artist commissioned her own and used as the image the famous cranes of Harland and Wolff Shipyard, builders of the Titanic. The simple gesture of shaking the globe is all at once political, terrifying and beautiful.

In contrast to these snowstorms, Acitore Z Artizone, has made a video work about ‘bonfires’. Traditionally lit on the 11th July, after months of collecting wood, rubbish, tyres, and anything that will burn, these fires precede the marches of 12th July. Taken out of context, with just the image of the bonfire looped, the effect is mesmeric and awesome. We are transported away from the political present to the primitive past where fire was a lifeline and not a triumphant pyre, where shamans not politicians were our guides.

Robert Janz is a storyteller and has been known to make drawings that appear when torched or evaporate when dry. In the installation Melt Lament, caribou made from sticks suspend over a bowl of ice. His ephemeral work has much to say about construction as it does consumption. The precarious balance of the natural world is as environmental as it is political. In the past, Janz’ graffiti-like clandestine drawings, (an unfolding fist on the Berlin wall) are a step ahead of the governments who could pull them down.

Ross Neher paints fortresses. The way in is formidable—the mind slows down the light through the structure of the painting, always filtering. In the absence of daylight we see regions of deep space. There is beauty and tension in what is timeless and what can be contained. Neher’s midnight light is an intuitive force within Blue Clarion where black structures confine portals. Here one-point perspective can be seen as Western art’s last stand.

William Artt uses purely digital methods to fuse manmade symbols and signs with images of natural phenomena to explore how we navigate through contemporary society. Geometric abstractions are layered with diffused organic forms to create works which cross media and blend digital manipulation. Despite signs, way markers and directions we can still lose our way.

Northern Irish artist Jack Pakenham’s paintings are populated with invented figures, which can be masked, hooded, blindfold, gagged. A reoccurring motif is that of a red haired marionette, or ventriloquist’s doll, symbolic of a world where people cannot speak, or if they do, it is as puppets with an unseen hand at the controls. Another motif is that of a kite, inscribed with the word ‘peace’, flying overhead, brick anchored, questioning the ability to sustain peace in a world that is so complex and cleaved.


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Other Exchanges

- Berlin / New York Exchange
- Wuppertal / New York Exchange
- New York City Exchange
Sept. 2006 The Painting Center
Sept. 2006 Studio Visits
Sept. 2006 Pace University
Sept. 2006 Panel Discussion
see details
view all artwork
Acitore Artezione
William Artt
Bill Brand
Emma Connolly
Rita Duffy
Ray Duncan
Barbara Friedman
Mimi Gross
Robert Janz
Katy Martin
Ruth McCullough
Ross Neher
Mark O’Grady
Jack Pakenham
Ima Pico
Adele Pound
Peter Richards
Gail Ritchie
Maura Sheehan
Sandi Slone
Gwenn Thomas
Jennifer Trouton
April Vollmer
Claire Whitten
Jo Wood-Brown
Michael Zwack
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