The Shelf Life of Facts, a solo exhibition by Penn State SoVA Professor Helen O'Leary, is on display at The Metropolitan Art Center (The MAC), Upper Gallery, in Ireland through April 24.
O’Leary’s painterly explorations are located between moments of material and emotional certainty, the short shelf life of predictability, both laughing at and questioning the structural prosthesis of conventions established through economic, cultural and gender constraints. This new work concerns itself with the uncertainty present in any economic downturn or change, between youth and middle age, and in the rupture between external and internal life.
“The end of art is peace / could be the motto of this frail device,” writes Seamus Heaney in The Harvest Bow, but it is an end that is rarely, if ever, easily attained. In between the identified need and the desired end is a process of some turbulence and disorder, wherein the claims of fracture and disappointment must be accounted for.
Helen O’Leary’s new work understands the play between a unifying scheme of resolution and its opposite: how art is to be wrestled from difficulty and contest, and may still cohere on a surface that is given to peace as much as to beauty.
Her art draws on her Irish background, and explores with deftness, rigor and craft, the idea of origin, of how everything we subsequently become has been framed by the visual, cultural, moral and emotional lines of definition that are drawn around our formative childhood worlds. In these surfaces, one sees the shadow remnants of ploughed fields and scrubbed wooden tables, of the straight lines of rural conversation and tidy timetables, of the ongoing poetry of season and tide, pattern and ritual.
The beauty of the work is indisputable, but these are paintings that also benefit from considerable intellectual ballast and emotional resonance. As well as their obvious awareness of the painterly tradition, the depth of Helen’s engagement with literature and, in particular, with poetry, is markedly visible in these paintings: Beckett’s restraint, Heaney’s lyricism, Rimbaud’s visionary luminescence, and Chekov’s way of structuring narrative all contribute to the forceful and yet elegant articulation of her work.
There is resolution here, certainly, but it is neither glib nor occasional. What O’Leary offers within her frames are meditative spaces that do not renege on the disarmingly messy business of life, but instead suggest ways in which this might be resolved into moments of intense feeling and deliberate art. As a craftsperson and technician, there is real achievement here: the handling of color, shape and texture reminds us that O’Leary is a painter of profound and noted skill; she is also an artist of sensitivity and range. These are not surfaces easily come by and in their delicate negotiations, they declare a stay on discord and friction, offering to us instead this most accomplished peace." Vona Groarke