Early on in my education I was privileged to benefit from a mentorship that will forever stay with me. I was taught that every attempt at making is worthy of reflection. I was taught to think about the way elements act upon one another, and how to enquire into the points of relation between trials. I was taught that the most successful creations eventuate when the aesthetic and the concept work together to give form to something new. I was welcomed into a kind of understanding of what the richness and abundance of these enquiries could amount to; a body of work. A set of visuals so well articulated it is powerful enough to hold space for a deep kind of questioning.
The relationship with my mentor was made possible by an institution that neither us are now a part of. Without resources, programming, assessment papers, a schedule of lectures, a guaranteed exhibition calendar, and most importantly a cohort of students undergoing the same learning experience in the same time-space, I am attempting to integrate all that I have gained from the compact university framework and organise myself around the pursuit of art making. Going on three years without this support, I am revisiting hard drives of documented undergraduate work and finding JSTOR articles from tutorials, conducting a study of my practice. Shuffling through old visual material, I am confident in identifying church architecture as a repeated motif. I am not confident if I am merely besotted with white drapery, lined pews, golden frames and high arches or if this visual patterning is revealing of what my work is probing at. Does this recurrent imagery speak of a shallow interest in Christian sites of worship or is there something else happening worthy of rigorous interrogation?
I scroll through my Instagram feed viewing Seventh Gallery’s stream of posts. A marble altar. A hand extending to touch a framed image of the Virgin Mary. These images, which present as an online portfolio dedicated to the virtual exhibition of artist Kate O’Boyle, is my form of encounter with the physical exhibition Confessions of a Critical Arts Practice. It closed prematurely in March for obvious reasons. True to the kind of quick-fire communication promoted by this platform, an impulsive message sent in reaction to the posts enabled a long conversation with the artist a few days later. I encounter O’Boyle’s work over social media as I am preparing for a solo exhibition that is likely to be postponed and meet her over the phone when I hear that my work will not be shown. Exploring the parallels between my work and hers, we talk about Covid-19, community, and about what it means for one’s critical arts practice to be a public one.
Using materiality common to Church interiors - pools of water, communion wafers, arrangements of stained glass - her work comes into close proximity with actions of faith by replicating, recording and observing ritual. Her handling of material, from wax to molten lead, is ritualistic in behaviour. O’Boyle explores the potential of repeated choreography to affirm and reaffirm the talismanic identity of objects that so often make contact with the body. Working across sculpture and performance, O’Boyle probes at Catholicism as a faith upheld by the site of the self and the site of the Church.
Bringing into focus randomly unearthed documentation of one of her early 2017 graduate works, O’Boyle laughs with unease. I conduct this conversation at a stage in my own development as a young practitioner when in hindsight all my schoolwork may be laughable. Without a family of artists to engage with (or laugh at) it, my own practice is at a formative stage and at risk of having an echo-chamber existence in which its reach short-circuits.
I confess to O’Boyle my unease around those who believe under a religious label; whose private relationship with faith can be located within a shared belief. I am envious of those who are able to understand and access a historically established set of religious texts, paintings and relics. Whose doubt can be off set by discussion with other believers wrestling with their own experience of faith. Who participate in a well established set of communal behaviours in the practice of engaging and reengaging with ideas. Who pursue a shared practice at a dedicated site. This meeting of personal and communal, belief and ritual, is an experience that I am yet to know.
From a Western perspective on the canonised progression of art, Catholicism can be seen as largely responsible for the beginnings of the institutionalised art practice. The Church enabled the development of an epic survey of religious visual storytelling. Counter-Reformation and the dissolution of the unified power of the Catholic power, as a religious and financial institution, gave way to the development of realism followed by modernism, post-modernism and eventually contemporary art. Sites of education and exhibition of art have origins in the quintessential institution; religion.
My relationship with Catholicism is an aesthetic one. It is not shallow, but it is an engagement with the surface of religion. In capturing the facades of its buildings, its walls and entrance ways, I meet it at its front. I keep coming back to the exterior of something I am not a part of. Recently weened from all that is provided by an honours programme, I am experiencing a loss. I am also aware that I am now separate to this kind of structure and that which it can both allow and deny. Institution guarantees communal gathering but prevents an organic meeting of practitioners. I want to believe in the self-initiated kinds of communion that happen when artists create an architecture of support for each other grounded in a curiosity toward the work of the other.
Art making is a practice of faith. In the act of making, one risks many things to give form to an intangible idea. An artwork creates a world of its own whilst revealing something of the place it came from. As artists, we pivot around this core, respecting the source as something sacred that cannot be accessed, but can be glimpsed at through the process of making. Through the development of own our iconography we may also build a community of its own making.