In Pursuit of the Brocken Spectre

Neil Carroll

14 Feb, 2020 - 2 Aug, 2020

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Curator’s Notes: Patrick T. Murphy, RHA Director

Neil Carroll’s work in the RHA space punches us with scale. We are not used to such scale in Irish art. With one work 5m long and 3m high this artist is ambitiously rising to the challenge of the immense space of the Gallagher Gallery. Which to be clear is quite ordinary when compared with its international counterparts. To “make” such large works Carroll had to procure a suitable studio and did so by adapting an open cowshed in the Wicklow countryside and working through the winter, that’s determination.
These artworks rest uncomfortably with the term painting. Though they sit on the wall, are rectilinear, their making has little to do with the conventional notion of what constitutes painting. Collage and appliqué, added to the techniques of building and construction, are the strategies deployed to build these artworks. If they are the verbs in the grammar of this work the nouns, adjectives and adverbs are plaster, wood, household paint, metal, plastic and webbing.
The antecedents of these works can be found in the innovations of American painting of the mid-20th century, artists like, Jasper John, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. And in the more recent epic painting of Anselm Kiefer.
Carroll’s works engage us by their ability to be large and forceful in aspect and delicate and inventive in detail. There is a melancholy here, a paean to sometime lost. The Brocken Spectre referred to in the artist’s titling of this show is an atmospheric occurrence experienced on high mountain tops where the sun casts an enlarged prismed human shadow across the clouds below the summit. This phenomenon is eerie and elusive and perhaps the desire to chase and capture such spectre provides the emotional drive that pervades this work. Patrick T Murphy, RHA Director, March 2020
(We hope when restrictions are lifted to be able to provide a number of weeks for this exhibition to be open to the pubic again)


Neil Carroll’s solo exhibition, In Pursuit of the Brocken Spectre  might be best considered a transformative project rather than a definitional one; unlike the continual endgame of much of contemporary painting, the grounds of his practice are established along the lines of yearning thought. His is an abstract art, characterised by what art theorist Jason Gaiger terms the ‘additive strategies’ of collage, montage and construction. Taking the technical supports and limits of the fictive, painted space that we think of as ‘pictorial’ as both his material and content, he is minded completely to reconfigure the fundamental elements of figure and ground, depth and surface, frame and edge. These relationship sets are taken apart, disrupted, rendered unstable and contingent, open to possibility.
Speaking to the processes that propel his art, Carroll talks of how “the artist pulls at the skin of his known world”. It is a phrase suggestive at once of his relationship with his immediate (urban) environment from which the fabric of what he describes as his ‘built-paintings’ (assemblages of standard household paints, wood, plaster and metal and other construction materials) are drawn. For an artist for whom there is such mutual consequence between conceptual concerns and material process, it might also equally refer to how ‘skin’, as substrate, is incised, peeled back, layered in on top of itself.
Formally, the pieces have an architectonic underpinning; sutured fragments abut and overlap, set against larger planes as if in accordance with an informal diagram whose bounding lines have been knotted and folded. The effect is to create an “experiential space-in-process […] a more abstract, transformable and provisional space.”
There is also an affective dimension the artist seeks to inject into surface and ground; torn, abraded, gouged, there is a sense they have been placed under pressure, the layers of their making akin to geological strata. If Carroll’s earlier works reflected the contingent spaces of the city, these latest paintings seem to belong to the mountains, to another sense of place, one muted by time. They hang like sheared planes marked with disjunctive cleavages of foliated rock. Even the few washered fixings that anchor the heavier fragments look for all the world like rock climbing bolts.
The Mountain and the Glacier have long been central sites in the Romantic imaginary and the latter holds for Carroll a specific allusion to an agent of transformation and the reality of the idea of metamorphism. But ours is an age when many glaciers will make their final retreat and become a locus of mourning rather than reverie or worship.
The Brocken Spectre is an ephemeral projection of oneself cast and reflected onto an ethereal and evaporating surface. From Coleridge onwards it has been poetic metaphor for unmet and impossible aspiration. In Carroll’s allegorical reading, this image of a spectral ideal is a revelatory, almost epiphanic, glimpse of one’s own alterity. The thought that optical illusion might call up existential illusion and only sharpen the felt absence of a unified self is what drives his pursuit, is grist to the mill, for this artist’s imagination.
Introduction by Aodhán Rilke Floyd.

Public Events

Friday, 28 February, 1pm: Exhibition Walk-Through, Neil Carroll and RHA Director, Patrick T. Murphy
Thursday, 26 March, 12pm: Tour for the Visually Impaired led by artists and musician, Emilie Conway and RHA Public Engagement Curator, Róisín Bohan.
Saturday, 28 March, 2pm: Tour for the Visually Impaired led by artists and musician, Emilie Conway and RHA Public Engagement Curator, Róisín Bohan.

  • Date:

    14 Feb, 2020 - 2 Aug, 2020
  • Time:

    Monday – Sunday: 11:00 – 17:00 Wednesday Late Opening: 11.00 – 20.00
  • Price:

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