Messages from the Maze

In Present Perfect, Brendan Earley’s exhibition of new work – and a response to the restoration of Brian O’Doherty’s 1996 One Here Now wall paintings at Sirius Arts Centre – the artist puts forth as an inspiration the mythological figure of Ariadne, the lover (and saviour) of Theseus, whose gift of a ball of string, trailing behind the hero, led him safely out of the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Earley recalls, in an accompanying text, having heard Ariadne referred to as the first architect (despite Daedalus having designed the labyrinth), surmising that “perhaps it is the fact that she made sense out of the elaborate and confusing structure that lends credence to this claim.” This reflection, however, also proposes architecture as something to be figured out, to be overcome rather than to become lost within. The maze is a test, a riddle, or, for those who succumb, a crypt.

The exhibition, in this reading, is a labyrinth as well, a sequence of apertures and obstacles, open passages and shuttered doors, pitted with apparent deviations and digressions, that, only upon completion (when one reaches the end of the string), is recouped as a teleological trajectory. This is also modernism itself, retroactively – and spuriously – fitted into a linear continuum, leading towards a conclusion that is, at the same time, its expiration. But what if we could re-trace these movements, split and fray the threads so that they lead us off-course, deeper into the maze? 1

Earley’s work impels such an exploration, setting out a series of discrete objects that are, at once, individual evocations of the labyrinthine (patterns, circuits, spirals, messages, guides and signals) and fragments within a larger constellation – one which continues beyond his exhibition into the adjacent room of the One Here Now murals. There is a silent communication here, between these two spaces, not only in the reiteration of certain formal motifs or references (for instance, O’Doherty’s employment of string as a device to attain straight lines in his wall drawings finds a mythological ancestor in Ariadne) but in the very act of restoration. The stripping back of layers of overpainting, liner paper, paste, plaster and filler to unveil the original nine-panel work finds a correlation in the re-negotiation of modernism from our own, contemporary, vantage point. After all, Earley’s work has always been strongly associative, drawing connections to other places, other’s practices. This tendency is here reaffirmed through the works’ compositions, materials, and titles. Take the A Train, for example. A perfectly circular aluminium hoop is attached to the gallery wall, loosely framed by another, undulating and irregular, concentric ring. The exterior circle recalls a ripple or a halo, a wavering approximation of the interior. As the title suggests, the A Train, the subway into New York, is represented by a pair of circuitous loops, an eternal return that has some grounding in prosaic reality (while, at the same time, recalling Duke Ellington’s signature tune, a hit song that helped mythologise the line in popular culture): “There is a strange symmetry to the line. You step on at the 207th Street station in Inwood in northern Manhattan, and you step off at the Far Rockaway/Mott Avenue terminal in Queens, near a western Long Island hamlet named Inwood.” 2

One comes back to (almost) where it all started. The work finds a counterpart in The Runner, a sculptural assemblage consisting of an aluminium base cast from a polystyrene packing insert, an extended curved metallic rod, and a grey T-shirt, emblazoned with a hand-drawn rendering of the poster from John Carpenter’s 1981 dystopian action movie ‘Escape From New York’ 3. This latter element, with its logo etched in pen and left half-finished, again alludes to the geographical locus of late modernity – and the incompletion of its project. That period’s (wilfully misrepresentative) emphasis on a process of increasingly formalistic abstraction in modernist painting short-changed those movements that preceded the New York School: reduced to interim stages, stepping stones towards high modernism, without consideration of their individual, unfulfilled potentialities. Modernism, therefore, must continually re-open itself to these undiscovered passageways, detours, and departures from the established course. This return finds a metaphorical expression in Earley’s own repetition of materials (items of clothing and aluminium casting having been utilised throughout his practice) and methodologies. The drawing on the T-shirt, with its densely-hatched field of ink marks slowly accumulating from the bottom to the top of the image, utilises an approach that is evident in other works here – Some Marks on the Nature of Time and the diptych Above Us Like Giant Parentheses – as well as his previous drawings. One can get lost in this process, methodically filling a page with short, sharp hatchings, overlaying one another, obliterating the spaces between marks. In other instances, the application of ink is sparser, fluid and reminiscent of more familiar forms. In Ariadne Street, a grid-like cluster of vibrant taxi-yellow lines against raw linen, the labyrinth becomes a map of Manhattan. A blank gap at the upper edge of the canvas stands in for Central Park South, Broadway cuts a languid, looping path through perpendicular city blocks, a flurry of diagonals denotes the West Village. Tellingly, Earley doesn’t signpost these points: the map only shows the outline, not the route to be followed.

There are other clues. In Beyond the Pale, a steel frame holds a horizontal canvas. A swirl of three, overlapping, aluminium rings hovers above the linen backdrop and the central image of a void, embroidered in concentric circles of deepening blue thread. The work, laid flat and waist high, resembles a compass or a sundial – although it resists any indication of place or time. Rather, its function seems to disorient the viewer, to turn them back towards other motifs, moments, within the exhibition. Even its title points to prior associations, as a near synonym of O’Doherty’s formative 1986 text Inside the White Cube, where he states: “Art exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern), there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there.” 4 This sense of drift, of uncertainty of one’s position or direction, permeates the exhibition space: others seem to have been here before and have left signs of their presence. A standing structure evokes a flag through its patchwork composition of triangular green and grey and blue segments. The fabric hangs slackly from an angled stainless steel rod, its pattern collapsing into overlapping folds, lightly skimming the floor. The title, Bits of me (tent, coat, pillow case, sleeping bag), suggests that a traveller, a fellow wanderer through the labyrinth, has cast off his belongings and left them as a sign to others. These ‘bits’ are what provide warmth, sleep, shelter. Are they no longer required because their owner has given up – or has he escaped? Is the object a warning to turn back or an encouragement to keep going? The divided diagonal patterning on the fabric is reminiscent of the flags in semaphore, a signalling system used by sailors, while the flag itself, echoing the ships visible in Cobh harbour, suggests the postscript to Ariadne’s story. After defeating the Minotaur and escaping the labyrinth, Theseus and Ariadne sailed to the island of Naxos, before he abandoned her there (where she eventually married the god Dionysus). The narrative is one of repeated escapes.

Back in the exhibition, one finds other twists and turns in the labyrinth. Tucked away in an alcove, almost hidden from view, is a linen canvas depicting a swirling, spiralling form. The lines criss-cross and merge, expanding from spidery grey filaments to thick black strokes, to twinned embroidered strands orbiting around the circle from opposite directions. These threads spill off the canvas, falling straight to the gallery floor. As the title, It’s About Time, indicates, the work suggests the (eventual) discovery of a hidden map, a long-delayed solution to one’s wanderings. And yet, even here, one is plunged back into the maze: the two threads simply offer a choice of paths, this way or the other, even if they hadn’t been abruptly snipped and left to dangle limply at one’s feet. Instead, maybe the title implies something else; the relationship to time (or timelessness) that comes with the re-engagement with (what used to be) a closed and seemingly concluded modernism. Earley’s practice has consistently pried open this door, exploring the ramifications and residual effects of the modern period – an era which is both distinct and inextricable from the contemporary moment. 5 Thus, a nearby work, such as Some remarks on the nature of time, with its all-over accumulation of short, sharp pink marks arranged in slightly curling rows, with each stroke visibly distinguishable yet part of a greater mass, operates on two levels: as a record of Earley’s arduous and laborious process of drawing 6 and as an allusion to modernity’s own slow progression towards absolute non-representation. The image, naturally, bears resemblance to a very late-era colour-field painting, an artwork which represents only itself, as the ‘dead end’ of pure formalism.

The present perfect tense indicates a connection between present and past, as in the phrase “I have walked” or “we have been here before.” The auxiliary verb “to have” therefore brings prior events up to now, inferring the completion of an action in the present moment (the present perfect continuous tense suggests that this action is still ongoing). As a title, it implies a correlation between one’s current experience and a historical moment that is, at once, updated and resolved. Yet this position only makes sense from the outside, able to look down on the map and see it in its entirety: it is a different matter when one is lost in its corridors. Recall Earley’s statement at the outset, of architecture as an act of ‘making sense’ of the structure, and only then can one envisage Ariadne as the triumphant interpreter of the labyrinth’s riddle, as the bearer of a secret knowledge that states: “I have made my way out.”

  1. Declan Long, in an interview with Mick Wilson, picks up on this propensity, suggesting that, in Earley’s practice, “there is a sense of looking back and wondering about paths not taken or potential not fulfilled.” ‘Incompletions: A Conversation on Brendan Earley’s Recent Work’, Brendan Earley: Veneer (Dublin: Earley Vision, 2006) p. 72
  2. Manny Fernandez, “Longest, and Possibly Coolest, A Train Still a-Thrumming at 75,” The New York Times, September 10, 2007
  3. The film, which imagines a crime-ridden America of the late 80s, sees Manhattan turned into a federal prison, with inmates hemmed in by patrolling helicopters and guards along the perimeter. As the voiceover states at the outset of Carpenter’s film: “The rules are simple. Once you go in, you don’t come out.”
  4. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Expanded Edition) (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), p. 15
  5. Architecture, repeatedly addressed in Earley’s practice, being the hallmark of modernism’s transition into the post-modern: “It is well known that postmodernism is at one with a negative judgment on these aspirations of the high modern [i.e. Utopianism], which it claims to have abandoned – but the new name, the sense of a radical break, the enthusiasm that greeted the new kinds of buildings, all testify to the persistence of some notion of novelty or innovation that seems to have survived the modern itself.” Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991) p. 107
  6. Earley’s explanation of the process is also suggestive of movement, enclosure and entrapment: “Since they are such large drawings, when I start in the corner the markers are full of ink but by the time you start moving your way through the drawings, the ink and nib are gradually being eroded and the tip is destroyed […] because it’s such a large drawing the actual measure of your arm’s length and stretch affect your lines and they begin to curve a bit in corners.” ‘A Philosophers House. An interview with Brett Littman’, Brendan Earley: Small Fires Started Daily (Dublin: Earley Vision, 2010) p. 18

Chris Clarke, 2018

Black Sticks Studio