On my second visit to Fergus Feehily’s exhibition today there was, within five minutes of entering, a full-blown fire drill. As the sirens quickly vacated Trinity College I became aware of an odd kind of smell, possibly smoke. For a split second I reflected on the possibility that the Douglas Hyde could be in the process of being burnt down, or at the very least smoke-damaged. Art, after all, though mythologised and loved in equal measure, has yet to develop the capabilities to become fire-proof. Thankfully though this most rapidly-spreading blaze had not consumed the Douglas Hyde and I was able to have another look after a brief trip outdoors.
The paintings, and I mean this in the best possible way, could indeed resemble the remnants of a burnt-out house. Those fragments of objects, confounding in their continued survival. Found objects proliferate through the exhibition; found frames, found drawings, haphazard pieces of wood, each with their own distinct resonances. These objects are then subsumed within Feehily’s practise and appropriated to form the small-scale constructions which dominate Pavillion. Why he uses these tangential pieces of visual matter is another matter entirely. On first encounter with the works the initial impression is that the frames and drawings are created by Feehily himself. Through the use of found objects perhaps he is trying to suggest the unknowability of a work of art; we are left in doubt as to where the artist’s hand has indeed lingered. This unknowability is further re-iterated through Feehily’s tentative creation of three dimensional spaces on the picture planes of these constructions. Paintings on mdf surfaces are reguarly covered up almost agressively by painted and unfinished segments of wood. In De Liefde for example, a small painting is hidden from full view through the unapologetic and meticulous insertion of a flat, painted section of mdf. This in turn is enclosed by two painted wooden borders into which the construction is screwed directly into the wall. This suggestion of three dimensional space compels the viewer to navigate around the painting, peer into these spaces in an attempt to see what’s underneath. Through this demarcation of the spaces (of painting) which the viewer is or is not permitted to see, we become very curious indeed. What is underneath this piece of mdf? Does the painting continue underneath or is he just fooling us around? Though Feehily has affirmed that the painting does indeed continue underneath (and that it is up to previous standards) this question quickly becomes irrelevant. The painting has become completely self-contained and simultaneously focuses the intellect and curiosity of the viewer solely within the borders it both physically and symbolically demarcates. In this context it makes perfect sense that Feehily has spent time in, and been quietly influenced by Japan. His paintings appear as haikus in their quiet self-containment and reticence to impart any conclusive knowledge.
Thus our visual understanding of the work of art can never be complete. We are always in a way held back from the work, by the work. But how can a work of art, exhibited in a public space, remain unforthcoming? And more importantly, why? Feehily himself has cited the influence of the Hortus Conclusus genre on his work and it makes sense to analyse this reference. These genre paintings from the 1400s were typically small in scale, depicting religious scenes generally within a walled garden or other outdoor space. These works usually featured the Virgin Mary, and the enclosed space was a representation of her purity, her unknowability if you will. Through his references to this genre perhaps Feehily is suggesting once again, the unknowability of the piece of work. By making the works completely self-referential through enclosure Feehily might be rejecting the easy answer we look for in analysing a work of art and subsequently, any conclusion or thorough understanding.
Another important factor in looking at Feehily’s work is its scale; they are very, very small. This is undoubtedly the first thing you notice on entering the subterranean cavern that is the Douglas Hyde. With the exception of one ground-based wooden assemblage, Lakeside Structure, the work here consists of paintings all measuring about thirty five centimeters square, at a very maximum. Feehily’s paintings appear almost like small stains, appearing quite insubstantial on the expansive walls of this vast gallery. Their somewhat irregular installation further adds to this sense. They are hence domestic in size, very much a part of our world. The scale is obviously quite a deliberate choice, running parrallel to Feehily’s tactic of hiding parts of the work from the viewer. Both point to the rejection of any conclusive knowledge to be imparted through the work of art, though the form and size of the work are inherently knowable. By making works of art that are so insignificant in scale, Feehily rejects the notion of a conclusive statement, of the conclusion of a process. The works then must be read as part of an ongoing and haphazard assimilation of ideas and influences on the part of Feehily (which includes many). He is not interested in trying to articulate this process through large art with overblown and finite statements. Instead, Feehily, through his creation of small-scale, domestic works, evokes a moment within this long process. Futhermore the materiality of the works roots them in the world, a world familiar and fundamentally unknowable at the same time. The screws breaching the surface of the paintings and rooting them to the gallery do this quite well. They are not filled in and disguised by Feehily, they exist as what he calls a kind of ‘lower-case violence’ (2009, NCAD). So too through the use of wood which remains rough and unaltered, as found objects and materials typically associated with building encroach upon the concept of the art object as an independent and conclusive entity. In doing so Feehily allows his work to be ‘part of the world and about the world at the same time’; he allows his materials to simulataneously reflect and subsume the wider world (Feehily, 2009, NCAD). By restricting our perception of the work Feehily points to a world that is at once familiar and infuriatingly unfathomable. In the book accompanying Pavillion Feehily cites the concept ‘multiverse’, first termed by the American psychologist William James to suggest the possibly infinite number of universes in existence, each self-contained within themselves (2009, UNN). Feehily’s paintings could be interpreted in this manner also; through their self-sufficiency and unknowabilty they point to a wider world yet to be fully understood or even conceived.