VISUAL ART: The Golden Bough: Hybrid Cabinet New works by Ronnie Hughes. Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, Parnell Sq Until October 24
The Golden Bough is the overall title of an ongoing series of solo shows curated by Michael Dempsey at the Hugh Lane Gallery. The series has been good so far – it’s included a strong installation by Corban Walker, who represents Ireland at Venice next year – and the current exhibition, Hybrid Cabinet by Ronnie Hughes, is certainly one of the best. Hughes, who is based in Co Sligo, is a painter of elegant abstracts. They evidence an interest in systematic attempts to understand the world, with references to, for example, theoretical physics.
Lest that makes them sound too earnest it should be said that they don’t aim to practice physics by other means, they are about systems of thought and knowledge and, vitally, Hughes has a lightness of touch and wry sense of humour that usually comes across in his work. For the Hugh Lane, he’s looked to the origin of the image of the golden bough in “Virgil’s Gnostic allegory”, the Aeneid. Aeneus, the heroic protagonist, is told that he can only survive a visit to the underworld with the protection of the golden bough. For Hughes, the story “connotes a kind of sympathetic magic between man and nature and, by extension, the ‘divine’”, and is illustrative of the way we continually try to find meaning and order in nature.
“Inherent in both art and science,” he writes, “is the determination to revise, re-examine and reconstitute the world.” His drawings and paintings do this, with tact and humour, and invite us to do so too in the same spirit.
Take two clearly related paintings, Clatter and Fringilla, delicate arrangements of angular geometric patterns. The clue is in the second title. “I see the pairing,” Hughes explains, “as akin to a call and response between finches outside my rural studio.” The colours, and the patterns take on a beak-like, sound-like character.
He found another pictorial source in the sections of “a dismantled plastic pterodactyl” that “becomes fossilised in the paintings’ surface.” A beautifully understated linear composition looks even more like a piece of abstract geometry, but is titled Rime, inviting us to read it as a frosty pattern if we so wish. As he notes of his recent work in general, he likes the ambiguous space between accident and design.
The title work, Hybrid, consists of 15 outline drawings. They look, at first sight, like schematic descriptions of creatures of some sort in a natural history museum. Look more closely and each image is actually composed of mirrored layers of “amalgams of consumer products.” There’s a certain similarity to Michael Craig Martin’s wall-drawings of workaday objects, but Hughes’s drawings venture into their own terrain.
Finally, a display cabinet in the centre of the room contains a large drawing in which a series of join-the-dots networks form a roughly human shape. It had its beginning in a Chinese acupuncture chart, Hughes notes, but he’s elaborated on it, with the aim of mapping “a unique circuit” suggesting something both physical and immaterial. Here and throughout the exhibition he manages that balancing act with wit and elegance. It’s a beautifully poised show.