Isabel Nolan

Marooned in the middle of the long, pristine white gallery was a thin, two-meter-tall archway, Portal Site, 2007, painted lime green on the inside and dark blue on the outside. Placed with evident precision close to an open staircase from which visitors emerge into the main exhibition space, but decidedly off-center, this functionless doorway led anywhere and nowhere. It notionally framed two works located at some distance at opposite ends of the room—a small floor sculpture, Is it cold out there?, 2007, and a large fabric wall hanging, Is this the end of our expectations?, 2006—on a slightly diagonal axis, but it occluded none of the other works in the exhibition. The portal’s modest scale, intense color contrast, compelling fragility, and studied lack of purpose provided an abstracted entry into a fragmented galaxy of handcrafted images, objects, and text works. Illuminated by myriad tiny starbursts (both literal, as in some drawings of nebulae, and metaphorical) and punctuated by occasional self-defeating silences (an abstract painting in the gallery’s office space titled Total silence fell, 2006, was wryly complemented in the main gallery by a watercolor in which a rudimentary rainbow is accompanied by the words total silence fell again), the show included twenty-one small drawings and watercolors, two sculptures, two large wall hangings, and a projected DVD, The condition of emptiness, 2007.

This eleven-minute narrative, modulating between printed text and animated pencil drawings, exemplifies Nolan’s freewheeling back-and-forth between absorbed diaristic intimacy and idle cosmic fancy: The grandiose title might as easily occur in abstruse speculations on the nature of the cosmos as in some melancholic description of personal ennui. The video features a gradually unfolding series of typewritten bulletins, apparently composed during a period of self-imposed isolation on the part of their author, addressed to an unnamed intimate and signed anon x. These ruminations speak of loneliness and indecision; of faith, dishonesty, pointlessness, and love; of the necessity for tenderness and the inevitability of pretense. The texts are interspersed with images of a hand, drawn in awkward positions, suggesting meaningless gestures born of idleness or agitation. This solipsistic illustrated epistle is followed by an animated coda in which a tree isolated against a fauvist sky gradually morphs into an ever-expanding psychedelic vortex, rendered in colored pencil, only to dissolve eventually into a white emptiness.

Is it cold out there?, an off-white ring of roughly painted fiberglass spheres of irregular sizes, contrives to resemble both a misshapen, outsize pearl necklace and the model for a solar system whose constituent planets huddle together for comfort. The most formally accomplished and endearing work in the show, Rings of Saturn, 2007, features a rectangle of purple cloth, with a cream cloth underlay, embroidered in one corner with a depiction of a ringed planet. Suspended a hairbreadth above this colorful, flattened slice of outer space is an off-white, open-volumed sculpture assembled from interlocking drinking straws covered in painted fiberglass, vaguely resembling a cartoon depiction of an orbiting satellite. Intimate but estranged, this sculpture’s two constituent elements almost connect, but not quite.

The exhibition’s self-consciously disarming title, “This time I promise to be more careful,” taken from one of Nolan’s ethereal pencil drawings of the faces of young women (many are of a friend she has known since childhood), suggests the niggling guilt and unreliable guarantees that are part of everyday life, in this instance one that happens to be intermittently dedicated to the making of artworks and the orchestration of exhibitions. The show’s occasionally off-kilter melding of abstraction and figuration, image and text, stillness and animation, conspired to emphasize an underlying thematic: the desire to collapse distances—whether between far-flung celestial bodies or orbiting individual egos—along with an acknowledgment of the improbability of ever achieving this; stargazing may be as fruitless and inevitable as navel-gazing.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith