View of “Isabel Nolan,” 2014. From left: The view from nowhere, 2014; Here (beneath the endless night), 2014; The weakening eye of day, 2014.

View of “Isabel Nolan,” 2014. From left: The view from nowhere, 2014; Here (beneath the endless night), 2014; The weakening eye of day, 2014.

Isabel Nolan

View of “Isabel Nolan,” 2014. From left: The view from nowhere, 2014; Here (beneath the endless night), 2014; The weakening eye of day, 2014.

Italo Calvino once argued that writers had to “set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine.” Artistic vitality becomes possible, Calvino believed, by having “immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement.” Exemplary in this regard is Goethe’s 1780 declaration that he planned to write “a novel about the universe.” Isabel Nolan’s “The weakened eye of day” was no doubt conceived in a similar spirit of absurd overambition. Its title adapted from a description of the dimming sun in Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush,” this was an exhibition about the universe—or at least about humanity’s efforts to comprehend its place in the universe—improbably condensed into four compact galleries.

Each of these interlinked, domestic-scale spaces staged a distinct meditation on past, present, or future time, with each section granted its own metaphysically evocative subtitle. So in gallery one, “A visible edge for what can be known,” the prose-poem wall-text Rock founded place (all works cited, 2014) focused on primordial beginnings, speculatively reflecting on the emergence of the first rock on Earth and its relation to deep-time changes in the surrounding environment. Gallery two, “The invisible in the visible,” progressed to consider humanity’s ancient quest for spiritual solace in the heavens. Included here was The Sky is not bounded by a fixed edge!: An illuminated rug to accommodate a medieval mind, a radiant multicolored carpet whose elegant pattern is based on elements from a purely decorative page in the ninth-century Irish gospel manuscript, the Book of Kells. Alongside the more humble Nothing new under the sun—consisting of nine simple, brightly painted ceramic bowls—the carpet contributed to a symbolically potent scene, pitched somewhere between holiness and homeliness.

Present in all four rooms were strange biomorphic sculptures on stone plinths: unique, open-form shapes, hand-modeled from wire, metal mesh, plaster, and Jesmonite. As an accompanying text indicated, these pale, pastel-hued entities—loosely resembling cell structures or plant forms, though not quite mimicking either—were the model for the shape-shifting protagonist of the exhibition’s unfolding existential story. These multistranded, divergently evolving creations were Nolan’s material analogues for the growths and gaps in human knowledge. In gallery three (“A structure for reality revealed”), it was intriguing to see one such biomorph, Here (beneath the endless night), centrally placed and raised high on the tallest of the exhibition’s pedestals. From this lofty position, the peculiar figure appeared to survey scientific efforts to map the cosmos: Based on my recent observations (1–7), a group of color drawings derived from astrophotography images found online and in books; a sturdy, gatelike steel structure (Somewhere between Andromeda and Vulpecula: Sky Atlas) inspired by the overlaid grid on an astronomical atlas; and a floor-based constellation of intersecting spheres and hemispheres that could have been an unfinished model of a planetary system. That this piece, The effect of its past and the cause of its future, also resembled a collection of kindergarten toys seemed aptly bathetic within the exhibition’s purposefully overreaching conceptual scheme.

If in this third space Nolan puzzled over scientific findings regarding the scale of the universe, the final room concentrated on the revealed corollary of this expanded knowledge: that the sun will go cold and the universe will end. Typically, however, the conclusion was ambiguous. Quoting Lars von Trier’s devastating end-of-the-world drama Melancholia (2011) in its nihilistic title (“The shadow of future events: well what did you expect?”), this gallery was nevertheless dominated by, of all things, a huge, wall-filling photograph of two donkeys in a Dublin graveyard—adding deadpan comedy to any implied despair. Juxtaposed here with The weakening eye of day, a giant sculptural coil of mild steel, wadding, wood, and thread—a wonderful gray squiggle in space—this unforeseen last photograph declared the nonredemptive intent of Nolan’s art. But in its outsize ordinariness, and in the company of more unearthly forms, this peculiar piece of nature photography was also a concluding demonstration of her work’s strange, unpredictable power.

Declan Long