View of “Eoin Mc Hugh,” 2014–15. Foreground: the ground itself is kind, black butter, 2014. Background: what we know in what we see, 2014.

View of “Eoin Mc Hugh,” 2014–15. Foreground: the ground itself is kind, black butter, 2014. Background: what we know in what we see, 2014.

Eoin Mc Hugh

View of “Eoin Mc Hugh,” 2014–15. Foreground: the ground itself is kind, black butter, 2014. Background: what we know in what we see, 2014.

A curious meeting of man and beast was central to the keyed-up drama of Eoin Mc Hugh’s “the skies will be friendlier then.” Dominating one end of the room was a grotesque quasi-equine sculpture titled the ground itself is kind, black butter (all works 2014): a headless hybrid animal made mainly from wax, black sheepskin, and steel. It was an absurd and somewhat frightening creature: part staggering newborn foal; part menacing, mutant four-legged ostrich. The sculpture’s title—taken from Seamus Heaney’s 1969 poem “Bogland”—was surely meant to highlight how this unsteady, deformed animal had the dark, leathery look of bodies found long-preserved in Europe’s peat bogs. (These centuries-old remains are recurrent objects of poetic scrutiny in Heaney’s early writing).

But the imposing, acephalous beast was also freakishly sui generis—an unnamable being imaginatively retrieved, perhaps, from previously undisturbed depths. And indeed if there was a degree of psychoanalytic suggestiveness to the creature’s aberrant form, the second sculptural presence in the exhibition declared such interests and anxieties openly. This was little Hans nightlight, a small statue of a squatting child, cast with chilly strangeness in shining nickel silver—the title, in this instance, drawn from Sigmund Freud’s influential case study of a boy with an extreme phobia of horses. Maintaining a safe distance from the towering, teetering horse-monster beyond, this gleaming figurine might, by comparison, have seemed a model of threatened innocence. But the kaleidoscopic light beaming from the boy’s open eye sockets seemed to project the child’s now-famous nightmares into the space around it—leaving us to wonder, maybe, if the elaborate, hyperreal creation across the gallery was merely a phantasmal manifestation of the tricks played by a troubled mind.

How the mind responds to what the eyes see (and how the eyes see in relation to what is occupying the mind) has been a continuing fascination for this Dublin-born, Berlin-based artist, who often combines technically dazzling realism with deliberately deceptive content. In Mc Hugh’s paintings, the mixture of astonishing naturalistic detail and disconcerting imagery can involve either high-minded seriousness (he is a committed student of old-master techniques) or a forceful, perverse kind of comedy. A rather restrained example in this show was wire mother, a painting of a flower in full bloom, with each of its five petals rendered in a distinct, strong hue. Given its balanced arrangement of tones, the picture could have seemed like a straightforward exercise in color theory. And yet the central convergence of stalks at the work’s intricate center reveals more salaciously anatomical material: Mc Hugh mischievously taking to an intensified graphic level what might be discreetly implied in, say, a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Mc Hugh’s ability to create a pleasurable and confusing plurality of meaning (and effect) within his art was, however, at its complex peak in an extraordinary series of specially made carpets. Each of these grand, wall-hung textiles is a composite version of multiple other Persian and Turkish rugs that were brought together and radically redesigned (using Photoshop editing techniques) to create striking, convulsive new patterns. So, within the swirling, decorative spaces of works such as what we know in what we see or the skies will be friendlier then (whose citation of a line in Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning” gave the show its title), it was possible to see glimpses of, for example, rural landscapes or dense cityscapes. In places, though, Mc Hugh’s collaged carpets looked most of all like beautifully embellished Rorschach inkblot patterns, testing us each time we gazed at them, asking us to admit to ourselves what it is that our troubled minds really want us to see.

Declan Long