Patricia Hurl, The Kerry Babies Trial, 1987, oil on canvas, 61 × 42 7⁄8".

Patricia Hurl, The Kerry Babies Trial, 1987, oil on canvas, 61 × 42 7⁄8".

Patricia Hurl

“Irish Gothic,” a generous survey of Patricia Hurl’s paintings and drawings from across the seventy-nine-year-old artist’s career, is by turns pleasing, poignant, and chilling. One of few solo exhibitions lately programmed at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, this welcome retrospective celebrates Hurl’s four-decade contribution to the slow hard work of making space for women within the patriarchal domains of Irish art, offering well-founded institutional recognition of her artistic stamina and ardently feminist creative mettle.

In 1980—her attitudes and ambitions shaped by seventeen years of marriage and motherhood—Hurl enrolled as a mature student at Dún Laoghaire College of Art and Design on the outskirts of Dublin. Carrying, at that time, a heavy burden of private grief following a stillbirth, she began a process of expressive experimentation, grounded in painting but alive to the freeing postmedium influence of pioneering feminist art from the United States. (Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro are declared inspirations.) Subsequently, she took an active role in the coordination of Ireland’s pathbreaking Women Artists Action Group while cultivating a varied, expansive, exploratory approach to artmaking, invigorated, in part, by her latecomer’s drive to create and to connect with others in a spirit of openness and urgency. Painting, performance, video, collaborative projects: All, at different times, have proved fruitful. Recently, her lasting determination to foster sisterly esprit de corps has led to the founding of another cherished collective: a group of older women artists called, in Gaelic, Na Cailleacha—a term that translates, variously, as “witches,” “divine hags,” or “wise women.”

“Irish Gothic” focuses on Hurl’s figurative painting, highlighting her capacity to look at the world, and into the mirror, with controlled, concerned intensity. As the title signals—with its nods to Grant Wood’s supreme vision of austere American domesticity and, more generally, to Ireland’s rich history of sinister storytelling (in the writings of Sheridan Le Fanu, Regina Maria Roche, Bram Stoker, and others)—these are pictures born of tension and trauma. Several early works felt immediately unnerving. One shows a young girl dressed in a white, full-length first-communion frock, standing in front of a somber-suited man, as if posing for family snapshots. In Hurl’s uncanny rendering, however, the two characters have barely discernible features; they appear monstrous, ghostly, or both. The girl’s traditional gown, moreover, is an overwhelming, outsize robe, encasing her small body inside an absurd, oppressive structure. Superficially depicting a moment of contented togetherness, this unquiet tableau is nonetheless titled Ministry of Fear, 1986.

Many other works reflect on forces of faceless authority and fears of erased identity. Hush-a-bye Baby, 1985–86, is as grave a vision of childbirth as might be imagined: Framed by darkness, a newborn, painted as a mass of creamy smudges and bloodred strokes, is held aloft by a masked medic in dark scrubs. The child’s outline form is uncertain, not quite realized; the adult presence is anonymous and intimidating. The Kerry Babies Trial, 1987—responding to the appalling story of Joanne Hayes, wrongfully accused of a child’s murder in 1984 and subjected to the interrogations of an all-male state tribunal over the course of eighty-two days—centers on menacing figures of masculinist authority: a mysterious triumvirate of black-cloaked judges dominating the congested canvas.

The face most frequently seen throughout “Irish Gothic” is Hurl’s own. From early sketches to later, more resolved paintings, such as the “Forensic Self-Portrait” series, 1993, Hurl has maintained a strong self-scrutinizing streak, repeatedly striving to see and represent herself anew. Outcomes of this commitment recall, in places, the avowed “body awareness” of Maria Lassnig’s self-portraiture. Sometimes, in more recent phases, there are diminishing returns. The “Warrior” series, 2015–, in which Hurl adopts a range of poses while wearing the mask and helmet from a medieval suit of armor, is a disciplined meditation on self-transformation—and psychological self-defense—but it lacks the charge of earlier, looser, more ominous articulations of personal experience and perspective. Even so, such dress-up exercises merit our attention: They express something of Hurl’s analytic and venturesome outlook while insisting on her readiness for whatever battles lie ahead.