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"For there to be beauty, there first must be a comparison"
"Time's tides will smother you"
For those who caught Joseph O'Connor's exhibition which opened at Bellas Gallery last New Year's Eve, they might not have noticed the above quotes slotted inconspicuously beside the front door as though they existed as a pre-texts to the artist's work. Their existence had the potential to change the status of meaning for the viewer. Their placement and the general absence of dominant textual references in the work appeared to be part of the "game plan". As such, a mood of mystery and ambiguity pervaded the work.
Truisms have a "credibility" that can be hard to refute; certainly Jenny Holzer's constructed truisms are designed to be convincing. But the reality is that absolutes are constantly being redefined (even the universal application of Newton's Third Law of Motion has been thrown into question). So when we discover that Joseph O'Connor is not about setting up absolutes - but is instead concerned with the redefinition of "stereotypes" in our culture - then the reasoning behind the placement of the quotes becomes clearer.
The exhibition itself consists of a large and brooding panel painting, a series of schoolyard photos, and three larger-than-life black and white photographic portraits (a woman, a boy and a girl) faced by three cinema chairs.
In the latter, O'Connor brings into question preconceptions set up in society that refer to "innocence", "beauty", "sexuality", through images that refuse to engage the viewer in the usual manner. Rather than the image of the "sex goddess" or the "groovy" kids of the ad world, we view three huge faces, from the comfort of cinema chairs. A parallel is established with the fantasy world of the movies, and yet one is disconcerted by the haunted, world-weary expressions of the subjects. The artist highlights the ideological power that cinemas/press/media can have in structuring meaning in our lives. He employs a further dynamic by exploiting the credibility and authority of the photographic image. Not only do the faces project an uneasy equivalence of experience contradicting their considerable age difference, but the ''woman" is actually a transexual, a point the artist chooses not to reveal. This ambiguity makes reference to questions regarding the impact on our society of gender stereotypes, as well as the (debatable) question of an artist's autonomy.
The deception and confusion of sexual identity is reiterated in the schoolyard series. Two boys affectionately drape together, while a young girl of primary school age displays all the seductiveness of a centrefold. In this way O'Connor exploits the "natural innocence" of children to emphasise contradictions inherent in photography.
To the relative objectivity of the photographs, the artist then opposes the subjectivity of a panel painting, with its multiple layering of heavy dark paint and passages of text (cartoons & extracts from James Baldwin 's Giovanni's Room). O'Connor uses this cross-over of disciplines to infuse an enigmatic quality into his work - a worthy first exhibition. And it is commendable to see that a commercial gallery has taken up the challenge of presenting an "emerging" artist - so typically the domain of the artist-run-space.