I recently had the pleasure of attending the opening of a new exhibition at the Crawford Art Gallery. Launched by Sheila Pratschke and curated by contemporary artist Vivienne Roche, Head to Head brings together selected works of sculpture from the Arts Council and Crawford collections, in addition to new work by Roche herself. Situated within the Crawford’s beautiful sculpture gallery the exhibition is at once a revisitation or continuation of Heads, the Arts Council’s touring exhibition, and a welcome intervention into the gallery space.
Arranged on their original pedestals, the sculptures on display mostly date from 1988 when the Arts Council commissioned a number of artists to respond creatively to the head as subject and to engage with ‘the endless pursuit of the ideas, dreams, meanings and feelings that seem to have their seat there’ (Heads 1). Among them are fine works by Kathy Prendergast, Brian Bourke, Conor Fallon, Marjorie Fitzgibbon, Joseph Butler, and Monica Frawley, as well as two pieces each by Roche and the great Joseph Higgins. The impetus for this new exhibition was supplied by Roche’s own Stephen Archer: Tight Head Prop (2014) around which Head to Head has formed.
What is striking about the works on display is not simply the variety of treatment of their subject but also the manner in which they have been arranged in the gallery space. While Joseph Higgins’ two bronzes command the room and operate as dependable, fixed poles, Frawley’s Snake Woman (1988), for instance, appropriately sits close to the restless and sublime Laocoon and His Sons (c.1816), a plaster cast of the Vatican original overseen by Antonio Canova. Likewise, Roche has elected to continue this relational placing of works by siting her own Victim (1988) alongside Samuel Forde’s monumental oil painting Fall of the Rebel Angels (1828).
Roche’s Victim has its origins in photographs of the Tollund Man and a child killed in the Bhopal disaster (1984). Set immediately in front of Forde’s final work, the two enter into a curious relationship as the blank yet magnetic abstraction of Victim aligns provocatively with a fallen figure at the base of the painting. This figure, one of Satan’s cohorts, is sketched out in umber and was left incomplete upon Forde’s own death from tuberculosis aged 23. Only tonally described, the vague form lacks a head within its helmet as it falls back into the viewer’s space. The resonance with Roche’s piece, an almost featureless study in calm and dignity, is emphasised by this common thread of victimhood and of senseless death.
The dialogue between works within a gallery context can often be serendipitous and perhaps that is the case here between Roche and Forde. The exchange between these two works separated by 160 years and facing off in a space for which neither was intended supplies some of the thrill of such contemporary intervention. Thus, ostensibly an exhibition that (re)engages with a traditional subject, through its careful yet unforced curation Head to Head is more than the sum of its parts.
Head to Head runs at Crawford Art Gallery until 25 September 2015.