Boldly and optimistically, a viewer might enter Isabel Nolan’s exhibition The Weakened Eye of Day with bright, wondering eyes. In Room 1, just on the right, is Dreams of No Thing, No Time (2014), a small green-and-orange watercolor painting of a subject that likely looks familiar: the sun on the horizon. Broad brushstrokes swept in half circles across the canvas render the composition abstract and simple. The motif is recognizable without knowing or trying, and this innateness is at the heart of the exhibition. Nearby is Heliotropic Obstruction: And here its influence starts to dominate (2013), a glossy metal sculpture that protrudes from a corner wall. The lattice-like structure makes a window through which something new might be seen, or through which the sun may come through and cast shadows, creating different patterns in the room.
Housed in the castle-like campus of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, Nolan’s exhibition is in a corner wing, comprising four rooms. Each room, and the alcoves in between, contains sculptural and two-dimensional works of many materials. Able to orbit around the space in a loop, viewers might find themselves grasping the leaflet to guide them around the objects, digesting each of Nolan’s mysterious prose-like titles for her pieces, trying to make connections between the individual objects. It is clear that something much larger is at work here.
Room 2 contains a magnificent, hand-tufted wool rug that stretches from the ceiling, descends down, and folds onto the floor. The Sky Is Not Bound by a Fixed Edge!: An Illuminated Rug Arranged to Accommodate a Medieval Mind (2014) consists of geometric patterns in bold colors; its placement imitates both a stained-glass window and its cast shadow. It beckons the viewer to stand right in the middle, in its aura—though that is not allowed, of course—and be transported to another dimension. Nothing New Under the Sun (2014), the most curious piece in the exhibition, is also here: Nine lacquered ceramic bowls, painted bright colors similar to the rug, sit in an arrangement on a worn wooden farm table. In title and form, there is an obvious correlation to the nine planets, connecting the everyday to the ethereal.
Thirty-three smooth, chalky, pastel-colored spherical sculptures of various sizes litter the floor of Room 3. They are randomly placed, as if they had fallen from somewhere up above, and entering the space feels like stepping onto an alien land. In the center, a white plaster sculpture perches on a pedestal. Titled Here (Beneath the Endless Night) (2014), the snowy, amoeba-like form almost disappears against the contrast of the similarly colored walls, fading in and out of sight as the viewer moves in the space. A different version of Here can be found in each of the four rooms, varying in size, placement, and parenthetical labeling. However, the manifestation of Here in Room 3 is the most prominent and demanding, though the vulnerable fragility of the materials—how easy chalk breaks—creates an intimacy that flickers between foreign and innate. Even the small framed drawings in the room, representing motifs of the exploding sun, seem to echo this with their colored-pencil strokes. The sense of existence is rendered delicate and elusive.
In Room 4, the entire back wall is covered with a black-and-white digitally printed large-format image of two donkeys in a graveyard. One of the animals stares directly out over the viewer’s head, as if looking beyond human existence. Another plastered version of Here is low to the ground. The only other sculpture in the room, The weakening eye of day (2014), is a large, dark spiral form. The viewer has traveled to a colorless space, the end of light—for without the sun, does color exist? However, to exit the exhibition one must follow the donkey’s gaze, back through the other three rooms, through the door in Room 1, right by Dreams of No Thing, No Time. Viewers must go full circle around Nolan’s investigation of the sun’s existence, returning to the familiar image with ever-wondrous eyes.
Isabel Nolan: The Weakened Eye of Day is on view at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, Ireland, through September 21, 2014.