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How to be a Child?

Carmel Benson

(Friday, 18 July – Sunday, 7 September 2014)

Over a distinguished artistic career, now into its fourth decade, Carmel Benson has produced a body of work that has consistently engaged with themes of childhood. There is nothing sentimental in this focus, nor in the extensive body of work that she has produced in both print and paint.  

It is a truism that childhood is the seedbed for the concerns that adults pursue over their entire lives. It is also true that those seeds come to fruition in ways that are both distinctive to the individual, but which can also form patterns that link childhood experience and adult expression.

Such patterns have been discernible in Carmel Benson’s work over many years. Within spaces of calm and uniform colour, solitary figures are often to be found. Solitude, solitariness and a turn to the kinds of expressive outlet that art enables have long been observed by discerning critics. One of the conditions that channels a child into solitude is hurt. That hurt can be intentional or it can arise from the more tragic vicissitudes of life. Either way it has a consequence, and the kind of isolation that attends the solitary figure in so much of Benson’s work suggests that this is an insight that has caught her attention.

The solitary child is often a watchful child. While that watchful wariness might arise from a kind of defensiveness, it also forges a wonderful key to the worlds that are watched. In Carmel Benson’s work her figures suggest less anxiety at finding themselves alone than wonder at what they are alone with – nature, animals, trees and plants, the very otherness of things.

The fellowship of the famously ‘detached’ watchfulness of Rilke (‘The One Birds Plunge Through’) has seemed to catch some of what her work is about:

really to feel the way a tree upsprings,

cast round it space from that which inwardly

expands in you. Surround it with retention.

It has no bounds. Not ‘till its reascension

in your renouncing is it truly tree.

This has to do with how the hurt child can in time transcend the origins of her isolation and turn that hurt to aesthetic advantage. For years in her work it was enough to create that imaginary universe which over the years has been her signature style. That world was deliberately ahistorical, tangentially autobiographical, and itself detached from time.

In this show a most significant decision has been made and executed by Benson. History has entered her work through autobiography. She now addresses the times that have given rise to her lifetime concerns in some powerful new works that necessarily break new ground for her.

The learnt words, and controlling imperatives, of her familial and educational formation in 1950s Ireland have marked her new work with force and feeling. The ‘Catechism’ was probably the most important book in the lives of Catholic children then, a book learned by rote, inculcated all too often by fear, and creative of oppressive voices that became a controlling part of a sensitive child’s inner world.

These words and phrases now overlie the powerful new works in this exhibition, especially as they are fiercely patriarchal words built upon an unquestioned presumption of male-female inequality. They lie on Benson’s new canvasses oppressively like nets restraining the unruly and threatening feminine. For the child/woman so formed their primary message is that she is deeply suspect, threatening, anarchic.

Benson’s decades-long use of the Sheela-na-Gig motif to personify this sense of the feminine grotesque – as constructed by certain male, and especially Church dominated, sensibilities – is a forceful riposte to her memories of the world that made her. In making her, as was also true of the men it made, the abiding emotion it recruited was fear and this it allied to the propensity to feel guilty. Hence the legend, familiar to that whole generation, of “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” (“through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievious fault”) that now marches bitter-sweetly across the surface of one of the most powerful works in this exhibition.

Benson is remaking an iconography that is true to the social construction of women in post-World-War-Two Ireland. Her ‘suspended foetuses’ speak of children anonymously lost and mothers deliberately mislaid in the likes of the Magdalene Laundries; her Sheelas are defiant forces plucked from the corners of churches; her large triptych of her formidable grandmother an admiring but not-uncritical homage to an archetypal matriarchal Irish figure; and her solitary childhood figures in their lovely landscapes a realistic message that hurt can be turned to a kind of being that is transformative.

This is a show of complex hope and aesthetic redemption.