“Tackling the taboo subject of death with clarity and precision”
CLEA VAN DER GRIJN’S Moment(ous) , currently showing at the Cross Gallery, originated at The Dock in Carrick-on-Shannon earlier this year. It marks something of a departure for van der Grijn, who has previously been best known for her textural paintings, pieces that have clearly emerged from a sustained physical engagement with materials.
Often they’ve been virtually abstract, though her show prior to this one featured a passionate sequence of figurative works based on the image of the Madonna, something directly inspired by her experience of living in a Co Roscommon building that had been home to a religious order.
By contrast with the practice of building up an image through the application and scraping back of paint, Moment is pretty much hands-off in terms of process, though it is fraught, engaged and difficult in terms of its subject matter.
It tackles what is still virtually a taboo subject: death and what a death in the family means to those still living. It does so intimately, from within the immediate context of the family, but also obliquely, in the form of an ingeniously indirect but telling portrait. The portrait is that of a mother who has lost a son. In the Cross Gallery we see an image of his hands lying across his torso.
Everything that makes up the exhibition is photographic in form, including a series of frames captured from a video documentation made by van der Grijn. We see glimpses of the rituals of mourning and domesticity in a family setting. A table set for a meal. A jar of ashes stands on a wooden cupboard. Our seeing these things is both intrusive and, because the details are so partial and fragmented, remote, distanced. Given the nature of the source in video imagery, it is hardly surprising that the individual frames we see have a fleeting, casual quality.
Clarity and precision come to the fore in the main element of the show, though. Intriguingly, here van der Grijn stepped back even further, so to speak, from her usual physical involvement with her work. She enlisted the photographer Stuart Smyth to make two large-format studies of mantelpieces.
In the form of life-sized prints, these stunningly detailed images are virtual portraits of the mother who has lost a son. It has long been recognised that mantelpieces are unusually informative domestic sites. BBC2 television once commissioned a series of short films that featured individuals talking about their lives through the medium of what they had on their mantelpieces. Van der Grijn notes that what we see in the images is what was there.
This is worth pointing out because the marble mantelpieces and mirrors are heavily laden with memorabilia of various kinds: family photographs, postcards, drawings, books, pictures, objects and ornaments.
They do tell a story, one it is up to us to piece together for ourselves. They also recall the tradition of precision in Dutch painting of the classical age. In their stillness and immense detail, they also stand in marked contrast to the blurred, half-seen nature of the scenes captured from video. Perhaps van der Grijn has in mind here a comparison between life and death.
The liveliness of the video suggests something like helplessness. Time rushes past, the comfort of ritual cannot undo what has happened, cannot return what is lost. All we have, it implies, is the fleeting moment. The vanitas still life, precisely observed, symbolised transience, and the mantelpieces comes across as being something like that.
With their careful inventories of objects, they suggest a stocktaking, a desire to pin down and itemise. But in fixing, quantifying, defining, we somehow miss out on the nature of being alive, which is what gives it all meaning. Moment is a thoughtful and troubling exhibition, and one is left with the feeling that van der Grijn may further explore its t