Drawing Room Plunder: Jane Irish at Locks Gallery, Philadelphia
Jane Irish: Sông H’u’ong: Withdrawing Room at Locks Gallery
April 5 to May 10, 2013
600 Washington Square South
Decoration provides an occasion for superimposing one reality on another. Unlike paintings, wall hangings or vases don’t attract notice when they carry images that disagree in scale, viewpoint and level of completion. Jane Irish’s paintings, drawings and ceramic vases on view in Sông H’u’ong: Withdrawing Room at Philadelphia’s Locks Gallery take advantage of decorative tropes to boomerang the viewer from pastoral pleasantries to the horrors of war.
The images, colors, and materials with which we surround ourselves express beauty, but also power, as they allow us to order space according to our wishes. Irish’s works draw their inspiration from the chateaux of the corsairs of St. Malo from France’s colonial era, who incorporated loot from the world over into their rococo interiors. Irish has spent ample time studying the hôtels particuliers of this quiet Breton town, and her beautifully colored works would serve as a tourist guide to this regional style—except that her own decorating choices are different from the seafaring oligarchs’.
A typical strategy for the muralist is to bring the outside in. A series of ceiling height egg-tempera panoramas in the exhibition’s namesake, Sông H’u’ong (2013) fill the gallery with sky, and seem to invite the viewer to step into another reality. Vignettes of temples and picturesque cityscapes from Vietnam’s Sông H’u’ong, or Perfume River, crowd each panel. Although its colors beckon, the painted egg-and-dart molding at the mural’s base reminds you that you are looking at wallpaper. This tension between encompassing and repelling the viewer is evident throughout Irish’s work.
Irish’s St. Malo interiors lead us, Alice in Wonderland fashion, from genteel interior straight to the conquered lands. In her tempera painting Yellow Room (2012), for example, a doorway on the left opens into another Asian panorama with river, temple and brilliant-hued sky. The painting veers from strict two-point perspective to collection of vignettes, with no clear dividing line between rational and irrational space. The right side opens into a completely different Far East exterior space, and a third opening is visible through a window in the room’s distant corner. It’s as if the chinoiserie jumped off the walls and ambushed the home from three different angles.
Vietnam in particular has been a concern of Irish since she organized the Operation Rapid American Withdrawal show in 2005 at Philadelphia’s Crane Arts Building. The exhibition united artists, Vietnam veterans and antiwar activists in a multimedia event that commemorated a 1970 protest march through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Since that time Irish has often made the veterans’ poetry a part of her work
Irish’s ceramic pieces, modeled after Asian pottery, flank Yellow Room. The vignettes on these pots are less than benign. Amidst the brilliant red hues of Thousand Yard Stare Urn (2012) are black and white images of men who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of their service in the war. On display in the upstairs portion of the gallery is a drawing, also titled Thousand Yard Stare (2013) that combines ornate interiors with the writings and faces of activist Vietnam veterans.
As a point of comparison, David Salle’s work from the 1980s also juxtaposed flat patterns, interior views, linear illustration, and objets d’art from colonized lands. Whereas Salle’s combinations had the randomness of a Mad Libs game, Irish’s seem to have point. The Vietnam War was a Franco-American collaboration, started as the War in French Indochina. Some would argue that American war profiteers have plundered just as eagerly as their French predecessors. Rapid withdrawal from violent conquest everywhere can release us from the miasma of bloody vignettes that fill our minds and living rooms.