Originally published in Bloomers Issue #4 Out of Body
Profile on artist Elaine Grainger
Attempting to write about an artist’s work based on merely a conversation and a list of images, can be a sisyphian headache. It turned out to be a particularly ironic challenge, because the fulcrum of Elaine Grainger’s practice is entirely based on the spaces that both the work and viewer inhabit; spaces I never entered and works I never encountered. In fact, despite the conveniences of viewing past work online, the entire exercise was saved by a phone call. Grainger’s articulation and the fluidity of her language, allowed me to access the work from a different understanding of approaching space.
There might be a negative assumption of absence when confronted with her work, but the tangibility of the incorporeal is the thick conceptual soup that fills it up. Grainger’s MFA degree show “Barely, Hardly There” 2018 in NCAD was fundamentally made around her studio, where the enveloping natural light and encompassing walls were a choreography for her sculptures to be detailed on. The architectural rubric and time spent within her MFA studio became the primary points of reference in the making process. She personified the space’s history through reproductions, collected and created objects that both reflected the surroundings and amplified the manufactured forms. The arrangement of objects consisted of cast surfaces, deconstructed light fixtures, displaced shadows and folds of material. In this case the art school studio is stretched in it’s potential for purpose, either reused or disused, acquiring without any intentional reason. She was then shortlisted for the RDS Visual Art Awards and faced with the obstacle of removing the work from its womb, to displaying it in entirely oppositional circumstances. However, this experience she described as “solidifying”; the act of transferring the body of work reinforced its ability to reconfigure and calibrate within a new space, ultimately changing its visual outcomes but retaining the integral meaning. It could be possible to say that about an entire genre of site-specific projects, but when comparing the two different shows, even just through images, this transformation was blatantly obvious. The RDS had artificial lighting and temporary walls for the exhibition, a windowless and lightless paradox for Grainger. Her use of small fluorescents became pivotal to the change, where their glow was “sucked away” before by a bright room, they then became prominent as light sources to redirect the new space. I particularly liked her treatment of two small paintings on layered wooden blocks, lit by stark white projections that transformed them into objects, giving them a weighted density. Against curatorial advice, she opted not to conform to institutional yellow spots that would have kept them, in the traditional understanding, as paintings. The confrontation of an object, a ray of light or soft billowing movement of thin plastic, constitute a practice that embodies deviation, change and adaptability thus overcoming the prescription for consistency and stillness.
I found Graingers ouevre contained an awareness of how the artist themselves must allow for work to constantly modify, and in doing so, the artist must be malleable and reshape accordingly. In this crucial emergingtime for Grainger, she allowed her show to have a degree of flexibility that eventually defined her work. The level of scrutiny that a degree show brings can be exacerbated when a national competition suddenly follows suit. These anxiety producing instances, and this is coming from personal experience, could easily cause soon to be graduates to fall back onto what’s considered as acceptable or expected. It could have gone against the grain of making work that couldn’t be easily packaged, moved and replaced onto a plinth. Grainger’s former background of running the Talbot gallery, of which the necessary ingredient is the development and the learning within the process of installation, no doubt influenced her approach and thinking. At times, beyond all abilities, artists placing their work into white cubes isn’t always the autonomous result one hopes for, and contemporary practices continue to outgrow or reject this institutional requirement. The work doesn’t always stop once it is displayed, exhibitions can be an interruption in the middle of a sentence rather than the end of one.
Language that surrounds contemporary art making can easily mute its sensibilities if it’s not present to speak for itself, and attempting to comprehend it through a computer or phone screen turns my reading of it into a dichotomy that is only a half-truth. Toward the end of our chat I felt this limitation present itself in my conscience, and wondered where I could navigate it to. “Nothing is made, nothing is finished...” was said in passing, yet I felt it could become a central, open ended manifesto. The work will continue to mould itself and be moulded by the parameters of wherever it is placed. One may never recognise a distinct repetition in Grainger’s work, nor associate a particular stylisation or medium either. Questioning and probing the identifiable definition of a work, at the same time, unravels it and reveals new knowledge, practices and possibilities.