DAVID EAGER MAHER
THE STRANGE, UNSETTLING WORLD OF DAVID EAGER MAHER
by Aidan Dunne | published in: The Irish Times (Dec 19th, 2017)
At the conclusion of John Fuller’s novella Flying to Nowhere, set in a remote island monastery, there is a startling image: the wood, which has been felled, seasoned, cut and carpentered to provide the essence of a comfortable interior, a haven for prayer, contemplation and scholarship, comes back to life, swelling and sprouting, rebelling against the straight lines imposed on it, breaking through the boundary between culture and nature, tearing asunder the dream of an orderly world view, with God in his heaven.
Fuller’s image comes to mind in relation to David Eager Maher’s fine exhibition, Locus at the Oliver Sears Gallery, consisting of just eight modestly scaled paintings. In the paintings it is as if the orderly, often classical interiors are invaded by vegetation, usually trees, sometimes unruly copses, sometimes individual plants. It is only as if, though, because the status of the spaces we see is in fact ambiguous, either or both inside and out depending on how you choose to interpret them.
When Eager Maher completed his MFA at NCAD in 2011, the essential elements his work as it is now were in place, but in a less resolved, less cogent form. Drawing, still essential, was much more dominant. His own facility, and the ease of drawing as a process tended to lead to greater, perhaps fussy elaboration. Classical, rather grand interiors, apparently based on art-historical models rather than architectural-historical models, were even then in evidence, as was the eruption of nature into these havens of civilised order.
One major development is that Eager Maher is now much more a painter than he was. Not that he couldn’t use paint – he certainly could – but now he is at ease with the medium, and able to use its characteristics in shaping his work rather than merely fleshing out an image. Witness especially Annexe, Spool and Thicket, all of which use the quality of brush strokes, the translucency of glazes, and selective colour to great effect. Add Fruit Tree, in which a resplendent interior is littered with felled trees, and you have the four best works in a consistently impressive show, a terrific quartet.
From the beginning a retrospective quality in Eager Maher’s work has attracted comment. Somewhere along the way the description “a 19th-century explorer living in 21st-century Wicklow” became attached to him. Whether it was his or someone else’s phrase is not clear, but it’s accurate enough, though not in the empire-building sense of the term. Does the work express a nostalgia for an earlier era? Not quite, no. Tie it to history and there is a built-in critique of imperialism, with exotic jungles reclaiming the outposts of European colonialism.
More than a critique is embodied in the paintings. There were many kinds of explorers active at the time. The Victorian era, especially the latter half of the 19th century into the Edwardian early 20th century, saw seismic shifts in almost every area: science, politics, religion and the arts. As old ideas became unmoored, everything was up for grabs. Ruskin bemoaned the geologists tapping away at the biblical account of earth’s history; Darwin recast humans as a product of evolution; Einstein confounded our understanding of time and space; Marx had planted the seeds of political and economic upheaval; mystical and occult ideas flourished. Despite the recreational trappings evident in some of Eager Maher's paintings (a deckchair, a beach umbrella), they suggest not serenity and ease but a state of flux. The world won't stay still. Presumed meanings evaporate, certainties collapse. Civilisations apparent achievements are tentative and evanescent. Orderly pattern is symbolically shredded in Awning, as tropical vegetation bursts through the geometry of the tiled floor and the fabric shade.
"David Eager Maher's works institute and inhabit an ambiguous, meditative space that looks back
but is equally open to premodernity and the hyperreality of postmodernity."
Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times | 2016
An Essay by Ingrid Lyons | 2016
It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness.
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
There are certain exotic trees; oriental ferns, castor plants and windmill palms that manage to flourish in harsh weather conditions and waterlogged soils. They appear strange and unfamiliar against the hardy perennials and steadfast natives. Large glossy leaves give a sense of opulence and decadence as lush fronds unfurl dramatically from furry brown stalks. David Eager Maher has often pictured these botanical specimens in his intricate arrangements-their leaves creating screens or casting shadows as they spring forth from dense indigenous foliage or sprawl in the corner of a plush interior.
In this recent body of work, Eager Maher has increasingly connected interior and landscape. Within these unpeopled scenes, architectural features merge with forests and imaginary plains collide with what appear to be backdrops of classical paintings. They are strange vistas that seem part autobiographical, part art historical. Leaves of paper are carefully placed, cultivating a faint variation of surface textures. Some areas are further embellished with motifs ranging from that of the orient to the family home; bright, bold, w axy red flowers in Settle are a throwback to the 1970s Irish kitchen – a pattern often accompanied with red Formica table tops.
Transparent layers allow traces of underlying marks to peep through and some details have been lightly sanded away . Eager Maher’s use of paper evidences a level of concentration, a delicate patience and understanding of its surface quality, how it can be imprinted or incised, how it responds to watercolour and how it becomes bleached, faded and otherwise altered over time. He acknowledges the delicate and ephemeral qualities of paper, celebrating its diversity as a medium.
The deceptively simple layering of paper belies the feeling of the work; which is intermittently meticulous and spontaneous. Compositions are refrained and controlled though there are hints at humour as visual ploys and illusions add an element of play. Some areas have received more attention and they contain more detail yet other areas have been left bare where the picture plain is interrupted only by preliminary pencil marks. There seems to be an underlying antagonism between that which is ornate and that which is plain.
Perspective in the landscape and architecture also appears disrupted as scenes overlap as in a dream sequence. Within David Eager Maher’s compositions, boundaries between lived interiors and fantastical exotica are in constant flux. They exemplify a merging of worlds - natural and domestic, dream and reality, ostentation and reticence. Within them
there is a conflation of living, collecting, and art making. In many ways Eager Maher’s compositions describe dreams and follies, mediated through colours and contours in the surroundings.
The Pink Studio, (1911), a painting by Henri Matisse’s of his own studio, pictures an array of artworks at various stages of completion. A screen draped with fabric obfuscates the view from the window, furniture and decorative rugs adorn the floors. It is the conflation of myriad motifs and patterns that form the surface of the painting. Portraits, nudes, and still lives share the canvas with furnishings and ornaments. This approach suggests that Matisse saw no division between art, nature and the interior of his studio-as though he regarded all as an experience of sensuality. Thus he surrounded himself with objects that appealed to him and made paintings that were an extension of his personal predilections.
In a similar way David Eager Maher paints and draws after his own archive of fragmentary predilections. In his compositions there is evidence of a narrative but crucial details have been removed or hidden; fabrics, screens and foliage prevent a full reading and indeed memories of drawings and etchings from another time are hidden beneath and behind preceding layers. These collages constitute a miscellany of paper memories, gathered from domestic encounters or pursued through German antique paper purveyors. Within each composition the rare and the exotic co-exist alongside the familiar and the common, altogether emphasising the experience of assimilation or displacement.