Prosopopoeia: art and storytelling

7 - 30 July 2022

   ‘Prosopopoeia’ is a term usually associated with literature and denotes a rhetorical device in which an imaginary, absent or deceased person is represented as speaking or acting. Without it, the story being told lacks immediacy, breaching the writing dictum of ‘show, don’t tell’ that allows the reader to experience events through the actions, speech and sensations of the characters. 

   But storytelling isn’t the sole preserve of the writer. Visual artists too have always sought to create facsimiles of other people, real or imagined, as way of exploring and explaining why people behave the way they do, of illuminating the joys and sorrows, the folly and ingenuity, the kindness and cruelty of being human.

   Storytelling is innately human; as far as we know, no other species shares experiences in the same way. Indeed, it may be the key trait in our evolution into a species capable of organising into complex social groups with common beliefs - be they religious, ethical or legal - and a shared understanding of the world and its natural processes.

   In his book ‘Sapiens’, Noah Harari writes of the Cognitive Revolution we underwent between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago that ultimately led to us supplanting all other human species. This period saw the invention of boats, oil lamps, sewing needles and the bow and arrow. The first objects that can reliably be called art also date from this period. The Stadel ‘lion-man’ or ‘lioness-woman’ - the body is human but the head is leonine - is an ivory figurine found in cave in Germany. Roughly 32,000 years old, it is one of the first artefacts that could unambiguously be described as art, and probably a religious icon too, and one of the first to offer proof of the ability of the human mind to imagine things that do not really exist.

   We know that art and storytelling share a common root and have always been inextricably linked. Legends, myths, gods and religions - essentially our ability to tell each other stories - also began with the Cognitive Revolution. It is these myths or stories that allow homo sapiens to cooperate in large numbers. Other animals cooperate but do so inflexibly. Only two humans who have never met could cooperate in a crusade on behalf of a Christian god, or risk their lives because of a joint belief in a nation state, its emblems and its laws. Yet none of these things exist outside of the stories people tell themselves.

   Artists are hardwired with the same adaptive predisposition for inventing, telling and consuming stories as the rest of us. Perhaps that’s why they return again and again to the human form, in a sense repudiating conceptualism for something far more primal: the need to know the minds of other people as a way of deepening our understanding of ourselves. 

   We can trace an art historical arc from the artist who made the Stadel lion figure or the Palaeolithic cave painters, who 10,000 years before recounted hunting exhibitions on rock walls as far apart as France and Indonesia, to the contemporary artists who still use the human form to tell stories in their work.

   In this exhibition artists employ their subjects in a myriad of different ways but with the same underlying impetus: to draw the viewer into a story. In the work of Oscar Fouz Lopez, we see figures as archetypes, a Jungian device for embedding myths in the human psyche, often during personal challenges, acting as a metaphor for self-improvement.

   In other works, we see the figure as cipher for the artist and the artist as a cipher for the figure, not in the obvious sense of a self-portrait but as a means of exploring an aspect of the artist’s personality and of proffering a wider truth about the human condition. In the works of Vanessa Jones, Catherine Barron, Mollie Douthit and Sheila Pomeroy, the artists act as their own models but do so as a narrative device, rather than simply rendering images of themselves. 

   There’s a nod to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s genre scenes in the work of John Kindness. In ‘Sian D’Olier’ we see a caricature of social class  - an upwardly mobile middle class woman, painted on a substrate that was once part of a mini roof. She now likely drives an SUV.

   Kindness is an artist also noted for re-cycling myths in his work, a practice artists have always engaged in, most famously Jacques-Louis David in ‘The Death of Marat’, where the murdered revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat is depicted in a stye reminiscent of earlier images of Christian martyrs. In this show, we also see historical figures re-cast as versions of themselves that clash with our inherited, often romanticised view. Mick O’Dea’s painting of the marriage in 1921 of Brigid Malone and IRA volunteer, Dan Breen, hints at a hidden narrative far more economically than words ever could. Brigid and Dan are seated, a Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistol laid across their laps; Dan was one of the most wanted men in Ireland at the time. The bride’s maid, Brigid’s sister, stands behind Dan, tickling his ear, a harbinger perhaps of later strains in the marriage that eventually led to the couple's separation.

   Alan Phelan adds even more narrative layers to his work, where each piece has an almost novelistic interweaving of stories and timelines. ‘Carol Sawyer as Natalie Brettschneider as leaf as me 1986, when Ray was really Miller’ is at first glance a reference to the artist’s fascination with people who hide in plain sight, in this case with a leaf covering the subject’s face. Delving deeper, we learn that Carol Sawyer was a Canadian photographer who created a fictional performance artist and played her in photos and various scenarios. There is a photo of her holding a giant rhubarb leaf over her face that was Phelan’s first reference point. Ray and Miller are Man Ray and Lee Miller, a couple but also unacknowledged collaborators where Miller’s work is largely mis-credited to Man Ray. 

   Much of the work in show is steeped in art history. There’s a religious fervour in Gabhann Dunne’s ‘Tremble and Preach’ but the artist is really presenting a secular perspective on the religious art of the Renaissance, on the epiphanies and the revelatory ecstasy of so many old master depictions of saints and parables. Divested of a devotional lens, the work becomes an anthropological study of evangelical zeal. Similarly, the work of Peter Burns runs the gamut from spiritual revelation to alien visitation, but the human subjects and their stories are always at the heart of the work, rather than any beliefs or dogma.

   Perhaps the final word should go Mercedes Helnwein, a writer as well as an artist, for whom storytelling is always central to what she does. In one of her pieces in the show we see a cheerleader shrouded in a green ectoplasmic cloud, suggesting the paranormal or just the mortality of the subject - the transience  of beauty and youth. There’s also a sense of incongruity, of all not being right in her life, despite surface appearances. The effect is wholly deliberate. ‘Everything in my work,’ Helnwein says, ‘whether photo, painting, writing or film, leads back to a story. The story isn’t always very evident, but it’s always there.’

   Ronan Lyons, June 2022