Eleanor McCaughey: Forget your cares, sow your wild oats, sin is a wonderful disease

5 - 28 January 2023

Text written by Saša Bogojev


No matter the intensity or the timing, a moment of deliverance carries a lot of weight and significance. And for Eleanor McCaughey, it was such multiple experiences that conditioned the body of work she’s presenting at Kevin Kavanagh Gallery in Dublin from 5th until 28th January 2023. As suggested by the title of the show, a snippet from the Daniel Johnston song Wicked World (1980), Forget Your Cares, Sow Your Wild Oats, Sin is a Wonderful Disease calls on cathartic acceptance of a fresh, sobering understanding of a more complex, but also liberating reality. 


From an early age, McCaughey was intrigued by theological narratives and imagery, continuously renewing and rebuilding her relationship with the proposed "truths". Prompted by the rediscovery of a drawing from her childhood, it was the recent intense period of major health issues that fueled a new approach and a new drive. The urge to break everything down and go back to basics took over, and the Dublin-based artist stepped away from established tools and started using religious iconography or renaissance paintings as a blueprint, a palette, and a compositional guideline. All this transformed the overall practice into a healing process, in which building paintings back up again became a metaphor for building herself up again. By flattening, transforming, and abstracting the original scenes into an assemblage of elements only remotely evocative of their origin, a more tangible sense of humor is added to the reference image, conveying the respectful yet amused outlook at the works of Fra Angelico, his contemporaries, or the Celtic mythology and symbolism. Often exaggerating the nonsensical approach to depicting depth, light, or perspective, the message and the ambiance are altered through humor, cynicism, critique, and rebellion. Serious, heavy, iconic visuals are brought into a contemporary context by prioritizing backgrounds, colors, and painting style over the subject, or the use of texture, patterns, and glitter. Referencing the installation-building experience, glitter’s reflective particles allow for the work to get activated through the viewer's presence and movement, in a way animating the scene similar to the way that church candles bring to life the figures in gilded icons. 


By contrasting flat elements against illustrative or realistically rendered sections, smooth gradients against patterns and scribbles, and various surfaces ranging from matte black to glitter-infused passages, McCaughey is both revealing and withholding as well as suggesting and refuting. Without much intentional story or conceptual background carried through visuals, it’s the long, winded titles that spark the imagination in a certain direction. In a way chasing the deep, profound emotional effect of music, these paintings are giving a nod to Bob Thomspon's synthesis of Baroque and Renaissance masterpieces with the jazz-influenced Abstract Expressionist movement. At the same time, there is a peculiar David Lynch-like way of presenting something that has a shadow but isn't really there or has a form that doesn't justify the way it interacts with other elements. This evokes the Freudian idea of the uncanny, the idea of "being robbed of one's eyes" as a psychological experience of something as not simply mysterious but also creepy in a strangely familiar way. And indeed, the way this archetypal, traditional, and vastly recognizable imagery is recreated and repurposed, transforms it into an ambiguous medley that is allowing for the unconscious projection of our own repressed impulses. 


In the end, these paintings exist as just that - paintings. Self-contained and relying on impulsive, immediate decision-making, they freeze and document the emotional state or thought process that might've led to those decisions. In that sense, each work becomes a moment in time, a capsule containing the emotional or physical setup alongside all the intricacies, nuances, and both intentional and accidental moments.