The Shadow of Despair (Cecily Brennan’s Unstrung)
Jaki Irvine

How to approach Cecily Brennan’s work… I do it first by walking past … walking through the first room and on until I stop in front of the small video of a collapsing can. The can, small bright red and jaunty is being heated up on a spindly Bunsen burner. After a few moments the growing vacuum inside can’t cope with the external pressure and it doubles up and keels over… then it’s set aright and off it goes again. Vaguely comic, vaguely traumatic, at once comforting and disturbing, the pressure on the can is that which exists in any ordinary room, like the one I’m standing in.

So I turn around to face what I’ve been avoiding- large watercolours that give the impression of somehow being washed out – there, but also less solid than the video. And as I slow down and turn in the bright room, outside my comfort zone, I realize that the figures caught in these works- each one alone, isolated in space- are also in an act of avoidance.

One by one, naked, they hide from an unseen gaze – behind hands drawn up to faces , buried into and merging with pools of ink that could be a blanket, a pillow or simply a stain … making me wonder if a face is hiding or being wiped out here, if the impulse to hide is not also an impulse to hide from oneself, wipe oneself out. I’m reminded of Kristeva’s understanding of suicide as a merging with sadness and, beyond it, with that impossible love, never reached, always elsewhere, such as the promises of nothingness, of death.

And then it hits me that all of the people imaged here are in fact deliberately composed of stains, creeping across the pages like a disturbingly seductive illness.

In one drawing, the figure is tilted, so that the world, seen through those eyes would be also off-kilter, were it not staring into space, not just unseeing as any image is, but focussed as if on a world within or beyond at the same time, not registering the presence of anything or anyone. And again Kristeva comes to mind describing a retreat in the face of loss into a world that is “….disconsolate… alone with the unnamed thing.” 2 Admitting of the existence of no other in this private world, there is consequently no need to hide.

The body has been sparsely mapped out -just the bare essentials- while face and hand are overlaid with a wash of fleshy tones… the comforting activity of ‘colouring in’ laced with an anxiety attached to going outside the lines. But what lingers is the sense of the laying on of a mask, of applying colour to bolster the impression of , hmm , not life as such, but perhaps of the living. Beside each eye is a stark white space which has not been filled in… it creates a small expectation, the size and shape of unshed tears.

I wander on up through the building, in one room is a large projection of a woman being knocked over again and again by tons of black liquid, she is swept sideways, crawls up against the wall, regains her balance only to be overwhelmed and thrown off her feet by the next wave.

But it is the series of watercolours in the next room that hold me fast… it is the drawing of an older woman… lying on her back in an indefinable space, floating, naked. There is something self-contained in the set of her mouth, her closed almost imperceptible eyes that suggest her imminent disappearance, as if even this washed out body, composed of the subtlest and barest of gestures, might still be too much… too weighty somehow. Below her is a small patch of yellow ochre. It looks like a stain. Maybe on account of this, it is also unutterably sad. Maybe it’s the fragility and vulnerability of that stain, which bears witness to a person’s final loss of control of themselves or the shift from person to body. Maybe it’s the sadness of having to accept the mortality of those we love that is marked in here, in the gesture of registering this stain… the trace of someone which is, on this page, of the same physical order as the body itself.

And I am drawn back to her neck, to the delicate staining that attaches the head to torso, that bleeds from the base of her head onto the page and then dries up, its movement arrested.

On the opposite wall hangs the drawing of a man…head and shoulders bare. His head rests on a wash of black. Fingers curl, holding onto this dark shape as he too stares at something unseen. Around his mouth lingers another stain, the colour of nicotine caught on an old man’s moustache.

Nearby is a drawing executed in black ink. From the mouth of a now almost illegible face a film of pale grey liquid has spilled up across the page like a19th century photograph of ectoplasm. Its movement almost seems to suck the face after it. Again this is an intrinsic part of the process … that with every wash of ink and water, molecules attract, sucking others across the surface of the page, dissolving previously clear lines, drawing more with them, spilling in directions slightly beyond control until the face appears deflated and distorted , merging with the formless shape that rises up above it on the page until it seeps down into the fabric of its ground and settles.

This is of course the ordinary qualities of the medium, the subtle pleasures and anxieties of surface tension. But it is the very ordinariness of this that is so disturbingly fitting. It doesn’t struggle nor disagree with the subject in hand, rather it somehow seals it, reiterates in its very essence that this is the way of things, that all is in flux and then, when it stops, it is done; unalterable; one movement, one gesture, caught out of the myriad of possibilities, fixed, and now unchanging …like a life lived.

Jaki Irvine

Profile: Art Monthly, No. 306 (May 2007)