The Human Heart
18th of July – 22nd August 2020.
An essay by Catherine Marshall, external collaborator and former head of exhibitions at IMMA accompanies the exhibition below.
For centuries, philosophers, artists and writers have used the heart as a source of inspiration, frequently ascribed as the most important organ in the human body, it is the one most loaded with symbolism.
The anatomy and function of the human heart is fascinating and extraordinary. About 350 grams of muscle in the middle of your chest rhythmically pumping 7500 litres of blood through a network of arteries and veins, beating an average of around 100000 times during your life, it is the hardest working muscular organ. While resting your heart is beating at around 60 to 100 times a miunte.
The heart is often regarded as the centre of a human being, it holds an important role in understanding the human body since antiquity. From Egyptian societies, who maintained that the heart was ’the locus of our thoughts, feelings, and will and therefore the animating force within all human beings’, Pythagoreans who claimed the heart to be the most important of the three parts of the soul as the ‘source of courage, bravery, and audacity, to Aristotle who wrote of the heart as the source of innate heat which being is governed by, ‘locus of the life principle’, ‘seat of intelligence, motion, and sensation — a hot, dry organ.’, while other surrounding organs were there to cool the heart.
In contemporary culture, the heart is often discussed in relation to the brain, which represents the centre of consciousness and the origin of the reason and thought, as its opposite. The popular narrative of the battle between the brain and the heart, cognitive and intuitive, has been a central point of various literary and visual works, as well as popular culture and its language. It has been ascribed numerous symbolic meanings and uses in expressions and phrases that are associated with the core of being, the soul, one’s nature and emotions.
We have selected four iconic works that form a starting point of the exhibition:
Brian O’Doherty, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp
Alice Maher, Collar
Andrew Folan, Flying Heart
Cecily Brennan, Bandaged Heart,
and invited further 20 artists to respond to the subject. An essay by Catherine Marshall (below) beautifully accompanies the exhibition, emphasising the sentiment and situating this exhibition and the current moment in a broader social and historical context.
We would like to express our gratitude to Brian O’Doherty, Alice Maher, Andrew Folan and Cecily Brennan for their participation and all their help in acquiring the works for the exhibition. The Human Heart show would not be possible without them.
We are grateful to be able to show Bandaged Heart by the courtesy of David Collins and Jackie Mills. Big thanks to them and Taylor Galleries for their help. We thank the owner of the Flying Heart by Andrew Folan for the kind lend of the work and to Stoney Road press for the Portrait of Marcel Duchamp by Brian O’Doherty. Also, thanks to Pallas Studios for lending us their plinth.
We thank Catherine Marshall, former head of collections at IMMA for working with us on this exhibition, her work, time and consideration given to artworks from this exhibition in writing this wonderful text.
THE HUMAN HEART SHOW
‘What shall I do with this absurdity’? the poet William Butler Yeats cried in reference to his own heart, imprisoned in his ageing body;
O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
Yeats was dealing with serious but personal demons –– worries about passion and imagination frustrated desires to achieve things that he feared impossible. He was not locked down or worried about pandemics, and indeed neither was the Graphic Studio Gallery when they first mooted the idea for this exhibition many months before the first signs of Covid 19 were identified and named. Yet in addressing both human mortality and passion, Yeats pinned down precisely the scientific and emotional drivers that have animated lives on a global scale since the beginning of this year. The ongoing experience of living, working and trying to protect ourselves and those we love has placed great demands on artists and their values as well as on the wider society. We are pulled between a backdrop of medical and scientific reports about the status of the virus and the need for artistic expression to give meaning to what it is doing to us. The lockdown spotlights the importance of the arts as shapers and definers of our mental and emotional health in this and all other moments of crisis.
While we oscillate between science and something more fantastical but emotionally charged, it is reassuring to know that artists have been doing just that for generations, and when it comes to the heart, the two can never be fully separated. Brian O’Doherty’s Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, one of a series of cardiographs from the 1960s, emphasises the point that the heart responds to different stimuli in different ways, speeding up or grinding to a halt as experiential stresses dictate, constantly changing with the mood or the moment, so that no single cardiograph defines its owner. Sharon Lee also looks to the medical technologies related to the heart, linking them to the transformative qualities of colour and the visual arts in Sectional Layering. Other artists in this show to follow that pathway through art to nature and science, include Ruth O’Donnell, Sarah Roseingrave, Niall Naessens, Jack Barrett, Vaida Varnagiene, and Jenny Lane.
Cecily Brennan and Andrew Folan stress the heart’s physicality alongside its vulnerability. Brennan’s three dimensional Bandaged Heart from the 1990s’ encases the form in a precious metal and ties it into a knotted bandage that suggests desperation and love rather than life-saving cure. Andrew Folan’s formal pyramid, the Flying Heart, on the other hand, offers what appears to be a stable, archetypal structure only to undermine that very stability by throwing up the question, did this pyramid evolve from the fictional organic presence at the top, or did blood from the heart seep downward through its crisp geometry? Folan’s love of mathematics and geometry is again visible in the elongated, phallic hearts in Love Heart 1 and 2, reminiscent of Hans Holbein’s challenging perspectival treatment of the skull in The Ambassadors (1533). By contrast, Stephen Lawlor’s historical references embody a degree of emotional intensity in In Dreams (Xin).
Thomas Barron and Gypsy Ray’s Untitled (heart), their last collaborative work before Gypsy’s untimely death from cancer at the start of the lockdown takes an abstracted look at the heart. Thomas builds his images from accumulations of small cells in graphite, usually concealed under a protective layer of paint, but here revealed instead and framed in a painted halo by Gypsy, sadly the last of their many collaborative works, completed just two weeks before Gypsy’s death. And it is also the abstract emotional qualities of the heart that are presented by Mary Fitzgerald and Anna Maye, charged with LSD by Tom Phelan, cooled through the flat colours of advertising by Maser, Shane O’Driscoll and Rowena Quill and the highly decorative pattern-making of Yoko Akino and Melissa Ellis. And there is real power in the wavering, pulsating stripes of Helen O’Sullivan’s Pulse Series, which immediately evoke the understated strength of that American legendary artist, Agnes Martin.
Alice Maher is forever playing with archetypes of nature and folklore, drawing on humour and fantasy to remind us that we too, belong within the natural cycle. The female figure in The Hunter, almost breaks down under the weight of an enormous heart. reminding us of folktales where the hunter returns with the heart of the giant, but it also calls to mind a drawing by Maher of a female figure with a similar weight. This drawing is called The burden of emotion. Women it seems gets more than they bargain for in the traditional hunt for love. Collar, in which Maher wears a necklace of sheep’s hearts, the blood seeping over her bare skin, suggests an easy rapport between the human, the animal and the visceral, and an acceptance of our common mortality, often hinted at but rarely expressed so definitively.
Emotions, hearts and burdens come together again in gentler fashion in Geraldine O’Reilly’s prints of hearts, contained in little shrines. Their very containment speaks of controlled emotion, loneliness and loss, a theme re-echoed in Niamh McGuinne’s study of the empty oyster shell, bereft now of the living heart it once contained. They are joined in a very political way in Oona Hyland’s, Bury my heart at Bon Secours, in reference to Ireland’s shameful history of Magdalen laundries.
The Human Heart exhibition embraces many different approaches to print-making. Andrew Folan raised the bar for print two decades ago when he stacked his prints to form a single sculptural work, moving them from the wall to a plinth in the centre of the gallery. In this show the discipline is presented through traditional copper-plate (Oona Hyland), woodcut (Maser), screen printing on kiln-fired glass by Sarah Roseingrave, 3-d digital prints by Geraldine O’Reilly and, a first time for this writer, Jack Barrett’s clever use of thermochromic ink that causes the heart in the image to warm up and change colour when touched as well as a number of more traditional but just as skillfully executed print techniques.
Like the heart of the murdered man in Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic story, The Tell-tale Heart, which keeps on beating from beneath the floorboards in the mind of the killer, the images in this show will remain in the imagination for a long time to come.”
 W.B. Yeats, opening lines of ‘The Tower’, 1926
 Alice Maher, Reservoir, 2014, unpaginated.