Emma Roche: Broken Yardstick, Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge, April 2010

Maeve Mulrennan

Maeve Mulrennan is a curator based in Galway Arts Centre in the West of Ireland.

 Emma Roche: Installation shot of Stacks I and II; courtesy the artist
Emma Roche: Installation shot of Stacks I and II; courtesy the artist

Emma Roche is a recent graduate of the MA in Visual Arts Practices (MAVIS) in IADT Dún Laoghaire, Dublin. While there, she was known to the rest of the group as ‘the painter'. Her first solo exhibition, Broken Yardstick - what she describes as a solo painting installation - took place in the Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge, Co. Kildare, from 8 - 29 April 2010.1
The paintings explore what it is to be a painter, both in the physical sense of using certain materials such as canvas and oil paint, and also the social implications of being a painter in an age where many artists are presenting digital works - both moving image and photography. These social perceptions are many: one of Roche's paintings is named Dumb like a Painter - a reference to Marcel Duchamp, who wished for art that "...would be no longer ‘retinal', but intellectual. ‘I am sick' he said, ‘of the expression "bête comme un peintre" - stupid as a painter.'"2
 Emma Roche: Dumb like a Painter, 2009, oil, crayon and pencil on cotton over board ; courtesy the artist
Emma Roche: Dumb like a Painter, 2009, oil, crayon and pencil on cotton over board ; courtesy the artist

The artist's use of text in several pieces gives us one element of the installation to consider. Roche has gathered a collection of quotes from people in the art world such as "All women artists feel the need to go 'there' at least once," which is both the title of and the text in one of Roche's works.3 These quotes form part of Roche's twenty-one rules for being an artist, a tongue-in-cheek collection of advice she has been given, other examples being "Find out where the talented people go and go there" and "Never use black by itself." These rules have formed the basis for Roche's last two performances, with the performance The Rule of Thirds and Other Stories providing the starting point for her sculptural work Stack I.4
In her text works Roche uses bold capital letters, repetition and bold statements which contrast with the following more subtle text featured on a pillar in the gallery space, around which the other works orbit:

The splash of a drop is a transaction which is accomplished in the twinkling of an eye, and it may seem to some that a man who proposes to discourse on the matter for an hour must have lost all sense of proportion.5

 Emma Roche: Hippy Hobby, 2009, oil on cotton over board; courtesy the artist
Emma Roche: Hippy Hobby, 2009, oil on cotton over board; courtesy the artist

This text is presented to the viewer in capital letters, sideways on the pillar in the centre of the space. Its placement means the viewer has to turn their head sideways and walk around the pillar. Words run into each other. The viewer has to work to consider this text, its relevance to the exhibition and its aesthetic qualities. The text emphasizes spending time pondering the smaller things and how this can be perceived as losing one's sense of proportion. It hints on the idea that slowing down and thinking of the smaller things in life has no relation to the bigger, more important things. By painting this text onto a pillar in thick, buttery paint, the artist is distorting  what is important: a comment on losing one's sense of proportion is now physically the biggest artwork in the room.
The painting works are like stepping through a looking-glass: liquid materials appear solid and strong, in what artist Lynda Benglis terms ‘Frozen Gestures',6 familiar materials appear to unravel into nothing, as with the piece Untitled (Locomote), a painting that seems to be constructed from strands or strings of paint - an attempt of a form metamorphosing into a stronger form, before it inevitably crumbles away into mere fragments, and then into nothing at all.
Then there are monuments to failed works and meaningless, mass-produced gestures, as with Roche's 3D sculptural pieces Stack I and Stack II. Stack I (see Footnote 4) is a sculpture made by brushmarks being stuck onto other works on canvas that the artist considered a failure. Stack II is also a monument made of ‘failed' works, but this time they are hexagon-shaped stretchers: failures from Roche's BA (Roche graduated from NCAD in 2006). To my mind, these works are more successful than the text-based ones; they allow room for the viewer's input, and there is room for subtlety.
Roche's deliberately naïve and optimistic painting style contradicts a sometimes sinister message of threat: stability literally crumbling away into failure that is inherent in painting works such as Every Female Artist Needs To Go ‘There' At Least Once, Dumb Like A Painter, Fail Me, and Untitled (Locomote). This threat is weighted with art history and theory, and reflects the perennial questioning of the value of painting in contemporary art practice. A body of work such as Roche's is needed; it invites the viewer to become part of the debate, thus somewhat alleviating the artist from the responsibility of defending the medium. It is refreshing to have robust and multi-layered work on show.
Emma Roche's work also address the function of objects as well as the relevance of painting in contemporary visual art. This can be seen most clearly in Roche's Benchmark work. This is a sculptural installation of ten yardsticks, painted by the artist, leaning at a 45-degree angle against the gallery wall. The paint has distorted and in some cases completely covered the measurements on the sticks. They lean against a white wall, measuring nothing except their own shadows, a trick of the light. We are put in a position to see them as objects with their own worth, and not objects that are valued on their ability to measure other objects. They are valueless because their function has been taken away by painting over the measurements. The artist puts us in a position where we look at them as formal sculptures but also question whether the broken yardsticks have a place in the world any more now that they serve no purpose. It is not clear if Roche wants us to think this specifically about painting or the ‘rules' of painting, but what is clear is that she wants us to consider change and development in values in her work in general.
Roche writes about the silence of painting in her Artist's Statement, and how this is in stark contrast to the many disembodied voices and claims that jostle for space in her heavily layered, textured work. Rather than a violent destruction of painting and old icons and a creation of false idols, from my study of her work I find that it is more of a careful, optimistic deconstruction with the objective of forming new ideas and of pushing the medium of painting to the limit using various conceptual starting points. The distortion of perspective allows the viewer breathing space and an access point into the work, and it also creates a narrative in which to read the works. Roche has lost her sense of proportion, playing with time, placing value in the incidental and monumentalizing it.


1. www.riverbank.ie
2. Thomas Karshan, ‘Deaths of the Authors', Frieze Magazine, Issue 125 September 2009; http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/deaths_of_the_authors/
3. "All women artists feel the need to go 'there' at least once", 2010, oil on linen; Hippy-Hoppy, 2009, oil on canvas; The Splash of a Drop..., installation, 2010, oil paint
4. The Rule of Thirds and Other Stories - performance involving nine factory workers, instructed to make brush marks on plastic with black paint; the paint was then peeled off by the artist and used to make Strand I as part of Art on the Balcony, Art Fair 09, RDS, Dublin, November 2009, curated by Helen Carey.
5. Worthington, A.M., The Splash of a Drop and Allied Phenomena 1841
6. Robert Pincus-Witten, ‘Lynda Benglis: The Frozen Gesture', Artforum, November, 1974, p. 54 - 59.