Canvas, Confrontation & Childhood, An Exploration of (The House That Built Me)paintings by Bernadette Doolan

The Art Explorer
6 min readSep 23, 2020

An Exploration of (The House That Built Me) Artist Bernadette Doolan’s exhibition at GOMA

A few months into Covid’s new normal and I was longing for an alternative conversation. Something creative, physical and real, beyond the flat screen digital media and the ubiquitous mask. This might account for the heightened sense of reality I felt, as I set out on my first visit in months, to both city and art gallery. After a lengthy car journey, I arrived at Lombard Street Waterford. I stepped out onto a small car-park like a helipad. When suddenly I was surrounded by a panorama of city buildings, all fractured and fragmented; a brick a brack of living spaces all mixed together over time, layer upon layer, rising up like a great amphitheater from Waterford’s narrow streets and back lanes; an intriguing jumble of extensions, conversions and add-ons of all types, even one little wooden shack attached to the ledge of a second storey. I looked around me Like a released prisoner soaking it all up.

My senses bombarded by a kaleidoscope of textures, shapes and colour. Red brick Pebble-dash and dampened plaster, all pinned together with drain pipes, metal grills and fire escapes. Only later did I realise, this was a fitting prelude to the exhibition I had come to see; one addressing, the often fraught and fractured relationship between the individual and one’s social environment; the exhibition The House that Built me by artist Bernadette Doolan.

So I followed the river of traffic down the narrow canyon of Lombard Street, to Waterford’s GOMA gallery; an old space, somewhat cold and sparse, reflecting the mood of its earlier role as Tax Office. A place of angular shadow spaces and grey light. The exhibition space is divided by tall partition walls, that twist and turn the visitor into optimum viewing positions, as you are pin-balled through slots and around corners. In my hyper-sensitive condition, I felt shouldered by the harsh fractured architecture, on my desperate search for the intimacy of paintings.

The exhibition consists of 16 paintings in total, some very large (200 x 200). The works are mostly figurative, direct and dramatic, with a strong implied biographical narrative. Initially I was excited by the identifiable narrative, boldness of approach and strong emotive quality, as they played my emotions like pressing on piano keys.

But maybe because of this deceptively simple narrative, with its explicit and literal titles such as: (Counting to 10 maybe 20, My escapism my inner world, Self-sufficient and Breakfast etc) I became distracted by the lure of interpretation and psychology. As I moved from one painting to the next, I felt a conflict within, between my head and heart, between a literal response which muffled the creative experience and a more intuitive one which sought to celebrate it.

It seemed obvious, that The House That Built Me, was articulating with acute and painful awareness, the psychological challenge faced by the child, grappling with his/her social environment.

The Oddballs, My Besties (Detail)

For me, the overriding mood of the exhibition was confrontative, interspersed with more reflective works. The overt drama of some, belying the emotional complexity of the whole. In one painting, titled The Oddballs, my Besties, young girls are shown adopting dramatic poses. Their intense stares, show disdain for the role assigned them, as they don red clown nose and mask, in a parody of ‘happy days’, a charade, an act. Even the gentle dog featured elsewhere, is shown here with his pink collar decked with metal spikes. Their gaze projects out from the canvas, either directly at the viewer or just beyond. The effect is to invert the relationship between image and viewer. On the one hand, through these figures you feel you are looking directly and personally at the artist. On the other hand, there is a slightly disturbing sense, that the figures are looking at you the viewer.

In Eat your peas, and Breakfast, young girls sit reluctant and in conflict, with what is pushed upon them, each wedged in by thrusting tables. One a domestic setting, the other a more abstract depiction.

All the paintings are executed with painterly skill, with each element carefully placed within a picture frame of measured space, providing maximum emotive effect. Emotions seem contained or placed within blocks of colour, that divide and isolate the figures within their environment.

And there is plenty of grey in this exhibition, laid across the canvas as a dominant mood. But unlike a grey day that dulls and mutes, here it provides the perfect backdrop, a deep mood of restraint, acting as foil to leaping colours, often climaxing in red or white, all skillfully applied. The eye and heart welcoming such release, like definition released from grey uncertainty.

In My Inner World, the large grey canvas seems almost to smother the young girl. She stands within a black circle to the side of the frame, arms purple, head bowed, features ill-defined, engulfed by large black ear muffs or phones(?) the mood oppressive.

A more overt defiance is portrayed in I will win, where a battle-hardened conker, hangs on a string from an extended fist; a challenge to the viewer. A blond evangelical, white dressed child, dares you from behind deep dark eyes.

There are other paintings too, that direct our attention to paraphernalia, garnered from the altar of childhood, with titles like Imaginary Friends, Games and New Sandals, and Pick a Number Pick a Colour. These allow for personal, even light hearted reflection. But we remain throughout, aware of the presence of the child, in whose world we roam.

In Bray, we have a smaller painting, as if plucked from the mist of artist memory, a beautifully detailed nugget. Placed to one side within the frame, as if noticed in passing, a textured grey roof and carnival façade, its edges simmering with orange red. Only a bare suggestion of horizon within the mist.

And finally, two pieces that demand a mention. Game of Trust: A large (200 x 200) painting, that looks down from on high, lending a child’s perspective; canvas almost total grey. We are greeted first by a dog, ears receptive, eyes direct, with harmless pink collar. But from the background, the image grows more complicated. Here, pink ribbon both presents and binds the figure. Pink skin feels raw, and a pink eared bunny is placed womb-like, on the figure of mother or Bride. She floats on high, aloof, grey, faint and headless. Shrouded in grey and faded lace, drawn delicately in chalk. A tender piece.

Counting to 10 maybe even 20 (Detail)

Counting to 10 maybe even 20: When I was first ushered into the main exhibition space, standing there to greet me, was a large naked beige canvas, its soft, calming, hemp-like texture, largely empty and unmarked. Off centre, is a fine sparse drawing of a young girl, waist up. With just a bare outline of the body, the head is deftly drawn, in dry brushed red. Shadows suggestive of swell and bruising. The fantasy supported by two tiny drops of nose-bleed red, out centre frame in the beige expanse. The work is restrained and minimal giving it emotional force. It arrests your attention, stills the mind and moves the heart. During my visit, I returned repeatedly to this work, paradoxically, as balm to the more overt drama elsewhere. Here, it’s as if we have moved on from resilience and resistance, to a vulnerable openness. The effect is of a less literal and more iconic work.

Inevitably, we come to art with expectations, and the artist (particularly with contemporary art), may see it as their job to confound these expectations. And confrontation is often necessary, both to pique interest, and generate real engagement.

My experience of this this exhibition, is that it serves to reflect the conflict and fractures, both within ourselves and between us and our environment. A theme that is always relevant, and now even more so, given current covid times, and this strange fractured environment we currently inhabit.

Exhibition Runs To 26th September 2020 at GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art Waterford)

Open to the public Wednesday — Saturday 12.30–5.30pm. (All welcome)


CHECK OUT PREVIOUS REVIEWS (The Art Explorer on Facebook)

🔸 Bian Maguire -Review of Exhibition

🔸 Maria McKinney -Review of Exhibition

🔸 Joanna Kidney -Review of Exhibition

🔸 Riin KaljurandReview of Exhibition

🔸 Niamh O Malley, Tommy Weirs, Shea Dalton at the RHA -Review of Exhibition


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The Art Explorer

The Art Explorer is a pseudonym for the Irish artist and writer Daniel Cullen. — Investigating Art from a Viewers Perspective. (Art Reviews)