Jane Irish’s Exquisite Interiors Are Redolent of Imperialism and Decades of War

Jane Irish has had resistance on her mind. Her paintings are inspired by the protest movements of war veterans and by the long, tangled history of conquest, colonialism, and postcolonialism. For “A Rapid Whirling on the Heel” at Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, she turns her gaze to the troubled past and vibrant present of Vietnam, a country whose very name conjures images of war and imperialism.

Irish is known for her lush, expressively rendered interior scenes, here painted in egg tempera and ink on canvas, paper, and linen. She draws from Rococo and Gilded Age art and design as well as painted china to portray the rooms, passageways, and ceilings of various noble, opulent homes. But all is not well in these charming manors. Into the domestic scenes she inserts vignettes of strife and violence, meant as reminders of the conflict and imperialism that made such extravagance possible.

While Irish previously focused primarily on European homes, she recently directed her attention to one of France’s former colonies: Vietnam. The artist was struck by the beauty of Vietnamese interiors and by what she sees as the spirit of the Vietnamese people in their triumphs over French colonialism and subsequent American imperialism.

Irish’s new body of work features scenes of both European and Vietnamese interiors, all of them marked by history. In Malouiniere Launay Ravilly Reception (2015), she presents a sumptuously appointed sitting room washed in tones of blue and rose. The composition leads the eye through the room and out onto a manicured lawn stretching to the horizon, visible through open doors. But amid the peacefulness, images of American Gold Star Mothers and Vietnamese women mark the room’s walls and ceilings, evoking the losses of the Vietnam War.

Khai Dinh Peace Ceiling (2016) ventures to the tomb of Khai Dinh, former emperor of Vietnam, considered a puppet of the French colonialists. An exuberantly ornate ceiling, painted in perfect Rococo style, looms above his grandiose grave. With its synthesis of Vietnamese and European styles, the painting typifies Irish’s fascination with the decorations of death and disarray.


—Karen Kedmey


Jane Irish: A Rapid Whirling on the Heel” is on view at Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, Apr. 21–May 31, 2016.

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