“Pelicans turn up frequently in my paintings,” writes Linda Tracey Brandon. “I think they are fascinating.” Sure enough, there’s a pelican in Capture the Flag, her submission to Go Wild, an international exhibition that runs in Gormley Fine Art, Dublin, from 6 to 27 June and in their Belfast gallery from 21 July to 10 August. It’s a show that makes mainstream Irish art seem a little straight-laced or, at least, firmly bound to the dichotomy between painting where the meaning leads directly from the subject matter and abstract painting that can mean anything at all. In Ireland we are dreadfully afraid of whimsy. You’re not meant to have random pelicans turning up without an invite. But Brandon is American and belongs to a more adventurous creative milieu. Her painting, which shows two girls on a childhood adventure, creates an imaginative space that allows for pelicans, should they wish to be there.
Go Wild is an open submission exhibition and shows the work of thirty artists, made in response to the theme. It is curated by Conor Walton in collaboration with PoetsArtists, a collective that focuses on the revival of figurative realism in fine art. It’s a difficult genre to describe without reductive definitions but, as Walton says: “The work in Go Wild is of a type that is not particularly common in Ireland. Much of it marries Old Master techniques with contemporary sensibilities and subject matter. It comes from life, but also from imagination and fantasy.” Some of the paintings deal with Symbolism in the Dutch Golden Age sense of the word, but also still life and the notion of coded meaning. The pelican, for example, clearly means something, but that meaning is neither revealed not known.
In many ways, such paintings are the speculative fiction of the art world. They describe an imaginary universe in meticulous detail. Martin Wittfooth’s paintings are chapters in a story of a post-apocalyptic world where humans no longer exist. As Above So Below, his submission for Go Wild is a nautilus, surrounded by lilies. It is circular in form, disturbingly beautiful, and calls to mind a science-fictional universe where fecundity works in potent and unfamiliar ways.
In many of the works Classical myth is urbanised and reconfigured for a contemporary world. Adam Miller’s Diana and Actaeon tells a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses, where a hunter who happens on a goddess bathing is changed into a deer and killed by his own hounds. The myth is Classical, the technique is Flemish, oil and tempura on panel, but it is also profoundly modern. The bystanders are dressed in the clothes of today, but the modernity of the painting goes deeper than that.
In its engagement with narrative, Go Wild defuses another time bomb of Irish art: the fear of being illustrative. Molly Judd, one of the Irish artists in the show, addresses this head-on with Raskolnikov. It shows a young man, holding a dagger and naked apart from a coat, lying on a horse that it probably dead in a building that may well be the Kremlin. The painting references the dream of a suffering horse in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but Judd’s interpretation is hauntingly unresolved.
“I wanted artists who were prepared to deal with the theme – Go Wild – in one way or another,” Walton says. “Either in terms of nature or in terms of taking a risk in their work."