Fiona Kearney; Essay for publication. Space, Fear and the Multitude, at MCAC 2009


A crowd of crowds.

We gather in many ways: to protest, to flee, to shelter, to mourn, and to celebrate. In this moment, our individual character is lost in the larger life of the crowd. We belong to the multitude. We move towards a deliberate end.

In her work, Joy Gerrard observes and articulates the changing flow of these mass gatherings, the way in which we collectively inhabit urban space. Together, people can hold the city in a spontaneous embrace of emotional solidarity or in a purposeful grip of dissent and fear. For a crowd has a rhythm and shape all of its own. It has an aesthetic as well as a history.

Gerrard's crowd formations are seen from an external perspective, usually from the high vantage point of the surveillance tower or the hovering eye of the news helicopter. From the stock images that are flashed briefly on our television screens and printed in the papers, Gerrard creates delicate ink drawings, transforming specific instances of photojournalism into abstracted overviews. This is an important and thoughtful shift for it indicates the artist's desire to remove the crowd from a concrete moment in time, to eliminate the colour and personality of the historical snapshot and to create a more anonymous and hence conceptual framework for her investigations.

There is something of a paradox here. The distinct mark making of the drawing contradicts and loosens the fixed viewpoint of the camera. By introducing the sensitive line of the human hand, the artist intentionally undoes the illusion of impartiality that a photograph might give. The deftly drawn assemblies may become less identifiable, reduced to tiny daubs of ink, but they are also the direct trace of the artist drawing on paper. This tension between the objective stance and the subjective touch reveals and points to many other dualities in Gerrard's work. Oppositions recur frequently in her practice, setting up a constructive dialogue between figuration and abstraction, romanticism and modernism, self and society, destruction and order, black and white.

In its sculptural form, Gerrard's world is dark with sharp edges. She crafts the idea of an urban space from its most basic elements. With mathematical precision, her black perspex structures render a cityscape somewhere between science fiction setting and architectural model. Through and around these constructions are tiny figures in flow and pause, pressing on and gathering around the buildings that are not really buildings. Spherical and rectangular objects are set out with graphic perfection and suggest an impersonal universe of theoretical planning rather than the lived in dwellings of inhabited space. On the image table, magnetic forces hold and attract clusters subsuming our being in the world to a set of scientific laws.

Into this controlled and controlling world, a large storm drawing creates a powerful moment of rupture. It is both a physical and formal interruption into the contained grids found elsewhere in the work. The storm drawing manifests itself as a swirling set of brushstrokes as if it were emphasising an artistic as well as meteorological event. While the storm can be read as an impending threat, an ominous sign of devastation that endangers and displaces the crowd, it can also be seen as a moment of release, for its very outbreak holds the promise of renewal. The storm and the gestural marks that represent it, signal the possibility of a paradigm shift when an old system is engulfed and destroyed, clearing the way for a new one.

In this complex meditation on the crowd, urban space, and on the natural and metropolitan currents that shape our existence, Gerrard identifies a series of forces that control the scope of individual expression. The crowd subsumes the individual voice, the city controls the flow of the crowd, and the tempest and flood overwhelm the built environment. A cyclical pattern that drives the making and remaking of civilizations. This absorbing body of work invites us to consider our own part and place in the constant reconstruction of self and world. Gerrard's perceptive study positions the crowd in a range of media, testing the way in which drawing, animation, sculpture and photography can express the shifting meaning of the many. The artist does not allow her subject to settle in any one form so that the exhibition is as restless and multiple as the congregations she depicts. It is a crowd of crowds.

Fiona Kearney, Director; Glucksman Gallery, Cork