In sculpture, box-makers are a small and relatively neglected minority. They do not just make boxes, even minimalist boxes; they make boxes and contents. The boxes they make are often like small worlds of their own. Barrie Cooke, whose retrospective is showing at the RHA, has created many sculptural boxes, mostly during the 1970s and 1980s.
Several are included in his show, which coincides with a rare appearance in Dublin by another prominent box-maker, Graham Gingles, who has a solo show at the Peppercanister Gallery. Where for Cooke boxes have been one aspect, albeit significant, of his artistic activity, they have been the principal form of expression for Gingles for well over 25 years.
He was born in Larne, Co Antrim, in 1943, attended Belfast College of Art and has been consistently based in Northern Ireland. He began his artistic career as a painter, and his current show includes some paintings. Drawing and fine draughtsmanship continue to be central to his work.
His work is hermetic, obsessive and usually quite dark.
Are these common attributes of sculptural boxes? Certainly they could apply to those made by another Irish artist who has contributed to the form, Kathlyn O'Brien. And think of boxes and sculpture and the chances are that Joseph Cornell will come to mind. Cornell, a strange and reclusive US artist who died in 1973, pioneered the form. His work used collage extensively; his glass-fronted cabinets are like reliquaries, as often as not stocked with objects and images relating to his obsessive interest in particular ballerinas. There are inbuilt feelings of loss, hopeless longing, sadness and nostalgia in his works.
Gingles is apt to make and manage every constituent of his boxes, inside and out, to a much greater degree. One of the first things you are likely to notice is that as objects they are carefully devised and constructed, to a level of complexity far in excess of simple utility. Even viewed merely as containers, without regard to the intricacy of their content, they have tended to be strange, baroque objects. It has been suggested in the past that their over-engineering is a kind of restraint or imprisonment of what is within.
The current work surpasses in complexity anything from the past. There are conventionally boxlike, rectangular constructions, but also cylindrical containers and the half-rotunda forms of the extraordinary Surprise Of The Promenade series.
The most obvious way to view the boxes is as personal reliquaries, and it is true that Gingles spent a year in Rome at the beginning of the 1970s and was very taken with the wealth of religious paraphernalia on view.
Yet although his boxes function partly as cabinets of curiosities or as specimen cases, they also go considerably beyond that. Take his zest for sub-compartmentalisation, which is everywhere apparent. You have to get close to make out the interiors of the boxes, but once you are in close you realise you can only ever glimpse part of the story. Rather than being designed to display things, each interior is a labyrinth of endlessly recessive, interconnecting spaces. There is always another level, another corner around which you cannot quite see. It's as if Gingles doesn't want to put definite limits on his internal world, as if to imply that it goes on and on.
Each box is an account of an internal world, presumably the artist's own, a visualised cross-section of a mental space or, perhaps more accurately, mental activity visualised in spatial terms. In fact, to judge by their form and content, you could view each box as a mind, a head, a body or a building. A recurrent feature is a treatment of the human body fragmented, pinioned and anatomised, echoing the overall sense of containment imposed by the formidable external constructions.
There is a pervasive sense of the past in the way Gingles conjures up specific spaces, from musty hotel rooms to the pungent seashore. But he never spells out meaning or context. We can infer that he is dwelling on moments of personal experience - of boredom, morbidity, revelation, eroticism, fear - but he doesn't explain anything. He is resolutely introspective about it all, although there are clues aplenty.
Work on this level of obsessiveness may be demanding of the viewer, but it is also demanding of the artist. It is exceptionally well made on every level, from the minutely calculated woodwork of the boxes to the beautiful sculptural components within.
Although respected within a circle of artists and collectors, Gingles is not as widely appreciated as an artist as he should be, perhaps because he is not very prolific - the painstaking nature of his work pretty much rules that out - and because his work is so darkly hermetic and inward-looking. But this show demonstrates why he has to be regarded as one of the best sculptors working in Ireland.
Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times, September 2003