“How to be a Child?” is the title of Carmel Benson’s latest exhibition. Themes familiar from the artist’s earlier work recur but in newly explicit forms: here, the solitary, watching figure is that of a young girl who faces the viewer through or from under a veil. Foetuses (sometimes numbered) seem to fall from the sky, or else they dangle from placentas, accompanied by the chilling words Mea Culpa. Words from Catholic prayers and from the Catechism overlie the figures or emerge from the background.
In a programme note, Ciaran Benson observes that ‘the ‘Catechism’ was probably the most important book in the lives of Catholic children’ when the artist was growing up. He also observes that this show marks a shift in her work: for the first time, history and autobiography are apparent. In addition, it seems to me that a critical awareness and challenge are apparent in these paintings, where earlier work was more allusive.
Some of the more striking images include: a representation of a child’s dress in a hopeful shade of innocent blue, marred by the muddy handprints of an adult and overwritten by the words of the ‘Hail Mary’; the miserable face of a young girl, veiled, behind a rain of foetuses; and a triptych of the artist’s grandmother (‘Matriarch’), where a strong, unsmiling female figure is associated with a serpent/rosary beads/missal, a newborn baby, and a newly-killed chicken in turn. Each of the Matriarch paintings is inscribed with the Latin phrase ‘Introibo ad Altare Dei/I will go onto the altar of God’, as if the Matriarch delivers the child into the hands of an institution whose texts will demean, disempower and despise her.
Themes of sexuality and birth are threaded through the work, along with the oppressive phraseology of Catholic classrooms, dogma and ritual: ‘Through my fault’; ‘Our passions incline us to evil’; ‘Why did God make the world? For his own glory and man’s use and benefit’ – this last chillingly inscribed on blocks of darkening blues that overwhelm two small girls in Communion dresses at the centre of the painting.
The exhibition is timely, but the work has been in the making since long before the most recent spate of scandals about the religious orders and their treatment of women and children emerged. The juxtaposition of Catholic dogma with images of loneliness, confusion, foetuses and placentas makes a clear statement about the disturbing and distorting effect of such dogma on the psyche of children … Some older images are included in the show, demonstrating a continuity in Carmel Benson’s focus to date but also drawing our attention to the shifting ground and breaking point at which we’ve arrived. “How to be a Child?” raises exciting possibilities. What will this artist do next?
The images (reproduced here with permission) can be seen at http://carmelbenson.com/ – but for full impact, go to the exhibition. It runs for another two weeks – until 7th September – in The Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray http://mermaidartscentre.ie/
(NB: for some reason, the exhibition is not listed on the Mermaid’s home page, but you’ll find it under Exhibitions/Current Exhibition)