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Artistic License: Orla Whelan

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The Georgian interiors of Rathfarnham Castle Dublin are the perfect backdrop to Orla Whelan’s colourful, contemporary abstracts channeling traditional marquetry …

What was the starting point for your new exhibition “A More Immortal Atlas”?

In recent years, I have become increasingly interested in making art for non-art spaces – responding to the history, conditions, style and materials that make a space unique. Rathfarnham Castle was on my wish list of spaces to engage with, so I was delighted when the opportunity arose. The first piece of work I made specifically for the exhibition was inspired by the castle’s unrestored dining room with its textured walls and exposed structure. Against a Melancholy Moment (or Magic Carpet) is a colourful, floor-based painting made of painted wooden wedges. It sits rug-like in front of the empty fireplace. The colour palette refers to the geological landscape, and explores the potential of colour to situate, remind and even transport us to another place and time.

The setting in Rathfarnham Castle is a seamless match for your works – was this deliberate?

Yes, most of the work in the exhibition was made specifically for Rathfarnham Castle. It was important for me to work with the building – to consider the fine craftwork, raw materials and the many layers of history it embodies. I tried to create a dialogue between my work and the historical spaces, to see how the different aesthetic sensibilities could speak to each other across time. The geometry of the Georgian architecture complements the abstract compositions of the paintings on linen even more than I anticipated. The paintings activate the rooms and vice versa. Painting Table, created using the traditional craft of marquetry, was made for the fully restored long room. It acts as a bridge between the contemporary aesthetic of my paintings and the period features of that interior.

How and where do you work?

I work from a studio in my home in Drimnagh, Dublin. I paint most days, working intuitively within certain self-imposed limitations. I began working from a studio in my home after I had children. What started out as a necessity, has now become my preference. It suits me to have my workspace and living space so close to each other. In 2013, I set up AtHomesStudios – an artist’s collective that provides peer critique, information sharing and a support network for professional visual artists working in isolation. I occasionally do studio residencies in institutions. Last year, I had a studio in IMMA (the Irish Museum of Modern Art), while I was working on a large scale commission and needed a bigger studio.

You won the Merrion Plinth Award last year …

Yes, I was the inaugural winner of the biennial award which was selected by curators Patrick Murphy and Oonagh Young, and hotelier and art collector Lachlann Quinn of The Merrion hotel. Chaos Bewitched is a three dimensional painting made of oil paint on birchwood wedges, mounted on a bespoke glass base. I am delighted to have my work sit alongside the fantastic works in the hotel’s famous collection of Irish art. It is on view until 2021 and there has even been a cake (for the hotel’s Afternoon Tea) made in homage to it.

Do you have any favourite works from the exhibition?

My series of small works Moon Valley, Dew, Death is very important to me. There are eight of these works in this exhibition, although there are currently about 100 pieces in the series which I began in 2016. Each piece is the same small size, has a limited colour palette and contains the same basic forms. These paintings have become a way to investigate the potential of colour and form to articulate what I can’t otherwise express. They are a series of practical experiments as well as being a trace of a genuine search for meaning. I am also very excited by the new large paintings in the show, which have developed out of the small ones.

Your artistic signature is your wooden wedges – what do they symbolise and mean for you?

The wooden wedges have become part of my artistic vocabulary. They are a modest functional component usually found on the reverse of a conventionally stretched canvas and used to increase tension at the corners. I have taken these unseen elements of painting and made them the visible surface of the painting as well as the forms of the composition. It’s a way to simultaneously break away from traditional painting yet still refer to it. For me, they have become a vehicle to explore the relationship between colour and form that makes the most sense. They are a beautiful shape; there is something humble and utilitarian about them that work in contrast to the intangible or ethereal nature of colour.

Need to Know: Orla Whelan’s exhibition “A More Immortal Atlas” is on at Rathfarnham Castle, Dublin until September 20. Admission is free; www.orlawhelan.com.

Image credits: Orla Whelan, portrait photo by Colin Carters. Exhibition images by Denis Mortell.

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