Editors' pick

Aoife Collins: Tickling the Ivories

Mixed Media, Sculpture/Installation

Editorial Review

Hardworking artist can be playful, too
Style and humor displayed in five-piece show

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Jan. 6, 2012

The playful, fuzzed-out flowers, torn magazine pages and elegant strands of pearls in Flashpoint's latest exhibit, "Aoife Collins: Tickling the Ivories," may well have been lifted from the bedroom of a teenage girl.

But Irish contemporary artist Aoife Collins (pronounced EE-fa), who comes to Flashpoint through a partnership with theater company and arts organization Solas Nua, arrives at her pop sensibility by way of a little pain: She plucks mundane, mass-produced items and transforms them into objets d'art simply by adding her own labor. Hours and hours of repetitive labor.

Those frayed, punch-colored wisps? They were once cheesy fabric orchids, the kind better left to collect dust at motel reception desks or Chinese restaurants. Collins purchases ready-made arrangements and spends months tugging each flower and bud apart, thread by thread, with a pair of tweezers before reassembling them. Reminding us of their origins as decorative afterthoughts, Collins cheekily installs the sculptures at Flashpoint's front desk rather than on the gallery floor.

The pearls, she drapes artfully over an open steel frame; the piece, "All I Want Is to Covet You All," is the definition of contemporary sculpture, but the pearls add a quaint, antiquated touch. They're inexpensive, common, freshwater pearls, yet Collins painstakingly hand-knotted each strand, imbuing them somehow with more value than the surface might suggest.

This is only the second U.S. show for Collins, whose work is frequently exhibited in London and Ireland. Though trained in painting, she has experimented freely with sculpture and installation as well as sound projects and video work. In an era in which some of the world's most high-priced art is conceived of by artists but created by armies of assistants, her work raises particularly poignant questions: Is it an artist's labor that makes an item art? Or simply what an artist chooses to show? (Acknowledging her due to French artist Marcel Duchamp, Collins frequently plays with the idea; in a 2008 New York exhibition, she had punch lines from a TV show recorded in a serious tone, ridding them of their context, then had them play in the gallery as a sound installation.)

"Tickling the Ivories" is spare - there are just five pieces - but one installation begs more than one look. "Floating Point," a simple wooden vitrine, bears what looks like a plain sheet of glass, but step within inches of it to see a millimeters-long sliver of paper with the word "love" ensconced in the glass. To find that sliver, Collins snipped every instance of the word from the pages of Oscar Wilde's novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (she guessed that there were around 36), then turned each slice over to see what was on the other side.

"It was kind of wishful thinking that something would happen," Collins explains of her game of chance. Something did: On the flip side of one of the cutouts, she found the word "hate"; that's the sliver she placed in glass. Walk around the sculpture to see it (and, thanks to the lighting, your own reflection staring back at you in the glass).

If there is one other common theme in "Tickling the Ivories," Collins says, it's the transparency in the work. The hand-cut patterns in the wall installation "Inherit the Window," the glass in "Floating Point," the steel cube in "All I Want," all of this is as wide open, and accessible, as Collins's sense of humor.