‘With Bread’ by Abigail O’Brien, at the Limerick City Gallery of Art

With Bread
By Abigail O’Brien
@ Limerick City Gallery of Art, Pery Square, Dublin
13 January to 26 March

Review by Sam Tranum

On a cross-country road-trip that took me from Dublin to Limerick to Galway and home to Dublin again in February, I had the opportunity to spend an hour in the sunny, airy Limerick City Gallery of Art. The warren of white-walled rooms and creaky floors was welcoming, and elegant in the way of a well-preserved old home.

Of the several exhibitions I saw while there, two still stick in my mind: Abigail O’Brien’s With Bread, and Anthony Haughey’s Excavation. Watching Haughey’s film about ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica felt more like self-flagellation than viewing art, so I will write here about O’Brien’s less accusing work, and leave you to find your measure of sorrow and guilt elsewhere.

O’Brien’s show had three elements, scattered across different rooms in the gallery. First I saw a set of photographs, hung on stark white walls. They struck me as the sort of thing I might see used as permanent decorations in a bakery, café or restaurant: well-executed, atmospheric perhaps, but nothing that would distract you from your lunch.

Each was about 90cm by 120cm, mostly framed tight and close enough to ensure that they had no background to add action or context, but not close-up enough to create a sense of abstraction, as a 90cm-by-120cm shot of a single pore on a human face might. They were just kind of normal, kind of medium.

The photographs were named after female artists: Frida Kahlo, Judy Chicago, Mary A. Kelly, Méret Oppenheim. ‘Frida Kahlo’ shows the steely basin of a large industrial mixer, dough hook tangled into an elastic-looking, cream-coloured mass that looks good enough to eat raw. I could conjure no connection between this image and Kahlo – or the other images and their namesakes.

Second, there was a video, which I glanced over in passing: it showed a jar full of what I took to be gooey sourdough starter, overflowing in gloopy slow-motion. A rather boring and small but potentially delicious volcano. It was, again, framed tightly enough to exclude the context of background, but not so zoomed in so close as to add the interest of magnification.

The final element was what I really liked: a room full of shiny 20150205_151540black-topped tables piled with silvery loaves of bread in all shapes in sizes, many on pedestals and/or under glass domes. It reminded me of something from Alice in Wonderland. I almost expected the Mad Hatter to appear and start lifting glass domes and hurling silvery hunks of bread at my head.

The photographs and video seemed studied and serious and nice enough. Perhaps they were profound statements on something, but I did not read the accompanying text and, on their own, they did not speak to either my brain or my soul. The room full of silvery food did, though. It was playful and evocative and odd. It made me wonder what was going on, what the artist was trying to say to me. I circled the tables and took out my phone and started taking photos, because I wanted to show other people that strangely beautiful scene.

I did not realise until today, when I finally stopped procrastinating and began writing up my thoughts on the exhibition, that it was sponsored by McCloskey’s Traditional and Artisan Bakery. I don’t remember seeing any branding at the show, so it can’t have been to intrusive if it was there at all. On learning about the tie-up, I wondered for a moment whether it should bother me, whether this commercial intrusion on art should offend me.

I’ve decided it doesn’t. I’m glad McCloskey’s helped make it possible for O’Brien to show me her wonderland of baked riches. And riches they were, those lovely loaves that once filled kitchens with that fresh-bread smell that always makes my mouth water, and are now preserved forever (or at least for a very long time), were named for currencies: ‘240 Euro’, ’60 Dinar’, ’18 Pula’.