7 September 2012
Maurice Orr's paintings are designed to be touched. His innovative use of dried fish skins as media, and the unusual access he gives to his paintings, makes this exhibition a memorable experience. Nicole Fordham Hodges saw and touched these respectfully wild landscapes
The exhibition comprises five huge paintings on canvas: barren coastal landscapes from Orr's native Northern Ireland, and from Skagastrond, Iceland. It has been designed to be accessible to all audiences, in particular visually impaired people, through touch, sound and sight. Maurice Orr has designed Audio Description with accompanying large text and braille stands for each painting. He also commissioned a musical score to accompany his work. This was not playing when I viewed the exhibition, probably due to competing noises in the busy exhibition space.
'Benbane Head from Dunseverick Old Harbour' NI 2010 (Fish leather, oil on canvas) is an 'angry' seascape. Orr's accompanying description says: "The intensely dark blue sea is very angry and the incoming surf on the waves is bright blue engulfing the rough dark wolfish skin rocks".
The descriptions throughout are not quite poetic but vividly physical. Like his paintings they show huge respect for both his artistic media and for these wild places. The 'anger' of the seascapes is an elemental force: uncomplicated uncompromising power being translated into 'human' for us through the senses. A few high fields on a cliff show fleeting warmth, momentarily catching the sun.
I feel my way around paintings. It feels intimate to relate to art in this way. Feeling the 'Giant's Causeway' NI 2010 (Fish leather, oil on canvas) I experience the difference between the smooth leathery texture of the headland (wolfish) and the bumpy scree slope (cod skin). "Cod skin has scales which overlap in one direction only giving the feel of looser rocks," writes Orr.
For me the most memorable painting is 'The Old Causeway Harbour from the Smugglers Cave NI'. It gives us a view of the sea looking out from a cave's interior. The cave is "captured in both fish leather and very dark oil paint leading to a much brighter aspect beyond."
It's a spooky painting. Who is looking out? Surely no human could live here. The cave walls are fish skin with their scales left fully visible. Fish is the language of this place. It is otherness. Neither the sea or rock belongs to humankind.
As Maurice Orr says, "the exhibition title 'The Screaming Silence of the Wind' hints at the silence of the people who once inhabited these landscapes ordinary people lost in time. The wild unspoilt beauty of the landscapes hides the suffering of the people who lived there."
These are landscapes devoid of people, but we are encouraged to engage with them through all our human senses. Maurice Orr allows us to experience beautiful alien places, in an exhibition respectful of both human and wilderness.
The work is on show in the Festival Village, Southbank Centre, London, until 9 September