Fern O' Carolan
"You'll Never Get To Heaven"
December 10th 2022 - January 15th 2023
No Gallery - 105 Henry Street #4 NYC NY 10002
What does innocence look like to you? We find our internal bias in that first reaction, catch a glimpse at the immediate inference that we might otherwise gloss over in an attempt to establish a measured response.
We might not always like what that instant reveals about us, compounding the importance of examining it - it's an opportunity to ask ourselves why.
In her first solo exhibition with the gallery Fern O' Carolan challenges contemporary and historic aesthetics of feminism and feminity, forging a path towards a more nuanced visual language. These works present the artist's own spectrum of visual identity, what that language can do to empower or exclude women and to what extent we use those interpretive biases against one another.
You'll Never Get To Heaven combines pious innocence with hedonistic chaos, doing so without ever forgoing the importance of cute. The imagery explores the classic female dichotomy of the religious right, mining the Madonna-Whore Complex and positioning the viewer between the two as they attempt to navigate the dissonant aesthetic signals. The work on show is a rejection of this spectrum, a rejection of the notion that a woman must either be positioned in defence of or in action against either side and thus never really free from them.
O' Carolan, born and raised in North Dublin, Ireland, was educated at a public all-girl Catholic school, taught by nuns. The education environment demonised femininity, with a specific ire towards the developing sexuality of the students. Their sex-education consisted only of the assertion that if they should explore any form of sex before marriage to a man, they would be condemned to hell for this sin against God.
Of course, preaching abstinence as contraception went as well as to be expected and the lack of education lead to pregnancies, which the Nuns either encouraged to be carried to term and adopted out through the church or the families hid and sent to England to be aborted. The ignorances endemic of the Catholic church are rife throughout Ireland, whether in the flagrant mysoginies mentioned previously or in a faith-focused conspiratorial culture around science and medicine, coming from this environment as a woman artist created a need to pursue feminisms capable of existing outside of the female moral dichotomy established by catholicism, something made all the stranger by the TradCath movement on social-media.
TradCath seems to exist as a strange cousin to the popularity boom in BDSM aesthetics in the latter half of the 2010s, acting as a reaction to the kink aesthetic. It replaces the suggestion of sexuality, specifically what an institution like the Catholic church would describe as deviant sexuality, with a suggestion of innocence - pleated skirts and church shoes. The usual thing about this aesthetic is the relationship that it has to the adoption of real-world religious belief, it seems increasingly common to stumble across young women posting Instagram stories about what they're praying for alongside OOTD and interior design aesthetics.
Really there would be nothing strange about an aesthetic swing towards innocence and piety were it not for the adoption of religious belief coinciding with it and for an artist like O' Carolan, having grown up in an environment rife with repression as a direct consequence of the church, it suggests a far more sinister potential.
The works on show make references to charm-jewellery, the sort of pretty amulets of protection given as gifts to loved ones as well infant mobiles, eschewing the cute and comforting imagery in favour of an aesthetic language seeking to challenge the value of innocence as much as it does the embracing of corruption.
O' Carolan refuses to embrace either, challenging the notion that women must adopt a one-dimensional character through a presentation that is more tongue-in-cheek than fire and brimstone. She gestures towards the conservative fear of the corrupted woman, employing masculine imagery solely for its gesture of threat towards the archetypal strict Father, an exploitation of the fear of inadequacy, of emasculation, that influences the subjugation of women. The masculine figures are manipulated, turned against the viewer through the quiet control of the female gaze.
You'll Never Get To Heaven embraces craft processes, from sewing to scrapbooking, with O'Carolan sewing each individual piece of the work by hand - a casual nod to women's work - to produce a series of works capable of challenging contemporary notions of femininity, religion and gendered oppression whilst maintaining a sense of lightness and humour. Actively avoiding didacticism in favour of winks and nods to the viewer, O' Carolan is unafraid of keeping it cute and letting our biases do the work.