Exhibition text: New Neighbours – Olivia O’Dwyer & Fergal Styles Showing at South Tipperary Arts Centre

Exhibition text: New Neighbours – Olivia O’Dwyer & Fergal Styles showing at South Tipperary Arts Centre, till April 26, 2024
Text commissioned by South Tipperary Arts Centre, available to download at southtipperaryartscentre.ie

Full text:

New Neighbours
It’s the way now, people don’t know their neighbours. You could live on a street and not even have a passing acquaintance with those next door or across the road. Building relationships with neighbours seems almost quaint, a relic of a bygone era. I moved into my home 11 years ago. A brass number 11 adorns the door I painted ‘Old Smoke’, a bougie shade of green. I know some of my neighbours; number 10 takes in packages for me, number 9 does the flowers for the street, including my window boxes (I accept their compliments), and I hold ‘case of an emergency’ keys for number 13. So it is: you get thrown together through a commonality, and something comes from it, however small.
Olivia O’Dwyer and Fergal Styles were brought together as many two-person shows are, by a curator, in this case, Helena Tobin, seeing in them a commonality, not just the exterior paint job; here are two painters who are actively engaged with the qualities of their materials, their canvases textured with layering, scrapping, the marks of their toil, but also in what concerns them. At first glance this may not be immediately obvious as the tone of their work differs; O’Dwyer’s has a playful, humorous bent, whereas Styles’ creates an atmosphere of noirish melancholy.
O’Dwyer’s figures announce themselves in a boiled ham pink, two legs protruding from the right of the frame in Home Bird I and II, out of a sofa in S.B.T.S. as if the rest of the body has been swallowed by its marshmallow padding, or in the bendy yoga poses of Triangle of Sadness II and III. Works full of self-discovery, limbs akimbo in a bittersweet joyous dance of introspection and revelation. But also the right to hide away if we want to; in BedHead III only the top of the head is visible under the covers retreated to. A sofa appears again in I’m Just Resting My Eyes, this time in a tannin brown, matching the background and the suit of a prone figure in dark glasses. While the title and the faintly modish character lead us to humour, the subject is a poignant recollection of the artist’s father lying ill before his demise.
Styles’ pieces immediately strike me as reflective; there is a sense of nostalgia, of old snapshots well-worn from repeated returns. In Untitled (No More Birthdays), layers of colour are stripped back to a lilac grey and remnants of blue-green, except on the table, overlooked by a barely-there female figure, a yellow cake mounted by seven slim white candles. In Green Candle in a Wine Red Room, the lone thin green candle crowed by a yellow flame brings me to the poet laureate of those alone, Leonard Cohen. (On dark winter nights walking home from college, my then-boyfriend would teach me verses of One of Us Cannot Be Wrong, which immortalises the thin green candle).
I see another Cohen song of the window of Green Flowers, this time a line
from The
Rorschach-blotch of paint a
next to a lit candle, there is
in a
looking out
Stranger Song: “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger”, finding
robed figure leading a bridled equus bearing a rider.
But on
the window ledge
a milk jug and steaming teapot, the
implication being, a warm cup of tea in hand,
we are no longer looking for a place to rest.
Home is a safe space to meditate on memories nearly within reach.
In fact, in each of Styles’ paintings, there is a light source– a lamp, a single candle or a festooned birthday cake, the open doorway of a lit house. Yes, Fergal, there is a light that never goes out – as Morrisey and Marr of The Smiths wrote, a band characterised by lyrics reflecting on the experience of being alone. I’m now speculating on Style’s studio playlist.
If Styles’ musical taste slips in, for O’Dwyer, it is her viewing pleasures – I Love Kevin Bacon, coming from a screenshot from the TV adaptation of I Love Dick (the urge to write this in all caps, in the manner of toilet door graffiti is strong), a book by Chris Kraus, in which Kevin Bacon plays the object of affection.
The colour palette in Green Flowers reminds me of Edward Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks, an image associated with loneliness, with shadowy blues and greens eased by the deep cherry red of a candle and its yellow light.
By lifting the curtain of their domestic façades, O’Dwyer and Styles are delving into the places we go to when we are alone. The moment we step outside our homes, we are enveloped by multi-layered shared narratives; away from the rabble, the connection is with ourselves and our interior world of emotions and memories. These painters allow themselves to go into the solitary self, the alone, and paint what they find there.
We exist in a social context that causes us to internalise stigma connected to being alone, beliefs that often emphasise the importance of near-constant social engagement and productivity – busyness – something we play into fearing judgment or criticism, leading to feelings of inadequacy for those who find, embrace, or prioritise solitude and self- reflection. To be alone is to be deemed a failure.
While in Hopper’s work, each character exists in
their individual world while in the same public space: a cafe, train, bar, hotel or lobby,
O’Dwyer and Styles paint the domestic, exploring the internal
the context of their private interiors.
experience within
When I send this draft to the artists, they will say, Jesus, don’t tell people we’re lonely. But
I’m not saying that. Sometimes, we need to be alone, we need emptiness, time for
introspection, self-reflection, rest, and uninterrupted thinking – to let the muse in.
need each other, but then sometimes we don’t.
The bang of weed wafts into my house from flats to my right, and their ivy is undermining my garden wall.
Aloneness is not inherently harmful; it’s practically a job requirement for an artist. Amidst the quiet moments of solitude, we find ourselves most acutely attuned to the world around us and to ourselves. Solitude, at its core, provides a personal space to create – the room of one’s own that Virginia Woolf famously called for.

In Styles studio, he starts his work by writing its title on the reverse of the canvas in
capitalised, elongated letters of black marker, joined by an arrow pointing upwards: NEW
WINE RED ROOM. O’Dwyer visited Styles and had him moniker her work in the same
fashion: I LOVE KEVIN BACON, BEDHEAD III, where they bonded over the Andrew Cranson quote, “Making art is time travelling.”
One of the occupants from No. 12 called in to shake my hand after seeing my husband’s coffin being lifted out through our studio window. He gifted me flowers a Christmas after that and waves whenever he sees me. It feels strange to have his empathy, with him being a refugee from Darfur and his family still over there. But he is here, my neighbour being neighbourly.
O’Dwyer and Styles challenge the societal standard that equates solitude with failure, offering an alternative narrative where, in solitude, we take time to make, remember, and travel towards ourselves.
– Neva Elliott

Neva Elliott is an artist and writer with an MA from Central Saint Martin’s, London.
Highlights from 2023 include her solo exhibition, How to create a fallstreak, at Linenhall Arts Centre, being an invited artist at the 193rd RHA Annual Exhibition and showing at ARTWORKS 2023 Remembering The Future at VISUAL Carlow, where she secured an award for ‘outstanding work’. Her writing has been featured in Visual Artists Newsheet, RTÉ Culture, Banshee, Unapologetic Magazine, VISUAL Carlow Arts & Ideas and Source Photographic Review, where it earned runner-up in Source’s New Writing Prize for 2023. Elliott is an Irish Hospice Foundation signature artist.
nevaelliott.com @nevaelliottartist