Olivia O’Dwyer, HomeBird : Kevin Kavanagh

I had the great pleasure of spending time with the work of Olivia O’Dwyer while writing the exhibition text for her upcoming solo show at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, which will start on the 11th of January and run till the 3rd of February 2023.

Link to read.

Full text:

Not all men *people* are called to be hermits, but all
men *women* enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally.
– Thomas Merton

When, some time ago, a friend declared that “we all die alone,” I initially thought it was an awful thing to say. Later, I realised its broader implication – we not only die but live fundamentally alone. Olivia O’Dwyer’s work resonates with this insight.

O’Dwyer’s paintings capture the interplay between solitude’s liberating aspects and its accompanying anxiety. An unease that may stem from the anticipation of societal stigma, a worry not unfounded. To quote the medieval witch-hunting guide, the Malleus Maleficarum, “a woman who thinks alone thinks evil,” revealing a deep-rooted bias against solitary women. A woman must strip away these damaging stereotypes; this is the work of solitude.

The world of HomeBird is a contained domestic space – home – where, whether occupied or empty, furniture holds as much prominence as the human figure. Even when a suggestion of the external world appears in the series Rural Gaze, it hints at potential further isolation.

Individual works explore solitude as a form of aloneness, as distinct from loneliness. Indeed, the pose in Author of my Days, the title taken from Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather, belies an attitude of self-contained happiness and a rebellious deflection from the norm – lying on a bed in ‘reverse,’ feet crossed on the pillow.

O’Dwyer’s figures are often presented in part or from behind – legs, a turned-back. Yet enough of a body for us to say here is a person and enough of a recognisable person to say here is the artist herself. While it is reasonable for a painter to study their body during periods of solitude, theirs being the body available, this focus is more than convenience.

In appearing from the back, the artist intentionally disengages from the objectifying onlooker. What we are looking at in O’Dwyer’s work transcends the conventional male or female gaze; instead, it captures the body for the self.

We see solitary bodily enjoyment in the jaunty and awkward angles of limbs in Shapeshifter I and Bed Head II. The lively nature of the pose is suggestive of a return to adolescence, instigated by a release of responsibility, a change, even ‘the change.’ While menopause historically renders women invisible, O’Dwyer solidifies the transparent female, affirming that regardless of others’ needs, it lives, moves, and exists beyond social expectations.

Pictorially, O’Dwyer also embraces off-kilter compositions, referencing Emily Dickinson’s notion of “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” where truth is approached obliquely so we may more easily encounter its profundity. Here, our existence’s central reality – that we are all alone.

Within Dickinson’s “tell it slant,” there is an economy of the truth; similarly, O’Dwyer’s approach can be seen as ‘economical’; in a simplified style featuring continuous lines, flat colours, of sparse environments disregarding accurate representation; navigating the spectrum towards abstraction in connection with naïve, outsider, and ‘bad’ art.

HomeBird explores a woman’s experience of being alone. Elements of identity are deconstructed, modes of being are reconsidered, and a heightened receptivity toward her surroundings and presence emerges.

O’Dwyer’s work is self-reflective, offering glimpses into her embodied experience without revealing too much. She is a body inhabited, changing, turning her gaze inward; looking to herself.

– ­Neva Elliott