The Royal Hibernian Academy is an interesting place at the best of times. But the two exhibitions running concurrently in the Ashford space and in Gallagher Gallery I, are near perfect foils. Abigail O'Brien has returned apostolic-like to Dublin's RHA with her completed work The Seven Sacraments Abigail O'Brien and Ritualized Daily Life, which she has realised over a period of nine years. While in the Ashford Gallery, up-and-coming artist Ross McDonnell, a 2002 graduate from the National College of Art and Design, presents his first solo exhibition, entitled Snow Dreams, Pink Dawns and Other Stuff that Happens.
What makes this an interesting combination is not the unfathomable differences in their art – the fact that O'Brien is one of Ireland's most internationally recognised artists, while McDonnell is at the start of his promising career. Rather it is the generational gap between the pair that is of most interest, as it highlights the changing face and landscape of contemporary art in Ireland.
Artists of O'Brien's generation sought recognition abroad early in their careers due to the lack of outlets and vivacity in the Irish art world, but with the current crop of artists, such as McDonnell, the opportunities are there to build a reputation within the country. McDonnell, for instance, previously took part in the Ashford's Emerging Artists exhibition on the strength of his degree show at NCAD and has now progressed to his first solo display in a matter of two years.
It is not hard to understand why, however. McDonnell's work is very much focused on the process with which he treats, what has been described as, a "variety of snapshot observations". Using an Mdf surface or canvas, McDonnell primes and seals them, but allows for the absorption of oils from the painted layer. Then on top of the resultant two-tone base, he adds layers of colour, with the patterns dictated and influenced by the composition demands of each work. What results is a coming together of the accidental and planned, creating a varied, if ephemeral, feel throughout the works.
O'Brien's The Seven Sacraments creates an analogy of Dutch genre painting of the 17th century, as she uses one of art history's favourite subject matters to explore ritual in domestic life. Using a range of media – including photographs, sculptures, everyday objects, embroidery and audio – O'Brien explores, through the vehicle of religious ritual, the traditions, rites and tenets of daily life. O'Brien's aesthetic quality, especially in her glossy, saccharine photographs, lends a sterile and removed feel to the works which exposes the rigid nature of its subject matter.
Running through the series is a fundamental focus on the female character, acutely questioning the role of women in contemporary society. The scenes caught and frozen in the photographs stagnate active daily tasks, bringing a palpable sense of ritual to them. What results is a brilliant interplay between the worldly vita activa and the spiritual and reflective, vita contemplative. All this is seen through each of the seven sacraments, which represent central and significant moments in a person's life. It is these rights of passage that play a key role in O'Brien's work, and form a neat counterpoint between her life experience as an Irish artist and that of McDonnell.
?More RHA, 15 Ely Place, Dublin 2. Ross McDonnell runs until 24 February. Abigail O'Brien runs until 27 February